You don’t need to know why I don’t breastfeed, because it shouldn’t matter.

This past week, Emily Wax-Thibodeux’s excellent essay, “Why I don’t breastfeed, if you must know”, went viral. As it should have. It’s a cutting, heartfelt expose of just how ridiculous the pressure to breastfeed has become, made all the more powerful by the author’s recounting of her double mastectomy.

Unfortunately, even breast cancer didn’t stop the haters from hating.

“95% of the time people don’t breastfeed for reasons other than terminal illness. This is a red herring argument. She shouldn’t feel bad for having a legitimate reason for not breastfeeding and if she does then its really a personal problem,” said one comment on a Today.com thread.

“We all understand should and can are different. A mother who cannot breast feed is different than a mother who can but chooses not to…Breast milk is better for an infant than formula, I don’t think there is a doctor, nurse or midwife who would say that formula is better…Shame people would criticize this mother who CANNOT breastfeed like it was her choice,” wrote another (who happened to be male).

And then there was the woman who insisted that “(t)here is absolutely zero systematic or general judgment against infant formula or bottle feeding. It is the absolute expected norm by the majority of adults and parents in our culture. No one cares if you feed your baby infant formula or use a bottle…Most children start on the breast. Most children are weaned. Most children are given formula and fed with bottles. There is no public backlash against infant formula or bottle feeding. But here’s an article that pretends “infant formula shaming” is some actual thing. No. It isn’t. Not in the real world of critical thought and evidence. The data doesn’t support this notion at all.”

In the FFF community, there was tremendous support for Wax-Gibodeux’s piece, but an underlying concern about the title – because why must we know why she isn’t breastfeeding? Is shaming more acceptable for some mothers than others? What is the litmus test that rewards us with a breastfeeding “pass”? If a double mastectomy doesn’t quite cut it, I don’t know what will.

So maybe we should stop giving reasons altogether.

For those who fear formula as a product, no reason in the world is sufficient for a baby to be given anything other human milk. It doesn’t matter if the baby has to be wet nursed by someone with an unknown medical history – that is still better than formula.

For those who like to shame mothers – because that’s what it really is about, enjoying the act of shaming, of making yourself feel superior, or feel better about your choices by questioning those of others – no reason in the world will make a mother above reproach. She could always have done more – after all, breastfeeding is 90% determination and only 10% milk production, as a recent meme proudly stated. Best case scenario, she might get pity – but pity carries its own heavy scent, similar to the sour stench of shame.

Giving a reason for why you didn’t breastfeed is pointless.

That doesn’t mean telling your story isn’t important, because our narratives matter; they help those floundering in their own messy journeys make sense of what’s happening and find community with those who’ve been there. But there’s a difference between telling your story and owning it, and telling it to defend yourself. One gives you power, the other takes it away. 

We are at a turning point, I hope. Jessica Martin-Weber of The Leaky Boob has taken a stand against romanticizing the reality of breastfeeding, and is helping those in the breastfeeding community feel comfortable with bottle (and formula) use. When one of the leading voices in breastfeeding advocacy speaks out against a culture of fear and rigidity, that means something. Wax-Thibodeux’s piece has brought many powerful voices out of the woodwork, allowing women who’ve swallowed their shame to regurgitate it, and make the uninitiated understand just how sour it tastes.

Now is the time to draw a line in the sand. This conversation has moved beyond breastfeeding and formula feeding and whether one party is more marginalized than the other, or how superior one product is nutritionally to the other. We’ve been there, done that, and nothing has really changed. We’re all still hurting. We’re all still feeling unsupported, unseen, and resentful, like a 3-year-old with a colicky new sibling. Now, we need to stand up, collectively, and say it doesn’t matter why I am feeding the way I am. It is not up to anyone else to deem my reason appropriate or “understandable”. I’m going to stand up for anyone who has felt shamed about how she’s feeding, instead of just people who’ve had identical experiences to me, or those who I feel tried hard enough. 

A breastfeeding advocate shouldn’t be afraid to admit she questions aspects of the WHO Code. A breast cancer survivor shouldn’t have to have awkward conversations about why she’s bottle feeding. A woman who chooses not to breastfeed for her own personal reasons should not have to lay those reasons out in front of a jury of her peers.

This Tower of (breastfeeding) Babble has reached a fever pitch. It’s time for it to come down. Pick up your axe and start chopping. And next time someone asks, simply tell them, “You don’t need to know why I don’t breastfeed. Because it shouldn’t matter.”

 

The 2014 #ISupportYou Project: ISY Week of Service, Nov 1-7th

Sup·port

transitive verb \sə-ˈpȯrt\

: to agree with or approve of (someone or something)

: to show that you approve of (someone or something) by doing something

: to give help or assistance to (someone or something)

Full Definition of SUPPORT

1: to endure bravely or quietly :  bear

2 a (1) :  to promote the interests or cause of (2) :  to uphold or defend as valid or right :  advocate <supports fair play> (3) :  to argue or vote for 

b (1) :  assist, help <bombers supported the ground troops>(2) :  to act with (a star actor) (3) :  to bid in bridge so as to show support for

c :  to provide with substantiation :  corroborate <support an alibi>

3 a :  to pay the costs of :  maintain <support a family> b :  to provide a basis for the existence or subsistence of 

4 a :  to hold up or serve as a foundation or prop for; b :  to maintain (a price) at a desired level by purchases or loans; also :  to maintain the price of by purchases or loans

5: to keep from fainting, yielding, or losing courage :  comfort

6:  to keep (something) going

 

There are many definitions for the word support. And many arguments within the parenting community about what that word should mean, could mean, does mean.

Does it mean that you agree with someone’s choices, 100%?

Does it mean holding up signs and getting media attention for “stopping the mommy wars”?

Does it mean demanding equal representation, equal respect?

Does it mean something global, local, or personal?

You’d think that because we included “support” in our organization’s name, we’d have a clear definition in mind, a way to clearly explain what the word means to us. But the truth is, we don’t. When we started #ISupportYou, it was just a hashtag; a vague idea that we wanted to make all moms feel included, and worthy of support and community. We knew we wanted to show the world that the way we feed our babies doesn’t define us; that we are not “breastfeeding moms” or “formula feeding moms” but moms, and women, and individuals, and employees, and sisters, and spouses, and girlfriends, and daughters, and friends. We wanted to help other moms reach out to each other and recognize that at our cores, we all want the same thing: to be seen. To be heard. To matter.

This year, ISY is taking this vague idea of support to the next level. We want to put actions to words, to go beyond some glossy media idea of what support looks like, and get down and dirty with what it feels like. That’s why we’re hoping you’ll join us for our inaugural #ISupportYou Week, Nov. 1-7th, 2014. 

During ISY Week, we’re encouraging everyone to take all the energy we waste on silly online arguments to the streets of our own communities, and beyond. Find a way to bring one of the many definitions of “support” to life. Better yet, decide what support means to you, and do something about it. It can be something small, or something big. We’ve put together a list of our own ideas, but we’re excited to hear your ideas, too.

Between Nov. 1-7th, do one thing to bring the ISY message from virtual to flesh-and-blood life.  It can be one of ours, or one of yours. Then tell us about it. Tweet or post about it, using the hashtags #isupportyou and/or #ISYweek. Write a blog post about it, or shoot us an email so that we can share your stories on our blogs, and inspire others to drink the kool-aid. (It’s delicious. We promise.)

Ideas for #ISupportYou Week:

1.  Be a Coupon Fairy. Leave coupons for formula, bottles, diapers, or breastfeeding supplies in the baby aisles of your local stores, attached to post-it notes with the #ISupportYou hashtag and a short, encouraging message to whatever random parent finds it.

2.  Pay it forward. Pay for a mom or dad’s coffee, etc when s/he’s behind you in line with a screaming baby, or just looks exhausted or overwhelmed.

3.  Volunteer at your local women’s shelter. Lead a breastfeeding support group, a formula feeding group, or an #ISupportYou group (details to come).

4.  Bring a care basket to a new mom. Include items that support her feeding choice, but more importantly, items just for HER…m&m’s, lip balm, sitz bath, magazines, pretty water bottle, cozy socks, notepad/pen, note of encouragement, hair ties, etc.

5.  Donate generic new mom care baskets to local domestic violence or homeless shelters, with wipes, diapers, food and other useful items.

6.  Bring breakfast pastries/bagels to your next new mom’s support group

7.  Mail 3 real letters to moms that you know, with message of encouragement

8.  Leave post-it notes with the #ISupportYou hashtag and encouraging messages everywhere. Attach them to extra packs of wipes in a public changing area, or stick them on bulletin boards at the play place down the street.

9.  Commit to setting up an #ISupportYou (ISY) group in your community in 2015. We are currently developing materials to help interested people start these groups, and hope to see some popping up in early 2015. Email isymovement@gmail.com for more information.

10.  Do a teach-in with a group of pregnant mom friends on feeding 101. Ask a friend who feeds differently than you do to co-host it.

11.  Write a blog post with “10 Ways To Support A BF/FF mom”.

12.  Donate your feeding items to a local homeless/domestic violence shelter.

13.  Share ISY with your care providers – OB, pediatrician, therapist, daycare provider, etc.- so that they know where to guide new parents for support.

14.  Find a way to support a mom who feeds in a different way than you do.  Wash bottles at her house, buy her a can of formula, buy her a care package of lanolin and fancy breast pads, etc.

15.  FEED HER!  Find a new mom (or even better, a not so new mom, who needs it more!) and make/send dinner.  Or breakfast that is easy to reheat (egg sandwiches, casserole, etc).  Fresh fruit, surprise morning coffee, all with a note of encouragement.

16.  Set up a time each day that you will text a mom friend who needs encouragement (every day at 10:30 I will text her a “love note”).

17.  Call your local breastfeeding center and ask if they have any needs (scholarship fund for classes, etc.)

18.  Lead a “safe use of formula” workshop for daycare providers

19.  Ask to have a chat with facilitators of New Parent Support Groups, and encourage them to be inclusive to all feeding methods in their sessions.

20.  Call a local teen mother’s group and volunteer to be a breastfeeding or formula feeding mentor/peer counselor.

21.  Do something kind for YOURSELF. Write a letter to your 9 months pregnant self, or your 3 months postpartum self, telling her how proud you are, tips you’ve learned, etc.

22. Donate to organizations which support struggling postpartum moms. For example, Postpartum Progress, the Postpartum Stress Center, or the Seleni Institute.

We really hope you’ll join us in cutting through the bullshit and getting new parents the help they need to feed – and parent – with love, respect, and yes, support.  Put Nov 1-7 on your calendar, and chat with us during the week on Twitter and Facebook to let us know how things are going. Share your ideas, your experiences, and your reactions. Let’s get this party started, shall we?

It’s time. For real.

- The #ISupportYou Team

 

The (Secret) Truth About #ISupportYou

****This post was co-written by me and #ISupportYou co-founder Kim Simon****

 

Want to know a secret? Shhh. Come close.

We don’t give a shit how you feed your baby.

We don’t care.  We don’t care because there are women taking their babies for chemotherapy and women struggling to scrape up enough cash to buy dinner and women who feel so shitty about themselves that they think it would be better for their children if they just disappeared.  Mothers are falling so deep down the rabbit hole of depression and anxiety, because they are sure that they are failing.  Because that’s what some of you are telling them.  And you know what?  We’re starting to think it’s a cop out to say it’s because you really want their babies to have what you think is best.  We’re starting to think it’s because it makes you feel better about yourself.  It makes you feel superior. You feel superior when you say, in not-so-hushed voices, that she should have weaned her baby when he started to walk. You feel superior when you say that she could have breastfed, if she’d just had the fortitude/education/enough love for her child.

When we started the I Support You project last year, we heard from hundreds of women who finally felt seen, heard, and understood.  They saw their stories reflected in our mission.  Breastfeeding moms and formula-feeding moms reached out to each other in kindness and friendship.  But there were whispers of discontent.  Over the last year, the whispers have grown louder. This is my party!  I’m the birthday girl!  Some of you want to make sure that everyone knows that support is only relevant if you’re supporting what you personally feel is right and true. Look at me!  Look at me, Mom!!  No, no….look over heeeeere!  Some have complained that I Support You lets everyone join their exclusive club, even the mothers who haven’t earned it.  These are my toys.  All of them.  I’m not going to share.

 

AND YOU ARE HURTING PEOPLE.

 

We will say it again: you are hurting people.  I Support You isn’t just about discussing how we feed.  It is us, pleading with you, to take care of each other.  We are begging you to step outside of your own experience, and be kind to each other.  Stop talking about yourself.  Stop preaching.  Stop telling other women what to do with their bodies.  You know what’s anti-feminist?  Shaming other women for not using their breasts the way that you do.  Telling other moms how to care for their babies, because that’s what has worked in your family.  If you believe that you are in charge of your own body, then please don’t tell other women what to do with theirs.  If you believe that you know what is best for your family, then don’t assume that you know what is best for ours.

Support isn’t about holding up signs that celebrate one way of parenting by stomping on another in your combat boots. We’re on a hamster wheel – spinning around and around, the same scenery whirling past our eyes, going nowhere. One step forward, twenty steps back.

But we know you’re out there, too. The ones who want to see real change. The ones who are as fed up, bored, exhausted, and angry as we are. And we hear your whispers, too:

I am a breastfeeder, and my children are brilliant because I talk to them and make sure they don’t starve and expose them to wonderful adventures in life and love on them and wake up to cuddle them when they’re scared.

I am a formula feeder, and my children are inquisitive, sensitive, and utterly confident that they are loved for who they are, and not because they are an extension of me or my desires. 

I am a breastfeeder, and I care about your feelings.

I am a formula feeder, and I don’t give a flying you-know-what how you feed your baby, because I trust that you love him and are doing what you know is best for your family.

I am a breastfeeder, and I don’t care how you feed your baby or what you feed your baby.  I will mind my own business, because your personal choices are not mine to know.

I am a formula feeder, and I would never presume to know your experience, or judge your parenting philosophy, because what the heck is a parenting philosophy, anyway? Who has time to think about this shit?

I am a breastfeeder who has supported moms while they leave their abusive partners, while they struggle to learn a new language in a new country, while they cry on the floor at Mommy Group because they feel so alone.  I do not care what they are feeding their baby, as long as they are not drowning in the deep end of depression.

I am a formula feeder, and I want my choice to be seen as normal and acceptable, instead of something for which I am supposed to feel defensive and ashamed. 

I am a breastfeeder, and I have more important things to do than tell you how to take care of your kids. Like sleep. And eat something that is not the crust of what my kids just threw on the floor.

I am a formula feeder, and I will support breastfeeding women because they also should be made to feel like their choice is normal and acceptable, because (duh) it is.

I am a breastfeeder, and I am ashamed that some of my breastfeeding sisters make you feel bad.

I am a formula feeder and I believe we ALL deserve support regardless of which way the public opinion/scientific consensus pendulum sways, because how we use our female bodies should not be up for public discussion, full stop.

I am a breastfeeder, and I will feed my baby wherever I want to, and you should too, because normalizing it means just doing it, and not milking it for page views. 

I am a formula feeder, and I want us all to avoid the “buts” and focus on the “ands”…but/and I don’t want this concept to be coopted in a way that marginalizes or demonizes one disenfranchised group for the benefit of another.

I am a formula feeder, and I don’t champion a way of feeding, or the biological norm, or a highly marketed, commodified product, but I will champion your right to parent with love and autonomy, because my support is not conditional.

I am a breastfeeder, and my kids will grow up knowing how fiercely I love them, and how fiercely I fought to feed them.  Both of them.  The formula one and the breastmilk one.

I am a breastfeeder, and I will not use that privilege to shame, isolate, or judge you.

I am a formula feeder, and I will not use that privilege to shame, isolate or judge you. 

 

I am a formula feeder, and I Support YOU.

I am a breastfeeder and I Support YOU.

 

If you are interested in learning more about normalizing kindness, and how we can lift each other up on this journey of motherhood, then please visit I Support You. We hear you.  It’s okay to raise your voice. Maybe it’s time we did, too.

#bottlebonding

Bonding requires love.

That’s all.

Thanks to the FFF community for showing this to be true! (And special thanks to the amazing Amanda Peters for coming up with the #bottlebonding idea and hashtag!)

The biggest problem with the breastfeeding discourse has nothing to do with breastfeeding

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, it’s not.

As any journalist, blogger, or parenting-forum moderator can attest, merely mentioning the words “breastfeeding” or “formula feeding” will create controversy – or at least a comment thread that derails within the first three posts. It’s virtually impossible for someone not to feel offended. It happens on both sides of the debate; some breastfeeding advocates see red anytime a person writes favorably about formula, while some formula feeding mothers are guilty of taking it all too personally, and assuming that every positive aspect of breastfeeding is dig at their lack of lactation.

This bugs me, being someone who writes about this topic regularly, because it dilutes the conversation. We lose track of what we’re talking about, and lose the chance to understand, to evolve, to connect.

Of course, this problem is endemic to any hot-button parenting issue. Circumcision, sleep training, working vs. staying at home, vaccinations… But when it comes to breastfeeding, what I’m talking about goes far beyond the mommy war bullshit. We’ve apparently lost the ability to discuss anything to do with breastfeeding and formula without heaping layers of preconceived notions, philosophical ideals, and emotional reactions onto whatever’s being discussed. Even if the conversation takes place in a respected medical journal, the halls of a hospital, or a human rights nonprofit.

With that said, I want to make something clear: this post is not about breastfeeding. It is not about the benefits of breastfeeding. It is not about a woman’s right to breastfeed or formula feed. It is not about you, or me, or your sister-in-law. It’s about language, interpretation, and bias. If it helps, substitute the word “breastfeeding” for something less emotionally loaded. “Drinking coffee”. “Wearing palazzo pants.” Whatever.

In the past month, two stories popped up, buried so deep in the news that only someone who obsessively googles terms like “infant feeding” and “lactation” would have seen them. They were about studies showing negative associations with breastfeeding (see? Didn’t your heart start beating a bit faster? …Negative associations with palazzo pants. That’s better, right?) The first one found that longer durations of breastfeeding (past 12 months) were associated with higher rates of a specific form of breast cancer in Mexican and Mexican-American women. The evidence was based on subject recall of breastfeeding history, in a specific population. All I will say about the study itself is that it is one, isolated result; more research must be done before anyone can make proclamations about whether women of Mexican descent might want to wean after a year.

Which is basically what I say about every infant feeding study. These results do not prove a causal relationship. It would be patently false and extremely irresponsible to have headlines screeching “breastfeeding causes breast cancer!”

Luckily, there were no such headlines. The story didn’t receive much coverage in major news outlets, but here were the headlines I did find:

Breastfeeding May Increase Cancer Risk for Mexican-American Moms (http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/health/Breastfeeding–Cancer-Rules-May-Not-Apply-to-Some-226050001.html)

Lactation may be linked to aggressive cancer in Mexican women

http://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2013-10-01-lactation-linked-to-cancer-in-Mexican-women.aspx

Women of Mexican descent more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive form of breast cancer http://www.news-medical.net/news/20131002/Women-of-Mexican-descent-more-likely-to-be-diagnosed-with-aggressive-form-of-breast-cancer.aspx

Mexican Women’s Breast Cancer Risk Tied to Breast-Feeding? http://healthcare.utah.edu/womenshealth/healthlibrary/doc.php?type=6&id=680757

Notice all the qualifiers. May be linked. More likely. And my favorite example, the question mark at the end of the last headline.

Now, let’s compare these measured, accurate headlines with those that stemmed from similar studies (self-reported data, specific populations, single studies rather than meta-analyses) that showed a positive effect of breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding reduces cancer risk http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-88785/Breast-feeding-reduces-cancer-risk.html

Breastfeeding Cuts Breast Cancer Risk http://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/news/20070417/breastfeeding-cuts-breast-cancer-risk

Study: Breastfeeding Decreases Cancer Risk http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9656285

Breastfeeding Protects Against Breast Cancer http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/08/10/us-breastfeeding-cancer-idUSTRE5795CZ20090810

Not one qualifier to be found.

But FFF, you’re arguing semantics, you say. Perhaps. But how can we argue that subliminal messages that come through the advertising of formula or bottles can so greatly affect a woman’s breastfeeding intention, and then argue that the language used in widely-read headlines doesn’t make an impact?

Not convinced? Let’s go beyond the headlines. The one quote from the lead researcher of the breastfeeding/cancer in Mexican women study used in the media was this:

“Our results are both puzzling and disconcerting because we do not want to give the wrong message about breastfeeding…If you treat breast cancer as one disease, breastfeeding is beneficial to both mother and baby. That should not be dismissed.”

Puzzling? Disconcerting? Science needs to be free of bias. It’s perfectly acceptable to be “surprised” by findings, but “disconcerted”? And as for the point about ”breast cancer as one disease“, this is not the sentiment expressed in the quotes from articles reporting a positive effect, many of which proudly extrapolate their specific findings and make sweeping statements about breastfeeding promotion:

Clearly, the researchers conclude, breastfeeding is associated with “multiple health benefits” for both mother and child…”That’s why we need supportive hospital policies, paid maternity leave, and workplace accommodations so that women can meet their breastfeeding goals…” (source: Reuters)

The same double standard popped up a few weeks later, when a study hit the news which found that babies breastfed longer than one year, as well as babies introduced to gluten after 6 months, had an increased risk for celiac disease. Again, hardly any media coverage; the one major outlet (Yahoo News) that covered it used the headline “Parent’s Feeding Choices May Raise Baby’s Risk for Celiac Disease“. Absolutely accurate headline, but no mention of breastfeeding. Granted, there were two findings that came from this study; both of which did involve a feeding “choice”. What I find interesting, though, is that whenever formula is associated with something negative – even if that particular finding is buried in a mess of other data – the headlines make sure to mention it. (Remember the arsenic-in-baby-formula scare of 2012?)

This study had many flaws. (Science of Mom has a great explanation of what these were over on her blog, if you’re interested.) But it didn’t have more flaws than 99% of the formula-is-risky studies which we are subjected to on a weekly basis, none of which are handled with the same degree of intelligence and moderation.

In Bottled Up, I discuss the problem of publication bias, and the professional death knell it is to report or support anything that detracts from the supreme perfection of breastfeeding. This is a bigger problem than one might believe – because if the end goal is to find ways to reduce disease and increase health in populations, we should be striving for information, not propaganda. And this is why I fight so hard to reframe how we discuss and promote breastfeeding – because if we are basing all of our support for the practice on science, then we run the risk of bastardizing – or at least “tweaking” – that science to justify our promotion.

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. But when it comes to infant feeding science, the results are never just the results.

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