Usually, I’m all over the place this week. Getting quoted in the requisite “it may be breastfeeding week but gosh darnit some women still find exclusive breastfeeding super hard” articles. Posting my own stuff here on the blog, or over on HuffPo. Talking about #ISupportYou and pissing off hundreds of people in the process, because they see it as a veiled attempt to “steal the thunder” from World Breastfeeding Week.
But this year, I’m all but invisible.
Part of this was unintentional. I’ve been going through some stressful career-change mishigas, dealing with the inevitable gaps in childcare that occur between camp and school, entertaining a ridiculous number of visiting extended family members. I’ve been too exhausted to blog, or talk to media sources, or self-promote (because let’s be honest – that’s a part of what all of us parenting bloggers do. Even the most altruistic of us. Even those of us who don’t depend on hits or advertising or who never make a cent off their blogs. We write because we want to be heard; we pray for bigger audiences, book deals, evidence that we’ve made some sort of impact. I happen to be rather shitty at this, which is why I don’t blog much anymore. I don’t have the stomach for that part of the job).
Another part of my conspicuous silence has been intentional, however. Probably more than I care to admit. See, I’ve been focusing my efforts on the supportive stuff. Reaching across the aisle, trying to understand all facets of this debate, and hoping that by creating better resources for all moms, I can help stop all the guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. I know that breastfeeding is important to many, many women. I want those women to succeed, and feel happy and proud and supported. So this year, I wanted to try and stay out of World Breastfeeding Week drama like I try and stay out of my kids’ sibling squabbles.
Yeah. Because that works so well with my kids.
The problem is, I also want formula feeding mothers to feel happy and proud and supported. And for some reason, it’s not okay to want both of these things. It’s ok to pay lip service to it, to claim #ISupportYou and tell formula feeding moms that celebrating breastfeeding isn’t about them. But if you actually do the work you need to do to ensure that non-breastfeeding parents are supported, you are violating WHO Code. You are taking attention away from the women who “need it”. You are stealing…. what? Resources? Sympathy? One-up(wo)manship?
I tried to stay out of it. I really did. I held my newly-minted CLC certification close to my non-lactating chest and bit my tongue.
And then the articles came, and came, and came. And so many this year were not about the benefits of breastfeeding, but rather how hard it was. Or how hard it was NOT to breastfeed. How this mom felt like she was poisoning her baby, or this one felt like she’d be booted from the “mom club” because she didn’t wear the EBF badge.
So much guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. None of it is stopping. There’s more this year than ever before.
Then this happened.
And I heard my community inwardly wince. Not for the reasons you might think. Not because they didn’t think it was a beautiful image, and not because it glamorized something that had been messy and painful for most of them, although those certainly were thoughts that some of us had to squash down into that endless pit of mother-guilt. No, it was because it was yet another image of a breastfeeding celebrity, with headlines and stories that spoke of her bravery for normalizing nursing, and comments all over the place about how breastfeeding was finally being celebrated.
I think, for many of us, it was the “finally” that did it. For many of us, it would seem far braver for a celebrity to do a shoot with her bottle-feeding her kid with a can of formula in the background. We have only seen breastfeeding being celebrated. There’s so much partying going on, and we feel like the crotchety old neighbors calling the cops with a noise complaint. But you know, it’s late, the music is loud, and we’re tired.
Now, just to be clear – I’m talking about breastfeeding being “celebrated” That celebration doesn’t do us much good. It does not mean that it is easy for moms to nurse in public. Obviously, it isn’t. Or that lactation services are plentiful and accessible to all. Obviously, they aren’t. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but that doesn’t stop it from being difficult for the new mom in the hospital, whose birth didn’t go as planned. Or the one who has to go back to work 2 weeks postpartum. Or the one with a job not conducive to pumping. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but not when you’re overweight. Or when you’re nursing a toddler.
Idealized images in the media of what breastfeeding looks like do not normalize nursing. In fact, I’d argue it fetishizes it – not for men, so much, but for women. Now, we don’t just have to feel inadequate for not fitting into size 2 jeans a month after giving birth, but we need to feel inadequate if we don’t meet the feeding norm and make it look gorgeous and natural and easy.
Please do not misread what I’m saying here – talking about breastfeeding, supporting breastfeeding, and implementing changes to make breastfeeding easier for those who want to do it are important, admirable, and necessary goals, as far as I’m concerned. But the comments I saw coming from my community after this photo hit the news were not about any of these things. They were from women feeling totally drained, frustrated, and alienated after a nearly a week of hearing how inferior their feeding method was, who were sick of being told they were defensive or that they feel guilty if they tried to stand up for themselves. This story was the last straw. It’s weird, when you think about it – it wasn’t the piece on the risks of formula, or the memes about the superiority of breastfed babies – what broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous spread of a gorgeous, confident actress proudly nursing her baby.
This is what perpetuates the cycle of guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt: our lived experiences are so damn different, that it’s like we’re constantly talking at cross-purposes. The nursing mom who is the only one in her small town not using a bottle sees a photo spread like this as thrilling, victorious, self-affirming – as she should. The formula feeding mom living in Park Slope who carries her formula-filled diaper bag like a modern-day hairshirt sees the same spread as just another celebrity being held up as a pioneer, when she’s only doing what’s expected of a woman of her stature – as she should. Both are right. Because both are personal, emotionally-driven responses.
Earlier this week, I said that deciding how to feed your baby is just one of a myriad of important parenting decisions. But somehow, it’s become the most important one. We cannot expect formula feeding moms to support their breastfeeding sisters when they don’t receive the same support. We just can’t. It’s not fair, and it’s not realistic. I feel like that’s what I’ve been asking of all of you, and somehow I just woke up to that fact.
Why are there still articles talking about how shitty we feel for not breastfeeding, instead of articles talking about what’s being done to change this? Where is the news story about the doctors who are saying enough is enough (because I know they are out there – many of them contact me, and I appreciate these emails, but I wish they were able to say these things publicly without fear of career suicide)? Where’s the NPR program about ways we can improve breastmilk substitutes so those who cannot or choose not to nurse aren’t left hanging? Where’s the Today Show, The View, The Katie Show, doing segments on why women are REALLY not meeting breastfeeding recommendations, instead of segment after segment on how brave so-and-so is for posing nursing their newborn on Instagram, or talking to dumbasses on the street about the “appropriate” age for weaning?
When we stop “celebrating” and start normalizing and supporting and being realistic about how different life can be even just a street away, maybe World Breastfeeding Week can have it’s proper due. Maybe we can actually talk about ways to help women in the most dire straits feed their babies as safely as possible – clean water, free breast pumps, free refrigeration, access to donor milk.
I want to be able to be silent during World Breastfeeding Week. It shouldn’t have to be “overshadowed” by emotional, personal pieces about breastfeeding “failure”. It shouldn’t be a time for articles about not making formula feeding moms feel “guilty”. These words shouldn’t even be part of our infant feeding lexicon, for godsakes. Failure? Guilt? For what?
This year, I want us to stop celebrating, and start having some calm, productive conversations with people outside your social circle. For many of us, the celebration feels exactly like high school, when the popular kids had parties and we sat home watching Sixteen Candles for the thirty-fifth time. That’s not to say breastfeeding isn’t worth celebrating, but the end goal should not be one group feeling triumphant and the other feeling downtrodden. Formula feeding was celebrated for decades too – and that celebration made the current atmosphere of breastfeeding promotion necessary. Please, let’s learn from our mistakes. Let’s move on. Rip down the streamers, put away the keg, and open the doors to the outsiders looking in. You never know – they could end up being the best friends you’ve ever had.