Breastfeeding is probably the most touchy issue of new-motherhood with the debate of breast versus formula constantly raging on corners of the internet. And the battle even made the news this summer with the announcement that New York City's mayor Mike Bloomberg was pushing breastfeeding through an initiative called Latch On NYC, designed to better promote breastfeeding in hospitals.
To be sure, breastfeeding and breastfeeding advocacy are feminist issues of the highest order. Women who breastfeed are often illegally discriminated against, booted from public spaces where in most cases they legally have a right to be. And most workplaces in the US have scant if any protections for pregnant or postpartum mothers, not to mind women who hope to exclusively breastfeed a child for at least the first year of life.
Access to breastfeeding education, protection, and tools is minimal for women, low-income women in particular, and, yet, breastfeeding advocacy and education is far too often slandered in the media and on blogs as bullying with amazing and helpful organizations like La Leche League branded "nipple nazis" for the crime of trying to create a support network for breastfeeding mothers who may not find assistance or understanding at home or in the workplace.
It seems to me at least that nowadays, feminist blogs -- and Jezebel in particular -- are furthering this nasty and untrue urban legend that breastfeeding support and advocacy exists for one reason and one reason only, to shame women who choose bottle over breast and make them feel less than for making the choice that best suits their family and motherhood style.
And I speak here from the experience of having been a low-income, young mother at one point who viewed firsthand what women with limited access to breastfeeding support and services face. Part of the issue? This concept that breastfeeding women are roaming in packs to make women using bottles and formula feel like jerks about their baby-feeding choices.
This week, Jezebel carried a post titled "Sorry — You Can’t Guilt Trip Me About Bottle Feeding My Kids" which, right off the bat, is problematic and harmful to moms. It implies that breastfeeding advocacy is some oppressive regime cooked up solely to guilt women who for any number of reasons choose not to breastfeed and goes on to rattle off a cadre of breastfeeding fallacies, misinformation, and outright lies in a way that is incredibly frustrating as no one was ever kicked out of Macy's for whipping out a bottle. (But I was once asked to leave for discreetly nursing in the shoe department.)
Writer Sarah Fister Gale goes on to paint a picture of breastfeeding advocacy that not only is inaccurate but proposes a touchiness that would in essence prevent women who are as I once was (21, newly married and a mother, unable to afford formula) from benefiting from services like lactation consultants -- a service, I might add, that was not even available in the hospital in which my kids were born.
Within the first two paragraphs, Gale attacks breastfeeding in several ways, ways that could negatively influence a woman's choice to breastfeed should she be on the fence. With judgments that border on body-shaming and slut-shaming, the Jez post reads:
"I didn't like the idea of whipping out my breasts in public, or attaching a milking machine to my nipples, or being the only living source of food on the planet for my child..."
The term "milking machine" hints that lactating women are sexless, like cows, and calls to mind de-personalizing terms like "fun bags" that casually bully women for not constantly being there to provide visual pleasure for men. How dare they!
It also glosses over the fact that women can easily pump and bank milk -- even poor women if WIC was as willing to pay for breast pumps as it is to pay for expensive formula. Gale continues:
"I did however like the idea that my husband would be able to participate in the most intimate act of feeding our son from the day he was born. I liked that I might be able to sleep for more than four hours at a stretch. I liked knowing exactly how much my child was eating, down to the very last ounce. And (I admit it) after nine long months of total sobriety, I liked the idea of drinking the occasional glass of wine without worrying that I was getting my newborn hooked on cheap chardonnay."
It may be nice to know a child consumes eight ounces of formula, but the idea that a breastfed baby isn't getting adequate nutrition because one can't measure a marker on the bottle is a harmful vestige of a time when women didn't know better, and formula companies were happy to suggest that parents should fear not knowing how many ounces a child consumes. (A breastfed baby with sufficient wet or dirty diapers can be safely assumed is eating frequently enough.)
And many nursing mothers enjoy an occasional glass of wine. As long as a mother doesn't breastfeed while drunk, drinking poses no risk to a baby. But even those misconceptions promoted to an audience comprised largely of women who have yet to face the question of breast or bottle are not sufficient; the post goes on to decry lactation consultants as shame-mongering villains who sneer, wear cheap perfume, and flounce about the hospital dispensing guilt heavy-handedly.
In actuality, a lactation consultant is a necessary service hospitals need to provide. While the post tells a tale of a bullying woman who explains that pain and suffering are par for the course, all breastfeeding professionals with which I consulted as a new mom told me exactly the opposite: that with proper help, breastfeeding isn't supposed to hurt.
After insinuating that formula is somehow a better choice for preemies like her own child -- it is not necessary nor even recommended, and a premature baby can safely be fed exclusively on breastmilk -- Gale predictably attacks the Latch On NYC initiative, again speaking from a place of ignorance. She says:
"According to the ‘breast is best' fanatics, choosing to bottle-feed my babies was akin to feeding them crack and getting them tattooed. New York is even considering locking up formula in hospitals so new mothers won't be swayed by the evils of this alternative to the breast... But why? Of all the things society can do to protect it's most vulnerable citizens, is hiding formula and making women feel terrible about how they choose to feed their children really the place to start?"
Formula is and has always been free to non-breastfeeding mothers in maternity wards. What is changing is that samples provided by companies -- which can influence a woman's decision, such as through coupons and "swag bags" -- will no longer be distributed. No one is being forced or even cajoled to breastfeed. It's just that formula companies' access to a captive and vulnerable audience is being restricted. In one city. And, it should be noted, following guidelines laid out by the American Association of Pediatrics.
But the sad thing about this common misconception that promoting breastfeeding is shaming women who choose not to is that, for every slight aimed at breastfeeding mothers in general and the organizations that support them, the already-weak network of support for nursing mothers is eroded. The idea is planted that those who may help -- places and people like La Leche League, which is free and bar none the best source of information for women who can't afford paid help -- are really out to bully, belittle, or insult women who are desperately in need of support and assistance.
To wit, while the "breast is best" message has caught on intellectually, in society today, it has not caught on in practice. A shamed formula feeding mother may feel badly for a few minutes -- a shamed nursing mother may give up altogether because she lacks support or encouragement or knowledge about how to breastfeed. A judgment will never take away a formula feeding woman's ability to formula feed, but a nursing woman can be deprived of her ability to breastfeed due to such actions.
Perhaps the "breast is best" message does make some parents feel inadequate for choosing otherwise, but, as long as formula is free in hospitals, the only choices being taken away are those from women who cannot afford or access the very basic breastfeeding services which are only beginning to catch on as a standard in this country, and it is doing women everywhere an extreme disservice.