A Breast Too Far?

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subactive_photo on flickr
Why are many lactivists unwilling to sympathize with the formula-feeding mothers in their midst?

A few months ago, while at a La Leche League meeting, we were discussing the advantages of breastmilk. We went around the room and each of us shared one way that we found breastfeeding helped our babies or us. When it was my turn, I said that I felt that it was easier to comfort a breastfed baby than a formula fed baby. Another mother challenged this statement.

"What do you mean by easier?" she demanded.

"Well, I mean that I don't have to warm up a bottle or spend time mixing the formula, I just pull up my shirt and latch him on."

She shook her head angrily then got up and stormed out of the meeting.

It turns out that this woman was unable to breastfeed her first child and was there for support in breastfeeding her yet-to-be-born second and she felt that what I said was hurtful. Hearing this, I was more than a little annoyed myself. What did she expect? This was a La Leche League meeting for crying out loud!

Later I wondered how much of her defensive reaction was my responsibility. Should I have said things differently? Was I in any way insensitive? No, I think that I was not at fault in this situation (it was a La Leche League meeting after all) but in spite of that, I certainly must acknowledge the grief, pain and anger she may have been feeling and that my words inadvertently caused.

Super-tact really is necessary

Does this mean that breastfeeding advocates need to couch their arguments carefully? Yes, it does. No one presenting the proven advantages of breastmilk or the disadvantages of formula should censor her arguments; however, we need to remember that while we may feel we're speaking in generalities ("Breastfed babies have an IQ that is on average 7 points higher than formula-fed infants"), the woman across from us who formula-fed hears specifics ("Your baby will suffer intellectually because of you"). I imagine that the woman who confronted me at that meeting only heard that I felt that I was better at comforting my baby than she had been at comforting hers. While I made my assertion without intent to hurt anyone, her pain was (is) real.

We breastfeeding activists, we lactivists, well know how difficult it can be to create a successful nursing relationship. The ignorance of most traditional health care providers, the myths passed on through the generations, the lack of breastfeeding role models, and the maniacal push by the formula companies... The list goes on and on.

From nipple confusion created in the hospital to employers unwilling to support mothers who are pumping their breastmilk, getting to a successful breastfeeding relationship can seem like trying to maneuver through a series of strategically placed stumbling blocks. Add to this our cultural insistence that breasts are primarily (if not entirely) sexual objects and it's no wonder that breastfeeding rates aren't climbing fast enough. If we know this, if we are so heart-achingly, so frustratingly, so furiously aware of these things, then why are many of us unwilling to sympathize with the formula-feeding mothers in our midst?

Well, the facts are there. Myriads of rigorous scientific studies have been done that prove that babies are meant to drink breastmilk. Anything other than breastmilk is quite simply, not as good. Those of us who are child advocates and mothering advocates feel that the dissemination of good breastfeeding information is a matter of life and death. Sure, there are many babies who thrive on formula but there are many others who do not. Our urgency compels us to turn into broken records citing studies and statistics because our thinking is that any mother who hears these things, no matter how challenged she is in her breastfeeding relationship, will try harder, that her chances of success will be greater.

We all know a woman (perhaps ourselves) whose feelings about breastfeeding were lukewarm until she read a breastfeeding manual or attended a La Leche League meeting. The wealth of information explaining why breastmilk, why not formula convinced her. She persevered through the hailstorm of potential breastfeeding disaster and came out with a happy nursling in arms. She became a lactivist and grew increasingly alarmed by what she felt was a cultural push away from breastmilk without regard for the babies. She felt that other mothers could be swayed as she was swayed by the facts. After all wouldn't any reasonable mother wants what is best for her baby?

Targeting external forces, not individual women

The reasonable mother: this fictitious woman is informed by the standards of the woman who creates her and so is not a good measure for the rest of us. In other words, the mother who is not persuaded by our "breast is best" argument is not by definition unreasonable. Her reality is too complicated for us to define using easy, blaming words like "selfish" or "victimized." If we can see outside forces that contributed to a baby's loss of breastmilk, then as lactivists we are obligated to target those forces, but not the mother who succumbed to them.

Like the formula-feeding woman who is hurt by our arguments, we are confusing generalities with specifics. When the individual mother before us is no longer open to our advice, or is past the time when such advice would be useful, we must acknowledge this and turn to focus our attention on whatever made her decision inevitable within her circumstances.

Some of us argue that we would not turn away from the woman smoking during her pregnancy, or refusing to use a carseat, or battering her child. But these behaviors are very different from choosing to use formula. Yes, the well being of a child is at stake in each case but none of the first three is equitable with formula feeding. Most anyone will support a pregnant woman when she strives to quit smoking; advice is readily available and mostly good. Not so for breastfeeding. Carseats are not tied up in cultural beliefs about our self-worth that go to our very core. Not so for our breasts. And child abuse is never a loving, unselfish act while a mother offering her child a bottle of formula while he's cradled in her arms is.

Remember those stumbling blocks. Remember the barriers thrown in front of every potential nursing couple. Most of all remember this: the fact that breastmilk is better for babies does not exist in a vacuum.

No rush to judgement

We say, ok, sure, that woman there, I can see why she quit. She had a breast reduction, or constant thrush, or her doctor mistakenly told her that she had to wean--sure, I can see why she couldn't breastfeed. And what does that mean? That we forgive her but not that other woman, the woman whose reason for using formula we deem not good enough?

The bar we raise is one based on our own mothering values and experiences and so cannot be fairly applied to anyone else. We may have breastfed through the experience that made her quit but that doesn't give us the right to say she should have tried harder. And we may embrace the utility of our breasts, but that doesn't give us the right to judge the woman who cannot get past the cultural imposition of sexuality on her breasts. Besides, who are we to grant ourselves the privilege of judgement and forgiveness?

To be effective, we must examine our own biases. We may secretly believe that the woman who did not breastfeed is selfish. Or that she should have tried harder. We may be smug about overcoming our own hurdles; because breastfeeding came easily to us, we may believe that a woman with problems is exaggerating her difficulties. If we have a shred of these or any other prejudices, it's going to impact our behavior as lactivists.

Our best teachers are our fellow lactivists who formula-fed a child. Their unique understanding of the struggle is invaluable and we need to let them tell us about guilt, grief, and compassion. They have been on both sides of the story, have had judgment lobbed at them by both camps. They can warn us when we get too strident or remind us that the woman at our La Leche League meeting glaring with her arms crossed might be more hurt than angry.

While our letter writing, boycotts and other good works must continue, we also must embrace mothers whose choices are different than our own. Part of creating a breastfeeding-friendly world is creating a mothering-friendly world for the general mass of motherhood, not just for those who behave as we think they should.

Dawn Friedman is an at-home mom to Noah, and freelance writer in Columbus, OH. She feels that the most radical thing she has ever done was to embrace her role as a feminist mother at-home. When not reading to her son, volunteering for LLL, or writing frantically to meet a deadline, she maintains a weblog, this woman's work.