“You look like a breastfeeder.”
I had just met the woman that said that to me and we were not even 10 minutes into our first conversation. We met at a friend’s birthday party when the what-do-you-do question came up and I mentioned The Leaky Boob. After explaining what TLB is to her “excuse me, say what?” response she surprised me with her response. After I got over my own shock at her statement I wanted to say “why yes, of course I look like a breastfeeder, I’m a woman with a baby!” Instead, I laughed. Because I knew exactly what she meant.
I was offended a little bit though, in part because I didn’t think I did look like a breastfeeder at that moment. Often I do but I was actually pretty not-breastfeeder looking that day, I thought. I really thought my style was funky-artsy-cool. Then it hit me, I was offended that someone thought I looked like a breastfeeder. I mean, my hair was short and funky, I was wearing my cool cat style green glasses, blue jeans, halter top and a hoodie. My nails were even done! As you can see from the pic below, just a quick head shot on my phone I know, but taken on that very day, I don’t scream breastfeeder, do I?
Except for the female part. And the breast part. And the kids part. And maybe The Leaky Boob part.
But I don’t want to look like a breastfeeder outside of those things. Because it has a certain connotation in our culture. Looking like a breastfeeder means you look weird. Means only a certain type breastfeed. It means that as of yet breastfeeding is not so normal in our society and there is a brand that goes along with breastfeeding that is more specific than a female with breasts and children. Really, every single woman should look like a breastfeeder, not just one type.
I have to tell you something. It’s not exactly easy for me to admit this and I’m afraid you’ll look at me differently but I need to get this out there:
The truth is I’m a pretty green mom. Green as in… crunchy. As in environmentally aware and “natural.” As in we use cloth napkins and cloth diapers, have home births and don’t follow the recommended vaccination schedule. We have almost no plastic play things and avoid most trademarked characters on clothing and toys as well. I really, really am pretty crunchy. But I think of myself as funky-normal, a variation of mainstream. I can’t always afford to buy organic and I really like make up. I haven’t recycled my glass in like 2 years because the city doesn’t pick it up and there isn’t a drop off anywhere near me and after lugging boxes of glass bottles around in my van for months I decided that I was probably wasting so much gas from the weight of the glass in my car that it totally offset recycling them- if I ever got to recycle them. Oh, and I haven’t been to a homeopath since I had kids. No Birkenstocks either. There are plenty of not natural, non-organic probably bad for you products in my house, some of them we eat. Also, I have a PILE of reusable shopping bags, I’ve even made some of them but I forget them more often than I take them with me to the store. So I’m green but not green. Not Kelly green, more like 1970’s linoleum avocado green and I have the glasses to prove it.
While it is true that we avoid prepackaged foods and artificial colors and flavors in our foods we go to fast food a couple of times a month and my kids get candy full of crap 2-3 times a week. Some of you are shaking your head going “tsk, tsk, she’s poisoning her kids!” and others are going “yeah so, we go out to some place like that every meal or would if I could afford it and I freaking LOVE Skittles.” Personally, I’m with both of you. I wasn’t allowed to have that stuff growing up and my mom made us have healthy substitutes instead. We’d take our own piece of cake to birthday parties, adults would never give us the candy other kids got because my mother warned them not to, we’d get these sesame honey stick things my mom called “good candy” instead and the snacks we brought to play groups looked suspiciously similar to mulch. Everyone looked at me sympathetically. I hated being that kid. H-A-T-E-D IT. So I don’t make my kids be that kid. They eat the crap candy their teacher hands out. And in full disclosure, my lactivist self is a traitor and I even let my kids eat the Nestlé candy they get. Shame on me, right?
I have another confession.
Most labels make me uncomfortable. If I were to use one to describe myself someone could quickly point out how I am not that. Every time I try to label myself I have an immediate exception ready. So I don’t call myself an attachment parent. But I do wear my babies, they sleep in our room, there is almost always a parent with them when they are young (me or The Piano Man and rarely sitters), and we don’t spank. That said, I also believe in regularly leaving them for my own sanity and because I’m a better parent when I do, I like my stroller, and sometimes I pump a bottle of milk just because I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack if I have a baby on my boob one more time. And I LIKE it that way, it works for my family. Which by some standards means I fail attachment parenting. By other standards it means I win at label-rejection I guess.
I have another confession.
We homeschool. But I don’t want to. In fact, I have such a hard time with it I almost can’t say it out loud. It’s been a struggle for me for the last 4 years and as a homeschool graduate myself I swore I would never, ever homeschool. NEVER. I knew I wasn’t cut out for it even before I had kids and I still know I’m not. If The Piano Man didn’t homeschool with me and we didn’t have some great homeschool programs there is no way we’d be making it. Obviously I feel our reasons to homeschool are important enough to be doing it right now but it’s not going to be this way forever because I can’t wait to send my kids to school. Besides, I don’t look like a homeschooler either. Right?
I’m a lactivist but I don’t particularly love breastfeeding. True story. As a lactivist I have lots of thoughts about formula and formula companies. Shocker, right? Here’s the real shocker: I don’t think formula is poison! gasp Though I think there need to be better standards, higher quality ingredients and a heck of a lot better regulations, I’m never going to say formula is poison. I also don’t think a mom bottle feeds because she’s lazy or selfish even if she claims that’s why. Nope. Instead I think there are much bigger, much deeper issues involved that she may not even understand but are a result of the booby traps so prevalent in our society and I don’t want any mom that doesn’t breastfeed to feel guilty about it. Should I hand in my lactivist card now? Should I be smacked and scolded “bad lactivist!” and denounced?
I have another confession.
I was a breastfeeding mom from the get-go even when I was decidedly not “crunchy.” Before I recycled or used cloth diapers, I breastfed. When we ate Hamburger Helper regularly as part of my rebellion in getting to eat whatever I wanted and I didn’t even know what MSG or Red 40 was, I breastfed. When I had one carrier I hated, kept my baby in her bucket car seat all the time and planned on spanking to discipline, I breastfed. When I worked full time, had a hospital birth, and bought every Winnie the Pooh decoration and toy I could find, I breastfed. The idea that it was a “natural parenting” choice didn’t even occur to me. These things weren’t even on my radar and I’d never even heard most of these terms. In fact, over 12 years ago I went to a La Leche League meeting and was completely freaked out by my experience there and those “natural types.” I didn’t co-sleep, didn’t want to garden, and couldn’t handle the idea of putting a candle in an ear to cure an ear infection. Since I didn’t fit in I never went back. But I did keep breastfeeding in spite of having almost no support.
Recently I’ve seen conversations that almost assume that everyone that breastfeeds is on the same page regarding every parenting choice. Like we’re a club that talks, walks, dresses, eats and sleeps the same. But we’re not. The mom across the street from me breastfed her son for close to a year, pumping for him when she returned to work. Unlike me she lets her son eat prepackaged food daily, have character toys and clothing and she has him fully vaccinated. Like me, she does curbside recycling. Also like me? She loves her child more than she could begin to articulate. I admire her, she’s an awesome mom and I’ve learned a lot from her and I hope maybe she’s learned some things from me.
Here’s the thing: the natural parenting/crunchy/hippie/green/stay-at-home-mom/work-at-home-mom/gentle-parenting/natural birthing/what-ever-you-want-to-add-here communities do not have the corner on breastfeeding. Breastfeeding ≠ all natural parenting. Breastfeeding ≠ attachment parenting. Breastfeeding ≠ crunchy. Breastfeeding ≠ a parenting style. Breastfeeding ≠ rejecting mainstream parenting. Aside from having lactating breasts, there are no real parenting style requirements to breastfeed. No card to carry that you’re in danger of losing if your baby sleeps in a crib in another room. Every woman that breastfeeds is a part of the breastfeeding mom club no matter how long she breastfed, where her baby sleeps, what she eats, how she introduces solids, where she gave birth, if she stays home or works, if she loves her stroller or has a dozen carriers, if she used a form of sleep training that involved cry-it-out or if she co-sleeps, if she vaccinates or doesn’t vaccinate, if she circumcises or is staunchly against it, if she covers when breastfeeding in public or just puts her baby to her breast, or even if she uses formula to supplement. Other moms don’t have to agree with or like her choices but it doesn’t change the fact that if they breastfeed they are all still breastfeeding moms. Moms that are the more natural, crunchy types are just as much mothers and breastfeeders in need of support as those that are more mainstream types or those that defy labels completely. And vice-versa.
I worry sometimes that if breastfeeding is perceived to be a part of the complete “natural” package we will discover some push back against it completely. What if they’re not interested in co-sleeping but are willing to breastfeed and then in the experience of looking for breastfeeding help and support they discover they are also expected to co-sleep? Or a new mom plans on breastfeeding for the first 6 weeks, encounters some difficulty but is determined to get through it only to ask for help and get chastised for not planning to breastfeed until the child self-weans? If it starts feeling like it has to be all or nothing as though breastfeeding is some sort of lifestyle then for some it will be easier and less intimidating to choose nothing than to choose all and fail. Breastfeeding isn’t a move to pick up any label or style of parenting. Being a breastfeeding mom doesn’t automatically make someone a babywearing mom, or a co-sleeping mom or a gentle parenting advocate. Being a breastfeeding mom means she’s just that, a breastfeeding mom and whatever else she chooses to be. You don’t have to adopt all or even any of the stereotypical aspects of “those natural types” in order to be a breastfeeding mother. Just because I eventually did doesn’t mean it’s right for you and I can respect that and still support and encourage you. Personally, I seek to support and empower women, families, parents and breastfeeding moms and their supporters regardless of their labels and choices in parenting styles.
It’s not that we can’t talk about these different choices, we can and should. In fact, it is through encouraging and respectful dialogue about different choices we’ve made that others can be empowered to consider something other than what they already know. For many, that’s probably how they even considered breastfeeding in the first place. So let the conversation flow freely but let’s be careful that we don’t have a string of parenting style requirements to breastfeed and be willing to put aside our differences and still offer genuine support. I hope we get to the place where you can’t pick a breastfeeding mom out of the crowd based on how she’s dressed or how she interacts with her children or what baby products she has with her. That regardless of our other parenting and even lifestyle choices breastfeeding is just so normal that we don’t assume breastfeeding women look or act a certain way other than being a mom. Whether she’s a fashionista like Kourtney Kardashian or a babywearing, homebirthing, Birkenstock sporting hippie or something in between several different stereotypes, a breastfeeding mom deserves to be supported regardless of her parenting approach. Nobody has the monopoly on breastfeeding. We can all be a part of the club and we all deserve support. Just like no matter how we feed our babies we’re all a part of the mom club too.
Do you fit any labels? Or find that you are a little of this, a little of that? How would you describe your parenting style and does that have any influence on your breastfeeding? Do you find that sometimes you look down on others that parent differently than you?
By the way, I think all of this goes for any other parenting choice. However we feed our children, our family and household rules, discipline, educational choices, and so much more, we all have one thing in common for sure: we’re parents that love our children.