All of us need support. Even if we think we don’t, even if the attitudes and opinions of others aren’t something we feel impact us, the truth is whatever it is we set out to do we are more likely to succeed when we have support. Research shows that the number one reason that women that set out to breastfeed but end up giving up is because of lack of support, articles exploring the impact the lack of social support (or social toxins to breastfeeding) has on breastfeeding have called for change, and the US Surgeon General has issued a Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding addressing head on the institutional and social barriers to breastfeeding. Overall, support is crucial to breastfeeding outcomes on both an interpersonal level and societal level.
The problem isn’t isolated to lack of support from family and friends, though at the individual level it certainly starts in the mom’s immediate circle. From there it spreads to the local community around the mom, the health care community, and then society in general. It goes from the outside in as well.
- Every time a radio show personality rants about how gross it is to see a woman breastfeeding in public, or news reporters seem awkward talking about breast milk and milk banks, or feminist speakers forcefully imply that the “benefits” of breastfeeding are made up to trap women in their homes; it chips away at the support for breastfeeding within society.
- With every joke laden with sexual innuendoes about breastfeeding, or negative reactions from television and movie characters to the idea of breastfeeding, or sexually charged awkward scenes centered around a breastfeeding pair in an attempt at comedy; entertainment places precedence on a woman’s sex appeal and mocks the breastfeeding mother.
- Whenever a female politician sneers at the recommendations to support breastfeeding for health reasons, or a male politician openly questions the validity of requiring companies to provide space for moms to pump, or airport security detains a woman as though she’s a criminal because she’s trying to take her frozen breast milk home to her baby; the message is sent loud and clear that woman, children and breastfeeding are not as important as corporate profits and a false sense of security in travel but are considered a business and security hazard.
- As a woman is shunned from yet another restaurant for feeding her child as biology intended, or a local women’s only gym tries to shame a woman for feeding her child, and school boards declare that mother’s can’t breastfeed in their school lobbies; breastfeeding as part of the fabric of the community and normal part of caring for one’s child is dismissed in favor of other feeding methods.
- When a pediatrician continues to use growth charts designed for formula fed babies and scares moms into using formula because her baby doesn’t follow the chart, or a labor and delivery nurse tells a mom she doesn’t have any milk on day one and to give her baby formula until her mike comes in, or a famous obstetrician is disgusted on television with the idea of breastfeeding an older baby; breastfeeding is sabotaged by the very group that should most understand the importance of feeding human babies in the biologically normal way.
- Any time someone in a breastfeeding support group talks down to a mother that supplemented, or an online community gangs up on someone asking for information on weaning, or quotes communicating the superiority of all mothers that breastfeed spread like wildfire across social media; a wedge is driven between those that should be offering support and the many, many women that need it but feel belittled.
- When friends suggest “why don’t you just give her a bottle so you can have a life,” or a woman’s own mother is embarrassed by her daughter breastfeeding in public, or in-laws suggest formula so they can babysit, or an aunt insists that she never breastfed her babies and they turned out “fine,” or a mother is called “selfish” by a relative for breastfeeding so others can’t give the baby a bottle; the very people that should most have a breastfeeding mom’s back instead stab her in it with their perhaps well intentioned but clearly uneducated comments.
Given that society claims to know that breastfeeding is good for babies and their mothers yet continually sabotages breastfeeding mothers by being openly unsupportive, I can’t help but wonder if it’s just that we actually don’t care what’s best for mothers and babies but rather value profits, the sexual objectification of women, individual comfort based on the belief that breasts are only for sex, and holding onto old beliefs that have been proven to not be true. As a whole, the actions of society do not match our words: we do not, in fact, believe that breastfeeding is good for babies and their mothers. We do not, in fact, value the breastfeeding mother. We do not, in fact support breastfeeding. Even though we know support is needed.
I do think it’s improving in some ways. Laws in the USA have passed that hopefully do improve the working mother’s pumping conditions and breast pumps are now tax deductible. It’s sad that those had to be fought for and met any resistance at all but at least they went through and they are a start. While the entertainment industry still mocks breastfeeding mothers as a standard comedic element, more and more celebrities are being not only vocal in support of breastfeeding but also openly breastfeeding. Nurse-ins showing how many are supportive of breastfeeding when a business harasses or kicks a breastfeeding woman off their premises get news coverage and online buzz. It’s not a lot but it’s something that looks a bit like progress. A little bit of needed support.
But we have a long, long, long way to go. I have hope, I have to, that some day our society’s actions will support our society’s words. That breastfeeding will no longer require advocacy beyond normal education because breastfeeding will be accepted without controversy as normal. That we will act like we believe the science that breastfeeding is good for babies and their mothers and that we will value the breastfeeding mother.