by Jessica Martin-Weber
Sometimes I hear stories of women who struggled with breastfeeding and never got help. They didn’t know who to call or where to go or were too embarrassed to ask for help. Or they didn’t have the money or insurance coverage for an IBCLC or there wasn’t even one in their area. They may have tried a breastfeeding support group but felt intimidated and didn’t speak up. Whatever the case may be, it isn’t as uncommon as you might think that we receive messages at TLB from women stating they have nobody to turn to or nobody they feel comfortable asking. Only with the anonymous intimacy of the internet are these women comfortable even talking about their breastfeeding journey. How, I wonder, could we have gotten to this place where asking for help for a normal body function that isn’t functioning normally is so hard? We’re not even talking about waste or something sexual, we’re talking about feeding children. How can we be so disconnected?
A cursory glance at infant feeding history will reveal that the introduction of formula marketing probably contributed to this break down as well as the cultural expectations developed in the early 1900s that only specific health professionals hold all the answers for our bodies. As science became more elevated, anything that could be measured and formulated was seen as good. Anything else, particularly of our bodies, was suspect as inadequate and less.
But still, why, with all the information about breastmilk now, why would women struggle to even ask for help? Is it really just the effects of marketing and a left over fear from an era that held the doctor as god?
Digging deeper it’s not difficult to see that the over emphasis on the sexual nature of the female breast has contributed to the barriers some women face when they think of their breasts feeding their children. Regular objectification can make it hard for women to connect with their own bodies on a good day let alone if things are proving to be difficult. As society sends mixed signals celebrating female breasts to a point of idolatry yet reacting with disgust far too often when a woman uses her breasts to feed her baby, that disconnect isn’t far from turning into their own repulsion.
Again though, surely information and education can overcome these messages and women can see through the societal objectification of women to reach out for help in feeding their babies, right? Sure, it’s a mountain of baggage to overcome but if we just get the information out there these women will climb that mountain to succeed in making informed choices of which we approve with our support. Why is this so hard?
Maybe it’s because generations of women now haven’t been exposed to breastfeeding or if they have it has been either nominal or little more than entertainment. Breasts are thrust in everyone’s face in TV ads, online images, magazine and newspaper pages, and blown up in store windows but many women have never seen breastfeeding aside from when it is used for comedic relief or perfectly staged and lit for a parenting magazine.
Those trends are turning though, more and more breastfeeding is visible in social media outlets and with increasing frequency in real life. Celebrities and other influencers have taken to not only breastfeeding their own children but doing so openly and in the media’s eye. We’re a long way from breastfeeding really being normal again in society but there is increasingly a precedent of support for breastfeeding moms.
So why are there still so many women asking for anonymous help with their breastfeeding issues? Why is it that there are countless women who don’t feel able to ask for help when they encounter breastfeeding challenges? How are we not closing these gaps with information and public breastfeeding support such that there are still women who feel that seeking out breastfeeding help is too much vulnerability for them to risk? Where is the connection of women that should provide a safe space for infant feeding support?
I believe that one of the reasons our culture struggles so much with vulnerability and honesty is that when people dare to take the risk they are met with responses such as ‘you should be more like me, I don’t have those issues;’ ‘here let me tell you what you should do to fix your very broken self.’ When images and memes circulate demeaning women who don’t breastfeed or didn’t breastfeed long as not having tried hard enough, being lazy, giving their child poison, being unfit mothers, and deserving of guilt for falling short of the “best is breast” mandate or “biological norm” jargon, the connections we should have are torn down, not fortified.
A few months ago at a speaking engagement at an event with a “natural” parenting bent, a woman came up to talk to me. Her voice and posture were defensive from the beginning and she led with “I’ve heard of you but I’ve never been to your site or online community because I knew what I would hear there. I heard you today and I was surprised, I expected you to try to make me feel bad because I use formula. What would you say to me if I told you I used formula? Because I know that makes me the odd one out here and everyone thinks I’m lazy and give my baby poison.” I told her that I would say I was glad she was feeding her baby and I was certain she was doing what was right for her family according to her specific set of circumstances. I told her that I respected her and I understood what it was like being the odd one out in a setting. By the end of our conversation we hugged and took a selfie together. She had opened up about the breastfeeding challenges she was having and I shared some ideas and resources that could help her with those challenges should she so choose. It didn’t matter if she was going to increase her breastfeeding and cut back on the formula, what mattered was that she was heard, she wasn’t alone, and she felt respected and supported. My place was not to judge, pressure, or shame, my place was to respectfully care.
In a time when access to global community is better than ever, when information and support are freely available, when there are a multitude of voices offering support, women are still encountering pressuring messages of shame about their bodies and their choices. Isolating messages. Instead of finding help, many are afraid of facing belittlement. They encounter mocking and dismissive responses to questions or vents about low supply: ‘didn’t you know, only 2% of women can’t physically make enough milk, you couldn’t possibly be in that 2% so you’re just not trying hard enough AKA you’re lazy. If doing the best for your child is important enough to you, you’ll push through any difficulties’. They encounter similar messages about pain: ‘it shouldn’t hurt, if it hurts you’re doing something wrong’. They encounter callous responses to their challenges with societal pressures: ‘just stand up for your rights and stick it to the man or better yet, quit your job and stay home and don’t let someone else raise your child’. And, they encounter unhelpful responses to their challenges with breastfeeding in public: ‘if other people don’t like it they can throw a blanket over their heads, don’t be ashamed to feed your baby’. And these are just the messages that are intended to be helpful.
It can be down right dangerous to suggest that you are considering or *gasp* even have actually supplemented with formula. If you do your very mothering ability could be called into question with accusations of feeding your child poison and comparisons of formula to human waste: ‘formula has CORN SYRUP, how could you want to give your baby poison? Stick to breastmilk, at least it is never recalled and sure formula is better than starvation but so is eating your own shit’. Seeking help with these messages of shame swirling around, knowing the people you would ask have at least seen these messages and may even agree with them and could very well have made or propagated them, can require heaps of bravery at a time when a woman is feeling very vulnerable and possibly already struggling with feelings of inadequacy. Must a woman be brave to ask for help?
What if the very people claiming to advocate for breastfeeding and support families in their infant feeding experiences are the ones driving women away from seeking help when they are struggling? Can it be that the messages coming at women meant to inspire, motivate, and inform actually undermine them? Do we have a responsibility to maybe sit down, shut up and just be available? Instead of telling women what they should do and are doing wrong without really listening to them, what would happen if we provided a safe space to just be, offering support without arrogantly assuming we know exactly what choices each woman should make in her individual circumstances with her available financial, emotional, and relational resources?
Imagine how connected we could be if we would just listen and empathize as our first response rather than isolate, shame, and suggest DIY fixes. Meeting women where they are instead of where we think they should be. Imagine the change this could bring if just a few of us decided that we will stand against bullying, unintentional and intentional, as part of breastfeeding support and simply be the safe community that respects each woman without condition of conforming to our own breastfeeding agendas and principles.
I have been called a bully for calling out breastfeeding activists that have used such tactics and recently, when I encouraged my readers to be careful with whom they align themselves with through their social media outlets, I was told I was shaming another breastfeeding advocate and people I should support even if I disagree with how they are behaving. I have been asked how I could partner with someone like the Suzanne Barston from the Fearless Formula Feeder who supposedly should be my “sworn enemy” in spreading a message of support for all. I have been approached by concerned breastfeeding advocates that perhaps I should put my efforts into creating a unified front for breastfeeding education and support instead of denouncing those in our camp that refuse to reconsider their strong-arm messaging of shame. Though I’ve been vocal against such methods of supposed “support” in the past, I haven’t had the energy or the time to juggle everything let alone to add making those whose “camp” I should be in angry so TLB just quietly carried on with our core values in place doing the best we could to support. But I’ve had enough and I can’t continue even appearing as though I’m part of a movement that often (yes, OFTEN) utilizes tools of shame cloaked as “inspiration.”
If standing against bullying and shame based motivators requires me to hand in my “lactivist” or breastfeeding advocate card, so be it. You can have it. The Leaky Boob is about people first and I will not throw that principle and my compassion under the bus of arrogant activism. I have no doubt sometimes my own efforts of support are missteps and unintentionally hurt people and I know sometimes there are voices within TLB’s community that can be harsh. This isn’t a step away from the belief that there are risks to formula feeding that parents need information about, it isn’t a divorce from the science that supports breastfeeding as the healthy normal food for a human infant, this isn’t a watering down of our commitment to help moms reach their breastfeeding goals, and it certainly isn’t a sugarcoating of the issues surrounding infant feeding and society. Those issues remain and will continue to be something we respectfully discuss. This is simply a more clear step toward expressing the underlying belief that pressuring moms and telling them what to do and how to do it is not actual support. Whatever label or camp TLB falls under, I hope it is one that is hallmarked with compassion. In agreement with those the asked me what about being unified, I call all breastfeeding advocates, all infant nutrition experts, all WHO Code champions, all individuals with an invested interest in infant and early childhood feeding to ask how we can all unite with respect as mothers and fathers first, remembering our humanity as more important than our individual lifestyles and choices. As Amy West said:
Maybe the breastfeeding advocacy chapter is coming to a close; maybe fostering respect among mothers is the real cause worth championing.