The Romanticized Myth of What Constitutes Successful Breastfeeding- An Apology

by Jessica Martin-Weber

Dear Leakies,

This is my 5th version of this letter. I’m going to finish this one.

But first I’m going to do something I’ve never done here before:

To hell with the WHO Code

That’s a picture of Sugarbaby receiving a bottle. A bottle of my milk. Taken 2 years ago by my wonderful husband, I love this photo. So much love and pride captured in this moment. A vital moment in me reaching and achieving my breastfeeding goals. And that bottle wasn’t even kind of a “booby trap” to my breastfeeding goals.

Still, I never shared it with any of you here, on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Why haven’t I shared this or images like it with The Leaky Boob community before now? Why is this my 5th attempt at this letter? It’s simple:

Shame.

Yep. I have harbored shame. Not shame that my babies have received bottles, no, I have absolutely no shame that I’ve fed my children as I needed to. No, my shame came from using a bottle made by a WHO Code violating company. (To learn about what the International Code of marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes is, go here.) Only, that’s not really the shame I’m holding either, do you know how hard it is to find a bottle that’s not made by a WHO code violator? Nearly impossible.

No, my shame goes way beyond even the WHO Code, bottle feeding, or supporting a WHO Code violator.

My shame is that I haven’t cared about the WHO Code for 3 years, but felt I had to in order to be a “good” breastfeeding supporter.

My shame is that I played along, even became a part of the self-appointed WHO Code policing brigade for a time, even though I knew all along, deep down in my heart, that the almighty WHO Code was creating barriers.

My shame is that I felt righteous supporting the WHO Code. The original purpose of the WHO Code was so pure, so right, so good, how could I not support it?

My shame is that I upheld an artificial picture of what it looked like to successfully breastfeed and called it supporting the WHO Code.

My shame is that my actions supported the WHO Code more than they supported women, babies, and families.

But my shame is not that my babies were fed, not that they were loved, not that they sucked on an artificial teat.

To hell with the WHO Code

Look at that big sister love and pride!

Screw shame. I’m done. And I’m sorry. I’m deeply sorry that it has taken 3 years for me to find my courage to take the stand I live but never shared here.  I’m sorry that I’ve not been honest.

Because this is what successful breastfeeding has looked like for me:

To hell with the WHO Code

And so is this:

to hell with the WHO Code

For every single one of my 6 beautiful children, bottles and breast have been a part of me reaching my goals. And not just because I had to go back to work. I choose to go back to work, I love working and am a better parent when I work, but even when I didn’t work outside the home, I elected to partially bottle feed my milk to my baby. This was a positive thing for me as I get physically stimulated very easily and as an introvert found the need to create some space for myself. I did better mentally and emotionally, which meant I was in a healthier place mentally and emotionally to parent my children. It was the best healthy choice for us. I have never, not once, regretted it. Today, with a breastfeeding 2.5 year old, I also don’t believe it ever interfered with our breastfeeding nor did bottles have a negative impact on me reaching my breastfeeding goals.

In fact, I firmly believe that without bottles, I would have quit breastfeeding early on.

And see the big child in this photo bottle-feeding her baby sister my milk?

to hell with the WHO code

Do you see that eye contact? *melt*

She was mostly formula fed.

I don’t have any shame about that either. In fact, I’m damn proud that when the time came I could make the right decision for us to stop breastfeeding and switch to formula. The regret I have felt about that has been artificial and circumstantial, never true. It took a lot of courage for me to make that decision and it was the right one. I would make it again if I had to. I will support you if it’s the decision you need to make as well. We’ve been vocal here that breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing to be successful, I just haven’t been visible with that reality for myself.

Through The Leaky Boob I have contributed to a beautiful yet often unattainable depiction of what it looks like to breastfeed. In my attempt to normalize breastfeeding and provide support up what breastfeeding looks like, I have held up at the breast breastfeeding as being more beautiful, more important, more viable, more worthy of sharing and discussing and promoting than any other infant feeding methodology.

I support people before I support a feeding method.

to hell with the WHO Code

Sugarbaby’s big sisters loved to give her a bottle

I look at these photos of my baby receiving bottles and I see a beautiful, important, viable feeding worthy of sharing and discussing and promoting. Normalizing breastfeeding (bottle-feeders will tell me they feel that is normalized) and normalizing bottle-feeding(breastfeeders will tell me they fell that is normalized) shouldn’t be in competition with each other. What really seems to need to be normalized is caring for children. Parenting. Without it being a contest or a platform to boost how we feel about ourselves.

Feeding your child is real, no matter what they are fed or the mode of delivery. It’s real, it’s important, it’s complicated, and parents deserve support as they navigate this terrain. I am sorry that The Leaky Boob has, at times, failed to communicate that. I a sorry if instead of being a part of building your confidence, I’ve been a part of tearing it down. Deeply sorry.

I know there are those who will tell me I haven’t failed and I appreciate that.

I also know there will be those that will tell me that I haven’t failed until now. I appreciate that too.

But for the last 4 years as The Leaky Boob I have not been entirely honest with you. As a public voice in breastfeeding support, I have contributed to a mythical image of breastfeeding. I wish I could say it wasn’t intentional but it was and of the 4 years I’ve been doing The Leaky Boob, I have wrestled with this for three years. Motivated by fear, I allowed myself to present a picture of my breastfeeding journey and an idealized image of “successful” breastfeeding that simply wasn’t true. Well, not true for me anyway and likely not true for many of you. And I know holding that ideal up was damaging for some and a sort of betrayal for others. It wasn’t that I overtly lied, it was more of an omission of truth. I was wrong to do so and I am sorry.

A few weeks ago I was sitting with a friend of ours, a new dad who was bragging about how his wife and son had worked so hard at breastfeeding and just the day before, at close to 8 weeks old, had fed directly from the breast for all of the feeds. He said something that struck me: “you know, I think they’ve been breastfeeding, we’ve worked so hard but it’s not like you ever see pictures of breastfed babies getting bottles. Our lactation consultants were great but it’s a lot of work, a lot of time, a LOT of money, you know? The work you do is so important, we were on The Leaky Boob all the time and we have found a lot of help and support there but we still felt alone. I mean, it feels like it’s not as real if we’re giving a bottle, nobody ever talks about that. Does anyone else go through this?”

I was confronted with the reality of my failure on my couch.

to hell with the WHO code

Babies feeding babies here. So much big sister love!

Leakies I am sorry I never shared images of my babies and other babies receiving bottles. I was wrong to only ever present a side of my infant feeding journey that was safe for me as a public breastfeeding supporter. Anxious that I would be inviting drama and attacks from other breastfeeding supporters, educators, blogs, organizations, and my own readers, I didn’t want to risk being accused of being a WHO Code violator by posting pictures of my babies with their bottles. Specially since I do make some income from The Leaky Boob, I was concerned that if I ever even showed bottle feeding some would think it was sending the wrong message.

But message or not, this is the truth: my babies, all 6 of them, got bottles. One got mostly formula in her bottles. Back when I was attending women as they had their babies, often I was helping a new mother and baby pair with their first few feedings while my baby was at home getting a bottle of my milk. And every single bottle my babies have received was manufactured by a WHO Code violating company. I’ve never once regretted that, never once felt guilty for it, never once wished it was another way. But I did feel afraid to show it.

My incredible husband, Jeremy, The Piano Man, has never had a problem sharing these images though and not because he doesn’t understand the WHO Code or is unaware of the barriers women face when it comes to breastfeeding. When he came home one day with a new bottle and I stressed about having a WHO Code violating bottle in our house, that it couldn’t be posted anywhere online, and that I felt sick giving money to a Code violating company, he simply looked at me and calmly said “I thought this was about feeding our daughter.” I sterilized that bottle and moved on, knowing I wouldn’t post any photos of the offending bottle. But he did. And the very first comment on the photo was this:

WHO Code

E bottle feeding A copy IG bottle feeding comments redacted

I understand where the commenter was coming from and she wasn’t giving anyone a hard time but it’s true, because of the half truth I had shared, it was strange to see one of my baby’s drinking from a bottle. But it wasn’t strange that she was receiving one, it was actually a part of our normal infant feeding routine.

Bottles were an important part of me reaching my breastfeeding goals. Without bottles, I’m not sure I would have made it as far as I have and I’m pretty certain I would never have even started The Leaky Boob. I have talked about using bottles and formula feeding my second daughter, but I never shared images and I carefully couched sharing those experiences as safely as I could so as not to invite controversy.

I have let go of my shame and my fear.

By intentionally keeping that part of my breastfeeding journey quiet, by not sharing images of my baby receiving a bottle, by just sharing images of my babies feeding only at my breasts, and by neglecting the real life bottled-up aspects of the breastfeeding journeys of others, I perpetuated a romanticized myth of what constitutes successful breastfeeding.

I am sorry. Please forgive me.

With all my love, sincerely,

~Jessica

bottle feeding and breastfeeding The Leaky Boob Sugarbaby

Do you use bottles? How do you feel about using bottles? Do you share pictures on social media of your baby receiving bottles? Need help bottle-feeding your breastfed baby? Check out this articleFacebook page, and this book.

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Fear and Breastfeeding in Las Vegas

Breastfeeding is not porn, nudity, or obscene The Leaky Boob

Since starting The Leaky Boob 2.5 years ago I have said and photographed things I would never have imagined doing before.  I’ve said things such as “breastfeeding is not about sex, it’s about feeding a baby.”  Nothing like stating the obvious.  Most recently was texting my husband “do you know where that nudie card is I brought back from Vegas?  I need it.”  Yep, I brought a nudie card home from Vegas.

Say “Las Vegas” and most of us conjure up images of slot machines, black jack tables, show girls, stripers, booze, and buffets with obscene quantities of food.  Sex and money seem to flow freely.  Clothing requirements are little more than sequins, triangles, stars, and stilettos for women, the range is a little more diverse for men.

Say “mommy conference” and you probably picture babies in strollers or carriers, baby toys, tennis shoes, snack cups, and a chatty group of women.  Breastmilk and cheerios seem to flow freely.  Clothing requirements range from diapers and onesies or soft outfits in bright colors for the smaller ones in the crowd and something comfortable covered in spit up for the adults.

Say “mommy conference in Las Vegas” and you might get a little confused.

However, as much as it may seem like a collision of 2 very different worlds, the MommyCon conference in Las Vegas hosted at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino was anything but confused.  It was fun, vibrant, and sometimes a little comical (I doubt Vegas has ever seen so many babies in carriers going through their casinos).  The Flamingo Hotel did a great job securing extra cribs for the influx of young guests and the conference area hosted workshops like dancing with your baby and it didn’t even involve a pole.  While there was room for improvement, the host hotel handled the influx of moms and dads with babies and young children well and the juxtaposition wasn’t as weird as I anticipated.  I was thrilled to be there as a speaker and enjoyed my first ever trip to Las Vegas.  It seemed appropriate that I was in Vegas speaking about Sex, Lies, Parenting, and the Rest.  I had a great time with my fellow speakers and meeting the attendees of the event.

I have breastfed 6 children now, in all different settings, sometimes covered and sometimes not.  Over time, however, I stopped covering completely thanks to babies that fought the cover, me realizing that I don’t show much when I feed my baby, and eventually a belief that covering was actually hindering breastfeeding for some women either because they didn’t see others doing it or because they couldn’t navigate breastfeeding in public with a cover.  In all my breastfeeding in public experience, I have never, not once, been asked to cover or leave.  There have been times I thought I received disapproving looks or was shunned for feeding but I’ve never experienced any kind of real negativity about my feeding my baby.  Actually, I’ve experienced several positive and affirming exchanges as I fed my babies in public, more people expressing support than disapproval.  Today I’m experienced and confident when I feed my babies, well practiced and well informed about my baby’s right to eat.  Even now though, when I need to feed my baby in a public setting I will have a moment of anticipatory nervousness as though I expect something to happen.

Flamingo hotel

Feeding Sugarbaby at the Tropical Breezes cafe at the Flamingo in Las Vegas

Except in Vegas at a mommy conference that highlighted breastfeeding and where I was speaking because I created “The Leaky Boob.”  It didn’t even occur to me that someone could have a problem with me breastfeeding there, of all places.

Following my first talk in the morning of Friday, January 4, 2013, I met up with my friend, Sue, who was helping take care of my 8 month old daughter, who I call Sugarbaby, while I spoke.  We decided to have lunch in the Flamingo’s Tropical Breeze Cafe so I could feed my baby and myself before speaking at another session after the break.  Wearing a simple button up shirt and a Rumina Nursingwear tank with Bamboobies breastpads (I may be The Leaky Boob but I didn’t want to leak during my talks), I fed my hungry baby shortly after we were seated while we skimmed the menu.  She was hungry and had missed me so she got down to business pretty quickly and stayed focused.  Our server brought us our drinks and a random cup of coffee neither of us ordered and took our food order.  As we sat joking about the random cup of coffee and waiting for our food (I think he thought I looked like I could use some caffeine), a lovely woman in a suit approached us.  She smiled and asked us how we were then very politely requested that I use a cover, nodding in the general direction of my baby at my breast.

People, I laughed.  I couldn’t help it.  I laughed and asked her to repeat herself.

After confirming that she was indeed asking me to cover while I fed my baby I returned her smile, barely suppressed my laughter, and informed her of my legal right to breastfeed my baby anywhere my baby and I have the right to be, covered or not.  (Do you know the laws where you are?  This helpful resource compiled by You Can Breastfeed Here is a great place to start to find out.)  Her smile waining ever so slightly and her eyes widening ever so noticeably, she gently, though firmly, informed me that I could do whatever I wanted to do but that if I covered I would be making others feel more comfortable as there had been four tables that complained about what I was doing.

I laughed again.  Harder.  “They do know they are in Vegas, right?” I asked her through my laughter.  Because this is what is on the sidewalks and shoved into the hands of those walking on the strip:

Vegas Nudie card

She looked around and I kept looking at her, still chuckling at the irony of this situation.  She knows that just before walking into her cafe I walked past a platform where that very evening, like every night, a woman exposing far more than I was while feeding my baby, dances with moves intending to sexually entice.  She knows that the sidewalks in front of the hotel are littered with photo cards of naked women with tiny stars on their nipples.  She knows that this very hotel advertises a burlesque show featuring breasts (bare), butts, and spread eagle moves on a video that loops endlessly in each guest elevator.  She knows that the very people that complained have seen all that and probably more in the 10 minutes before they sat at their table.  I know she was just trying to do her job.  I know she had no idea that there was actually a law stating I had the right to breastfeed anywhere my baby and I were legally permitted to be.  I know that in her line of work making the customer happy is a delicate balance when one customer may be making another uncomfortable.  I know that in that moment she was wishing I had never walked into her cafe.  I wondered if news coverage of irate breastfeeding moms flashed through her mind.

When she looked back at me I felt sorry for her.  She was probably a mom, I don’t know, but she wasn’t trying to make my life hard, nor was I trying to complicate her job.  In her mind it was simple, I could cover.  In my mind it was simple as well, putting the comfort of others over my child’s right to eat without a blanket on her head just wasn’t ok.  Her smile gone but her face still pleasant she stated again that I could do what I want but it would really help if I covered.  I thanked her and kindly told her that I would continue feeding my baby as I was.

Note that she didn’t yell at me, she never touched my baby or me, she did not call me names, she did not go over to the tables that complained and loudly inform them that I wouldn’t comply, she didn’t ask me to leave, and she didn’t threaten me in any way.

My friend and I laughed once she walked away, we could hardly talk as we shook with laughter.  Jamie Greyson, TheBabyGuyNYC,  joined us for lunch and we all talked about what had just happened.  This was a big deal but I didn’t want to do much about it before giving the hotel and casino the opportunity to make things right.  As I had another session coming up there wasn’t much I could do in the moment but finish feeding my daughter, eat my lunch, and tweet about the irony of the situation.  Jamie and I both shared the story on Twitter, tagged Flamingo, ordered our food, and discussed the entire situation over our meal before heading to my next session.  We all agreed that how I was feeding Sugarbaby at the moment showed far less than the poster outside the cafe and the cards handed out on the Vegas streets.

Vegas showgirl and breastfeeding mom

Poster outside cafe, me feeding Sugarbaby inside cafe.

Here’s where it gets most interesting.  In the 2.5 years I’ve been running The Leaky Boob I have watched how companies handle such fumbles when they receive public scrutiny for harassing a breastfeeding mothers and precious few navigate the rocky terrain well.  That very weekend Hollister Co was facing a national nurse-in protesting their handling of one of their store managers humiliating a Houston woman for breastfeeding in their Galleria store.  Over a week later and the company still hasn’t responded adequately.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Las Vegas hotel and casino but was pleasantly surprised to discover tweets from them responding not only to mine and Jamie’s tweets regarding the situation but individual responses to each of our followers that tweeted Flamingo about the situation as well.  It wasn’t long before I had a direct exchange with Flamingo on Twitter, in direct message, over emails, and then a phone call.  The representatives of the Flamingo asked if they could meet with me before I left and they publicly informed Twitter that they would be working with me to make it right.

My day was full of events and meetings so I was unavailable until Saturday, just before I had to leave.  It would have been easy to brush me off on a Saturday but instead Scott Farber Director of Food Operations, met with me personally Saturday morning to apologize, let me know that he had a meeting with his staff on Friday and informed them of Nevada state law permitting a woman to breastfeed her child where ever she has the legal right to be, and instructing his staff that should customers complain about a woman breastfeeding again they would not address the mother but would work with the customers that complained.  Kind and genuine, Scott laughed with me at the irony of being in Vegas and asked to cover.  Scott offered to make it up to me with a free meal and more and was genuinely concerned about how I was after the experience.  He shared that Estella, the manager, was horrified that she had misstepped in saying anything to me and he extended her apology as well as I didn’t have time to meet with her.  We discussed how the Flamingo could better welcome families and some changes that could be made to do so well.  The possibility of me returning to train their staff and sister hotels to consult with them on how to be set apart in Las Vegas as a family friendly destination came up.  These weren’t the actions of a company that wanted to embarrass their customer families, these were the actions of a company that cared to stand apart and understands the value of doing things right.

Yes, the cafe manager should have been aware of the law prior to asking me to cover but it isn’t a well-known law and probably not something they would have even anticipated needing to know.  Now that they are aware, however, they are responding and preparing to not make the same mistake again.  Instead of ignoring or responding heatedly to the situation, the Flamingo has become a model for other companies that find themselves in what could be a PR disaster.  A company that will receive my repeat business because of how well they handled their mistake.

The problem is a simple fix for the historic Las Vegas hotel and casino and they are well on their way to making it right.  The experience reflects more on society as a whole though.  That the most scandalous sight for some Las Vegas visitors was a baby eating is a little mind boggling.  Thankfully, I’m not easily intimidated, am informed on the law, am more than happy to help educate, and in the end I’m glad this experience happened to me because I believe through it The Leaky Boob and the Flamingo hotel and casino can work together to better support breastfeeding moms be they in Las Vegas or on the other side of the world.  If it happened to someone else it could have greatly damaged their breastfeeding relationship or intimidated them to not risk leaving their home setting them up for postpartum depression and extreme isolation.  Hopefully, by raising awareness others can become informed of the laws and their right to feed their baby and more companies will work to educate their employees on how to better support breastfeeding mothers and more and more mothers won’t have to be afraid to breastfeed their babies in Vegas or anywhere else.

Vegas call card compared to breastfeeding

_______________________________

 The Flamingo Hotel and Casino has asked me for tips and suggestions as to how their staff could handle breastfeeding situations in the future in a way that would be supportive and informed.  

What would be your suggestions?  

What tips would you give the employees that may encounter a breastfeeding pair and possible complaints from other guests?

_______________________________

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