by Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D.
Joyce's daughter was three months old when a friend told her she was gradually beginning to wean her 10-month-old. "I was silent -- for the briefest of seconds, I'm sure," Joyce recalls, "and she immediately started explaining, justifying, apologizing. I caught myself and started making loud noises of support and understanding. Inwardly, I was surprised, even a little unnerved, at my reaction. There was a kind judgment in my silence, no doubt about it. Where did that come from?"
Sound familiar? It's easy to think that if we are doing the best thing for our family, that gives us the right to know what's right for other families, as well. So when parents make different choices from our own, it can be hard to avoid thinking that those choices are somehow inferior, even when we pride ourselves in being open-minded.
Regretfully, the terrain of infant feeding provides fertile ground for judgment. Formula feeding mothers glare at breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding mothers glare at mothers buying formula. And almost everyone glares at women nursing toddlers or pre-schoolers. The result is often an "us" vs "them" mentality, not unlike the "mommy-wars" between "at-home" and employed mothers so prevalent in the 1980s. And we all suffer for it.
While many nursing mothers feel frustrated by being around people who push formula and devalue nursing, bottle-feeding mothers often end up resenting so-called lactavists. This backlash, as lactation consultant Nancy Mohrbacher, calls it, often stems from the fact that those who appear unsupportive of breastfeeding, are often grieving for what they and their babies have lost. But rather than turning this grief into anger and directing it at the way society has failed them, they direct it at breastfeeding enthusiasts.
To be sure, rudeness and insensitivity exist on both sides. And those of us who are breastfeeding advocates -- and I clearly place myself in this category -- must be careful not to let passion override compassion. We need to remember that one-size-fits-all advice is inappropriate and counterproductive. We don't walk in another woman's shoes. Equally important, fighting each other prevents us from fighting the real sources of the problem; the ways our society makes nursing unnecessarily challenging.
Challenges in the Culture
Consider the following:
- Mothers may lack accurate information about breast milk and adequate support for breastfeeding. Some health care providers lack sufficient knowledge to help them if they run into problems.
- Routine labor and birthing procedures in hospitals often result in babies and mothers too sleepy or traumatized to nurse.
- Supplemental feedings of formula in the hospital have almost doubled in the past ten years, a practice known to derail nursing.
- Mothers and babies are often separated after birth, just at the time when babies would start searching for the breast if left on their mothers' bellies.
- Women are often discharged before breastfeeding is established and fail to receive adequate assistance and follow-up.
- Formula companies use marketing tactics that convince mothers they won't have enough milk.
- Many women have to go back to work at six weeks post-partum and aren't able to express their milk or have their babies with them
- Breasts are seen as something to "turn-on" a man, not to latch on a baby and women may feel uncomfortable about nursing in public.
With these kinds of obstacles, it's no wonder that formula use is so prevalent. And it's understandable that some women find breastfeeding too difficult to continue.
After all, the opportunity to breastfeed shouldn't depend on whether we can afford to visit a lactation consultant, stay home with our children, or have a private office in which to express milk. It shouldn't depend on access to family leave, flex-time at work, or on-site daycare. And it shouldn't depend on being able to afford a good breast pump, have insurance coverage or access to donor milk, if necessary.
A true breastfeeding culture is one where any woman who desires the experience has the information, support, and community in which to do so. So rather than judge women, or worse, accuse them for feeding their children "crap in a can" as one mother was told, let's join together to make it possible for any woman who wants to nurse to be able to do so. If we believe in nursing, let's believe in it not just for our own family, but for other families, as well, and not in a vindictive, judgmental way.
There are many things we can do to help create a culture that truly respects women, respects babies, and respects both childbirth and breastfeeding. Our efforts are limited only by our imagination and dedication. As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
If you share this vision, there are many organizations that would welcome your involvement and support, and many activities in which you can participate.
Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and author of The Breastfeeding Café: Mothers Share the Joys, Secrets & Challenges of Nursing, University of Michigan Press, 2005. She is a frequent speaker around the country and is available for talks, readings, and conducting birthing and breastfeeding writing circles. The mother of two formerly breastfed children, Barbara lives in upstate New York.
Copyright © Barbara L Behrmann. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.