Lactivism 2.0? Yes, Please

I was messaging a friend this morning (or afternoon) and wanted to get something off my chest: I have a serious problem with the lactivist community. What’s troubling me is that I AM a “lactivist.” I’m an advocate for breastfeeding. For resources, education, awareness, and support. What I am NOT an advocate for, and cannot support, is the judgement and shame heaped on women who, for whatever reason, use formula. As it stands right now, there is too much PRESSURE to breastfeed, when what we need is a lot more SUPPORT for breastfeeding. Right now it’s pressure from all sides: pressure to breastfeed or be a bad mom, and pressure to use formula because you can’t possibly be adequate or capable of breastfeeding.

Here’s one of the many types images that women are bombarded with during pregnancy – this one apparently comparing the use of formula or bottles to cheating on your spouse:

Created by the TheAhaParent

Created and shared by the The Alpha Parent

Here’s another – this one a bit more insidious, especially when presented to a woman who wants to breastfeed as part of her “breastfeeding support bag” from the hospital. Why? Because in the guise of support, Similac and Enfamil are already telling moms that breastfeeding won’t work, so here’s some formula:

Breastfeeding...support? Or is that undermining?

Breastfeeding…support? Or is that undermining?

My own story is this: When I was pregnant, I had every intention of nursing Mattie for a few weeks. I knew it was the ideal food for his growing body, knew it was beneficial in terms of maternal health, and wanted to do it. But I also knew there was formula. In the first few weeks, when his weight dipped dangerously low, I broke out the formula without hesitation and used a pump to compensate for the times he didn’t nurse. When it became apparent he had a severe dairy allergy and I began to cut all dairy out of my diet, we used a formula for three weeks and I pumped and donated the milk to another baby. When I went back to work, I had access to time and space to continue pumping. Eventually, we didn’t use the formula at all and by nine months we were back to exclusively breastfeeding. We continued until he was about 2.5.

Nursing my Matthias, at thirteen months

Nursing my Matthias, at thirteen months

Here’s where the ‘lactivism’ and feminism communities collide – there’s a huge disparity between the percentage of wealthy women who breastfeed and the percentage of poor women who do. The fact is that breastfeeding is a privilege for middle to upper class white women (women who, generally, can stay home with their kids, or who can afford a pump and have a job that permits them to pump as needed), at least in the United States. Conversely, it is often the ONLY option for women in “developing” countries – countries where appallingly low incomes and inadequate or absent government subsidy mean formula is unobtainable (and of course, women in the United States deal with this as well); places where people are facing much higher infant mortality rates; areas where water contamination of formula is a deadly risk that renders it a very dangerous feeding choice; where starvation is an ever-present worry.

Unilaterally declaring that it’s a requirement, not a choice, is so profoundly anti-feminist and wrong that it makes my head spin.

I went back to work after four months, a comparatively long time to be home, and my company is small and familial – I have my own office and a locking door, can take breaks when I want. If I worked in retail or service, or any other “lower class” job, that would be impossible – never mind the cost of pumping equipment (which isn’t necessary but greatly increases the chances of successfully continuing breastfeeding after mom returns to work). Expecting poor women to keep up with those of us who have all the advantages necessary to make time for breastfeeding is outrageous. Judging them for using formula is asinine.

Wanting to help them succeed at a healthy choice like breastfeeding, however, is neither outrageous nor asinine.

I see a place for breastfeeding advocacy in so many ways: I think women of all social classes need access to information about it, including videos or demonstrations so that it’s more normal to them (I, for instance, had never seen a baby fed at the breast before I had Mattie); I think advocating for better family leave time, access to break rooms at work for moms who want to pump, and the time to pump while working is necessary; I would like to see lactation consultants, who can help those who want to nurse do it pain-free, available at all post-natal appointments for the first six months;  I think public campaigns to normalize it so that women don’t have to use a nursing tent to feed their kid in public are essential. (That link is just one story. If you search for ‘nursing in public’ you’ll see a plethora of similar incidents.)

I think it’s good to eliminate the “booby traps” that are an impediment to nursing, first of which is the idea that most women can’t. The majority of women, statistically speaking, are capable of nursing their children. Knowing that can help them in their efforts to breastfeed by helping them avoid the discouragement of thinking there’s something wrong with their bodies when they just need a bit of care and support…

These are worthwhile goals. I think it’s particularly important to make it accessible for women in poverty, partially because it’s a way to save them the added expense of formula.

…but that needs to be right along side a push for the realization and acknowledgement that no one is obligated to breastfeed. That just because most bodies CAN breastfeed doesn’t mean that most women have to actually do it. And there are women who cannot, for various reasons from physical attributes or problems to social or economic concerns and influences. Those women need and deserve our support too.

These may seem like dichotomous statements, but I would have been so helped by someone cheering me on, rather than pushing me to do it — someone saying “your body is doing just fine, you’re doing great, and no matter what you decide I support you.”

All of that potential advocacy is blown out of the water by the judgement, shaming, and absolute self-righteousness of lactivists who demonize any mother who can’t or won’t make the same choice they did.

Many mothers, and their children, would be better served by advocacy for them in other areas like education, access to health care, housing, etc – especially since many of the benefits of breastfeeding seem to be related as much, if not more, to education, parenting style, attentiveness, access to health care, etc.

Last, but not least, are the emotional effects. The positive anti-depressant effects of breastfeeding are well documented, and are one reason I think all mothers might want to at least give it a shot: it can help with postpartum depression. But if the breastfeeding is painful, or such a struggle that it’s causing a mother misery and pain, it’s not worth it. It becomes a further contributor to depression, rather than a way to combat it.

Often overlooked in the discussion about babies? Maternal health. If a mother is not healthy or happy (beyond just being exhausted and overwhelmed, as those tend to come with the territory of having a baby), she may not be able to be a good (in her own estimation) mother to her child. Guilt over not breastfeeding well enough, not falling in love right away, resenting the child’s cries, or just needing a break…it’s unhealthy. It’s an impediment to having a fulfilling relationship between mother and child. Breastfeeding (rather, NOT breastfeeding), unfortunately, is one of the biggest sources of maternal guilt there is. And that can have nothing but a detrimental effect on both mom and babe.

To put it succinctly, if it’s going well, keep at it because it’s good for you both. If it’s making you unhappy, stop because it’s bad for you both.

Recently I was kicked out of a breastfeeding support group for encouraging a mom to wean at eighteen months because she was suicidal and needed to be hospitalized. She felt guilty and thought she should just stay home so she could keep nursing. My words to her were, essentially, “Mama, you’ve done an amazing thing making it this far. You’ve already given him so much by continuing to breastfeed for so long, but right now you need to take care of YOU. Your health is important too.” I then provided a few links about easy/gentle weaning at any age. I was told by the group administrators that advocating for anything but a full two years of breastfeeding was against group policy, and summarily kicked out.

That kind of intractable and overzealous clinging to one set of standards for all women is detrimental to us all. It hurts women who need our support, and it turns others away from breastfeeding before they ever start. It pushes women who’ve tried everything and just need some advice, love and support into crying on their couches, alone.

It’s such a culture of extreme dedication and judgment that when I first used formula for Mattie, I lied about it and wouldn’t tell any of my friends because I dreaded their response.  It’s a culture where studies that favor breastfeeding as superior are accepted without question, and studies indicating that the benefits may be “overstated” are either ignored or torn to shreds.

And that is NOT OKAY. It’s time for a change. For activism that is truly for mothers and for babies, not for one element of parenting placed at higher priority than anything else (against all evidence that it’s important, yes, but not THAT important). It’s time for lactivism 2.0.

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One thought on “Lactivism 2.0? Yes, Please

  1. Beautiful words of compassion and reason. Thank you for speaking out and sharing your story! And I agree, let’s move on to lactivisim 2.0, helping women who want to breastfeed and can breastfeed, while supporting and being understanding of those who don’t want to or can’t.

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