I wasn’t going to write about this. I tend to find such obvious baiting off-putting, as well as the exploitation of women and children distasteful. But having read some of the responses from other bloggers, I feel compelled to join the conversation.
You see time was when I was a fairly militant breastfeeder. I was the kind of woman you might occasionally see in a cafe, making no effort whatsoever to feed her baby ‘discreetly’, refusing to cover up or to be cowed, and positively glaring at anyone who dared a disapproving look. If anyone wanted to say anything to me, I was ready. Couldn’t I do that in the toilet? No, but I’d be more than willing to help you take your food into the toilet if you had a problem with dining in the same room as my baby.
I was an informed woman. I had read the evidence stating categorically that breast milk was nutritionally superior to formula milk; I had pored over the latest studies suggesting that breastfed babies had higher IQ’s and were more securely attached to their mothers. I laughed unthinkingly at my friend who liked to say that bottle fed babies were, “thicker and sicker.”
I trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter and joined my local breastfeeding support group as a volunteer. Full of enthusiasm, I passionately wanted to assist mothers who were having difficulties breastfeeding and adjusting to new motherhood. I knew only too well how hard it could be, and believed then (as I do now) that a lot of mothers find themselves unable to continue breastfeeding due to a lack of accurately informed and dedicated support.
However my time as a breastfeeding supporter opened my eyes immeasurably to the so called ‘Mommy wars’ the Time magazine article is accused of perpetuating, and which some respondents have attempted to deny exist. I have never seen so much sugar coated judgement, pressure and competition, mixed up with genuine friendship and compassion as I did amongst those new mothers and breastfeeding advocates, and this caused me to dramatically alter my stance on issues surrounding infant feeding and attachment parenting.
I came to realise that I had breastfed, co-slept, and worn my babies because I had, first and foremost, been in the privileged position of being able to do so. Also because it had been the choice that had felt right to me at that particular time. It had been what I wanted to do and what had felt easy and right for me.
Meeting women that hated breastfeeding was a revelation and an education. I saw them weary and utterly worn down by persistent painful problems and conflicting advice, feeling depressed and guilty at their growing resentment towards tiny babies who wanted to suckle at their breasts so often they could not manage their other children or run their homes effectively. Women largely unsupported by their partners or extended family, who needed some degree of routine in their lives in order to preserve their sanity and get everything done. Women who had no choice but to go back to work if they were to keep a roof over their families heads. Women who loved their work, were stagnating sitting at home all day, and were chomping at the bit to get back out there. Women who could not sleep a wink for fear of suffocating their children if they co-slept, and who longed to enjoy some private time with their partner, or a weekend away with friends, just so that they could feel like something other than a new mother for a few precious hours.
I began to feel angry on their behalf. Why should women keep on trying under such circumstances? The desperation of some to ‘succeed’ at breastfeeding was palpable, but there was very little joy there. Rather the desire seemed born out of a fear of ‘failure’ and of judgement, and I could see many women were suffering as a result.
I became disillusioned with the breastfeeding support community of which I was a part. I began to see the relentless “breast is best” propaganda plastered all over our walls as either preaching to the converted or slightly intimidatory. I heard fellow supporters mutter such sentiments as, “choosing not to breastfeed your baby is like choosing not to strap your child in a car seat” and claim that any woman who found breastfeeding too difficult and switched to formula was simply, “not prepared to persevere for the sake of her child.” I was appalled by this judgemental attitude towards other women and mothers, and as my youngest child grew older, ceased volunteering.
I am still an informed woman; certainly a woman who believes in making informed choices. Is breast milk nutritionally superior to formula milk? Yes it is. Are breastfed babies less likely to suffer a range of illnesses throughout their lives than formula fed babies? Yes they are. Does formula feeding increase the risk of infant death the world over? Yes it does.
But here’s the thing: babies do not exist in isolation. They arrive into already established lives and families. Babies have needs which are important, but so do the people on whom they depend. Women are people in their own right; they are not mere vessels who must be expected to sacrifice themselves, whatever the personal cost, in the interests of what is ‘best’ for others. Contented, fulfilled mothers make for happier children. Formula milk may be less good than breast milk, but it is not poison, and most Western babies do fine on it. Is it too much to ask that women be informed of the facts and then allowed to weigh them up with what they feel are the right overall choices for themselves, their babies, and their families, without being made to feel they are not good enough?
I no longer give two hoots what other women choose to do with their own breasts. Breastfeed or don’t, it’s none of my business. What I care about is that everybody gets to live in a society in which women’s many and varied parental choices are acknowledged as equally valid. Because however you choose to bring up your family, if you are doing the best you can with what you’ve got, you are Mom enough.