Monday, June 25, 2007

The Boob Wars

Okay, ladies (dads can weigh on this too, but moms are much more culpable in this particular matter)-

Reading GoodyBlog earlier this week, I realized that another volley has been launched in the boob wars with a recent Parents Magazine article on breastfeeding in public. I say wars rather than debate because debate suggests some level of dialog and attempts at mutual understanding.

Somehow any mundane discussion of breastfeeding or bottlefeeding or bottles themselves seems to eventually deteriorate into a gladiatorial battle with both breast-feeders and bottle-feeders feeling defensive.

Here are the indisputable facts of our shared maternal situation:

We (moms) all must choose how to feed our infants as they yet cannot choose how to feed themselves and are not yet sophisticated enough to go on the all-cracker diet. We all face incredible pressure and criticism in this decision from loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers on the street. We all choose a method- though some people have far more contributing factors than others- and proceed give our children life-giving sustenance. We are all losing sleep- lots of it- to late night feedings and general worry.

Breastfeeding is generally preferred and strongly recommended by physicians. It is however, not recommended in every medical situation. Chemotherapy, psychological drugs, heart medicine, and some antibiotics, for instance, do not mix well with babies. They actually hurt babies. People on drugs dangerous to babies should not breastfeed. Can we agree on this?

People caring for children who they did not birth tend not to breastfeed either. I've read about adoptive mothers who work to lactate for their newborn infants, but I don't think this practice is very common. Foster parents and guardians also seem to typically be outside the option of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding, though a biologically natural process, is not always accomplished with every infant as some have unusual physical structures (palette issues, etc.). Some moms also have unusual physical structures that complicate nursing. Other moms may have nutritionally poor milk or poor milk production- in these cases infants face a risk of malnutrition.

Other moms may be particularly vulnerable to infections like mastitis.

Anyone reading social history- or even Little House on the Prairie- knows that mothers of newborns were susceptible to life-threatening "fevers" and some babies "never flourished" and lived very short lives. We have better medicine and far more information now.

By now, the lactators in the audience are surely starting to grumble... but hang on, I'm not done yet... Obviously, for the majority of people, breastfeeding is the healthiest option (as well as the most intimate, cheapest, and most convenient). This is why breastfeeding is great and easy to recommend to others.

But some healthy moms choose not to breastfeed- and they are the moms who militant lactivists would like to approach. Now, I agree with you that it's mind-bogglingly irritating when people remark that "It's [breastfeeding's] just NOT NATURAL." They are so inaccurate in this remark- and they do violence to the English language and logic simultaneously. [May I request that practitioners of this despicable phrase please adopt the more accurate criticism "It seems so primal." Thank you.]

Some formula feeding women simply followed the patterns of their mothers and grandmothers who became convinced breastfeeding was only for the poor, unsophisticated, and uncouth (thank you, formula advertisers of the early 20th century).

Some formula feeding moms are working moms. Sure you can pump- which is easy when you have clean, private office with a solid, locking door, some control of your work schedule, and convenient refrigeration facilities. However, in the small shampoo and tanning lotion factory and warehouse where I worked one college summer, the workers there didn't have regular breaks or any breakroom. The restrooms were shared with men who greatly outnumbered the women (and they were SOOOO gross). The plant was easily 90 degrees at its coolest. That work situation is far better than that of moms working in low-paying fields like hotel housekeeping (a high school summer job) or fast food (a couple college summers).

And not all office workers and professionals have it easy either. Cubicle dwellers and elementary through high school teachers may face problems finding a good pumping location, a regularly available time, and milk storage facilities. Even in a good office situation, it might become necessary to have an awkward disclosure of that innocuous bottle being expressed milk so it isn't poached for a colleague's coffee.

So why do we all turn into gladiators, ready to battle to the death, at the mere sight of a woman feeding her child in a different manner than the one we chose for ourselves? I never see moms rushing over at a restaurant to lecture another on how her child might benefit from a vegetable other than french fries or moms confronting each other about toddlers drinking soda.

Why is this topic fair game for public discussion? Well, truthfully it's not, but we justify our nosiness in two ways. It's either a) for the health of the child or b) it's a public place and it should be pleasant and free of boobs. Let's consider these justifications for a moment.

"It's for the health of the child." This assumes you know the medical history and life/work situation of the mom receiving unsolicited advice. With strangers, you don't. With acquaintances, there may be more going on than you know. Besides, our society loves to look the other way regarding children's health, so this is a somewhat disingenuous argument. Children's health care, for instance, is troubled by our labyrinthine medical insurance system. From 1997 to 2006, in my home state of Indiana, 136,ooo children lost private health coverage. These kids were fortunate to have health insurance in the first place which isn't true for kids whose parents work low-income jobs where health insurance is either not provided or not affordable after basic living expenses. So, maybe our concerns for the "health of the child" would be better applied in striking up conversations with people in suits about children's healthcare (especially those people in suits who we send to Washington) instead of attacking individual moms.

"It's a public place." Yes, it is, but it's not like breastfeeding moms are tabledancing topless for tips- they're feeding their kids. If you see a bit of boob accidentally, it's probably not a big deal for the nursing mom, so don't feel incredibly awkward. Breastfeeding moms are offended by staring, glaring, photography, and/or caustic comments. If you need to interact with a mom who is breastfeeding, just remember the advice proffered to young men trying to meet women "The eyes are up here, buddy." Make eye contact, and treat her normally; the whole experience will probably be exquisitely mundane.

Given the proliferation of adveritising and contemporary fashions, public places are already cleavage laden, and frankly one more boob isn't going to tilt the scale tipping this whole handbasket toward hell.

We moms have a lot more in common than just concerns about stretch marks and a future of baby-food splattered clothing. None of us should be worrying about public censure when feeding our children. So next time you see a mom who looks chagrined with a public feeding (breast OR bottle), smile and maybe say something nice, something comforting, something supportive. We've all been in those slightly spit-up splattered shoes.

Let's not all be boobs about this.


EJW said...

Love it. Every word of it. I especially like two bits:

1. You don't know the situation of a stranger (or even a casual friend) so don't pass judgement.

2) "Maybe our concerns for the "health of the child" would be better applied in striking up conversations with people in suits about children's healthcare (especially those people in suits who we send to Washington) instead of attacking individual moms."

happy now said...

As I was reading your post, my eyes began to well up with tears. I am so grateful for your willingness to see both sides of this passionate issue. I was able to nurse my first child for 9 months before I was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression. Thankfully, I had a wonderful Dr. and therapist who were able to help me find the right medication. I had to give up breastfeeding in order to take the medication, but I felt it was important to do so. I had my second baby in January and 3 weeks after she was born I felt the dark and terrifying symptoms of the depression returning. I had to make the heartbreaking decision to stop nursing my newborn daughter. Here I am, 6 months later, still sad about this choice however I do not regret it. I have come across mothers who have asked me if I am breastfeeding and although I want to lie and make up some excuse, I don't. I feel like I have to reveal my embarrassing struggle with mental health to these women so that they will feel that it is a "satisfactory" excuse. For some, it is not. I hear things like "Well you know there are certain medications that you can be on while nursing. I have also heard that talk therapy is very effective." It is so humiliating to be told that my reason to stop breastfeeding isn't "good enough." I have had wise friends and a good husband who have counseled me that I can't let others dictate how I feel about myself and that I don't have to explain anything to anyone. Maybe it is because I am 25 and still learning about how to stand up for myself, or maybe it is because I do agree that breastfeeding is a beneficial practice for mother and child, but I do feel that I have to explain my choices. Thank you for being so willing to express both sides. I applaud your non judgmental approach and I hope that you will inspire others to do the same.

Sarah said...

I adore your article! Thank you so much for writing such a well-balanced piece on this issue. I am a breastfeeding mom, but it certainly was hard work early on! And I REALLY agree with what you're saying about pumping. I am a WOHM and I try to pump at least twice a day. Even though I have a clean, secure, and well-hidden office, it can still be awkward if someone calls on the phone while I'm pumping, or someone is knocking on my door saying "What is she DOING in there?" If I had any other type of position, I don't know if it would fly.
(I was also on the phone one time while pumping and the woman I was talking to said "What's that noise in the background? Are those dogs barking?" -- I had to tell her that no, that was just the motor on my pump! Ha!)

Thanks again!

Alexandra said...

This was very well written! I admit I read that same article in that magazine & as a breastfeeding mom, felt a bit disgusted by the way people reacted to her breastfeeding in public...but some of the places she whipped it out...I mean, the floor of a book store? ofcourse people are going to look at her like what are you thinking? There are appropriate & inappropriate places to breastfeed (in my opinion)... Also, if you're going to be offended by people looking at you breastfeeding, try a hooter hider! I have one that I use in public. Nobody second glances me. When it comes down to it, it's really the mother's decision whether or not to breastfeed. I didn't breastfeed my son because I did feel like it was "primal" at the time...I was younger then & didn't really know all of the positive aspects of it. I was also living with my parents & didn't want to be breastfeeding constantly in front of them & my younger brothers. With my daughter I decided to breastfeed after reading about all of the positive aspects, getting advice from other mothers, and because I was now loving in my own home. I had more privacy. I've had an overwhelming amount of people praise me for breastfeeding, which has honestly helped to motivate me to continue breastfeeding. I feel like I'm giving my daughter the best start in life. However, I understand that breastfeeding is a sensitive subject. I have a close friend who has tried breastfeeding with all three of her kids, but she just can't produce milk. I've seen how upset she gets when people ask her why she doesn't breastfeed, or try to offer her advice about breastfeeding. I know that she wants to give her kids the best EVERYTHING, so it's upsetting to her that she just can't do it. Every mom has their own reason for what they choose to feed their baby, and honestly that should be left entirely up to them. I do believe the facts should be presented to every mother when they are making their decision. They should be able to weigh the options, decide, and not be harassed for what they choose to do. Just my opinion. :)

Great Blog! Very thought-proking!

judy said...

That was perfectly and most beautifully said. There are two groups of people that I really, really don't understand: Those "militant" (for lack of a better word) breastfeeders who are crazed about nursing to the point of hositlity toward anyone who doesn't completely embrace their point of view down to the letter--including how long a child should be nursed for and those who feel like this is some sort of activity that should be done in private. I have to say now that my kids are older, the whole breastfeeding thing seems like a very tiny blip in what made them who they are today. I'm glad I did it, but though i want society to be super-pro breastfeeding, i come away thinking it was a had a very low impact on how they've turned out. I never ever look at a baby who's not being breastfeed and think "oh, poor thing." whereas if I see a mother yelling at her kid and being verbally abusive--for example--now i think that's gonna be a problem. Thanks for writing this!!!!!

Wesley Jeanne said...

Very well-said. I especially like this comment: "So why do we all turn into gladiators, ready to battle to the death, at the mere sight of a woman feeding her child in a different manner than the one we chose for ourselves? I never see moms rushing over at a restaurant to lecture another on how her child might benefit from a vegetable other than french fries or moms confronting each other about toddlers drinking soda."

Our babies need food whenever and wherever that are hungry. We just just stop whining and moaning about each other's decisions and let us feed our babies using the methods we moms feel is best for our babies and our situation.

I would never judge another mom for breastfeeding in public if that is what she chooses. And it hurts me how many times I have been judged for pulling out a bottle. I should not have to explain my reasons, just as I never would ask them to explain theirs.

Thanks you for your sane and sensible approach.

indywriter said...

Well said, Adrienne! I have been on both sides of the debate. I wasn't able to nurse my first baby. She was an ineffective nurser. And she began to get red-faced-and-screaming angry when I tried. She could get it easier with a bottle. I was sad that it didn't work, but as long as the baby is healthy and eating, I didn't get too upset or worried. With my little one, nursing worked easier (she's a pig!). But there was a lot more support available the second time around (lactation consultants, no free formula handouts, nurses who felt free to manhandle your jubblies in an attempt to teach you good form). I got a little grumbling from my family (but mainly because they felt left out). Baby #2 is more attached to me, and popular opinion seems to blame nursing for that. I happen to think she's just shy (which is exactly how I was as a bottle-fed baby).
As tired as I was from working outside the home, then inside the home, and parenting two kids, I never regretted nursing. I'd give most anything to have that guaranteed quiet time to bond with the sweet little child who spent our nursing time looking into my eyes with such love.
I had it both ways, and both ways worked for me. I've tried to be supportive to my friends and family who have babies. Whatever they choose is fine with me, and I will do what I can to help them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this--it was perfect in every way. I honestly was never interested in breastfeeding my child. And I know that some people think that is so non-maternal and awful. Much of it stems from personal issues regarding my breasts and being teased about them while growing up. I always knew that nursing would not be a happy moment for me (although other mothers told me I should just try and get over it. But I know myself best). I also, like the commenter Happy, have been on antidepressants. I was on them before I got pregnant, was off while pregnant and back on after she was born. I hated being off them and it was a tough 9 months. As soon as she was born I got right back on them. My mental health was more important to my mothering than where her milk was coming from. I resent being asked why I did not breastfeed. More often than not there are very personal and medical reasons why women cannot breastfeed. We should not be made to feel like we need to provide a reason to the world. I try to be supportive of moms who feed by breast or bottle and I don't ask them why they made their choice. Thank you for your very fair article!

Jenn S. said...

This post should be required reading for every parent. Why can't we just accept that we're all doing what we feel is best within the constraints of our own (private) situations? Caring for an infant or toddler is difficult enough. Let's support each and every mom in whatever she decides is best for her family.

Cathy said...

I totally agree that a nursing mom should be able to nurse in public and no one's ever said anything to me about it, though I try very hard to be discreet (I'm modest by nature anyway so it was a tough thing for me to get used to in the first place). I actually think that my friends who haven't breastfed or, like happy now, haven't been able to breastfed for whatever reason, feel something of a stigma when they pull out a bottle. So really, I think the core message is: How someone else decides to feed their child is none of anyone else's business.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. My milk never came in. Seriously. That big rush, the expanding boobs, that whole thing? It never happened.

I, for one, am exceedingly grateful for formula.

Jasi said...

so much better to have a happy healthy momma + a happy well fed baby than to force breastfeeding on either and cause huge stress.

doubts, stress and unnecessary guilt are not healthful for anyone.

breast is better but happiness and health beats breast.

Christine said...

I am all for spreading the word - getting the truth and the facts out there. I think every mother should know what breastfeeding can bring to a child - and I also want to see more wet nursing (which is what has gone on since the beginning of time so that every baby was fed the best).

So, we have a long way to go. While I believe in blunt information being available (and a mother's right to do what she needs or wants to do with it), I am also completely amazed at the chutzpah some women have. To walk up to a complete stranger ... and judge them openly ... draw attention to them ... berate them in public for WHATEVER choice they have made ... I just don't get that.

Media and books and hospitals and doctors and mothers and close friends, etc., should be educating. The middle of Target is not the time or place to try to become the Holy Spirit to a stranger!

This, coming from a white mother of an adopted child who is African American. One day on vacation, our WHOLE family rolled out of bed to grab breakfast. We all had hair sticking straight up in the air. I had no make-up ... wearing my pajama pants! An African American women walks up, and very loudly says, "Is she yours? Because I could help you with her hair if you live in the area!"

I was nice ... sort of ...

Nitro said...

OK, so this is an older post, and I'm leaving a newer comment. This is so amazingly well written, I'm considering keeping a slew of this article printed out and in my diaper bag to hand out to anyone and everyone I come across!! Everyone should read it. As if a mother who is nursing, (and even covered up) is more disturbing and immodest than the girl in the next table over, with her skin tight clothing, a skirt barely below her bottom (with a slit, none-the-less), and deep v-cut, cleavage baring top and push-up bra. But the nursing mother is the sexually offensive one! Very logical indeed.
Thank you for your much needed, balanced, logical, practical and exceptionally well written article.

adrienne said...

@Nitro: Aw shucks. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best posts about the issue I've read. I just remarked anonymously to your other post about breastpumping for NICU babies. I wrote that I still feel bad that I wasn't able to provide milk for my twins especially since one did take to the breast for a short period of time. Anyway, your post made me and I'm sure women in similar situations feel better.

And I do think it's important that you noted the conditions faced by working moms. Even if I had chosen to breastfeed, there is zero privacy nor time at my current office job. The only way to make the time would have been to rent a hospital grade pump, but that's not easily portable...

adrienne said...


Your comment on the NICU post made me wish I'd linked to this post. I'm so glad you found it.

It felt awful to quit breastfeeding when I did, but I'm okay with it now. My kiddos need me so much more than they need a specific form of nutrition.

If you get a chance to check out the book Amazing Minds, it offers a nice perspective on so many more comforts and supports that parents offer their newborns and young infants. They need our voices, touch, warmth, and scent.

It's easy to think in the blinkered state of postpartum/sleepless of early infancy that breastfeeding is the ONLY thing moms can exclusively offer our babies, but the truth is we're their original homes. We remain the most familiar thing to them in this new alien world. That's powerful.