Each time a new study is released or an article is published addressing the matter of breastfeeding, a minor earthquake trembles through the breastfeeding advocacy community. Just as is the case in real natural disasters, the shockwaves have the power to bring out the best in people, and sadly it also draws out the worst.
In light of this month's release of "The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis" in Pediatrics, there has been much discussion across every dynamic of communication. Earlier this week, I read a statement in a discussion on the Facebook fan page of a well-know breastfeeding help and advocacy site that shocked and grieved me. Amidst discussion of the article "It's not about picking on moms, it's about breaking down societal barriers" by Annie at PhD in Parenting, a fellow breastfeeding advocate responded with some statements implying that women feel guilt because of the study published in Pediatrics are the women who were too "selfish" to breastfeed or who "didn't try hard enough" to continue breastfeeding their babies. To my utter dismay, several commenters chimed in with approval and applause for the commenter who made these statements.
I was absolutely incensed by these statements and addressed the comments within that discussion thread, but I am compelled to address this matter more publicly here.
Friends, these sentiments are unacceptable and they must stop. Now.
Assessing the character of and pouring out judgment on the experiences of other women is not okay. Assigning labels to women who do not breastfeed is not okay. Criticizing what you perceive to be the success or failure of another woman's experience with breastfeeding is not okay.
Of course, the irony is obvious. The comments made by my fellow breastfeeding advocate stand in direct opposition to the point Annie makes in her article. It's not about picking on moms. The study released in Pediatrics informs us of the broken system in this nation which creates some of the biggest barriers women must overcome to be able to initiate and continue to breastfeed.
Yesterday, I posted the link to an article written by Melissa Bartick (a co-author of the study published in Pediatrics) called "Peaceful Revolution: Motherhood and the $13 Billion Guilt" on both my personal Facebook page as well as the SortaCrunchy Facebook page. In this article, Bartick creates two scenarios illustrating the ideal situation for initiating breastfeeding and the reality that many women in this country face as they try to navigate those earliest hours, days, and weeks of learning the art of breastfeeding.
In the comment discussion that ensued on my personal Facebook page, I was reminded of a truth that breastfeeding advocates must never forget: every mother has a story. For example, I have a friend who just days ago gave birth to her fourth baby. She hadn't breastfeed her other three, and she was looking forward to breastfeeding her fourth child. She wrote that the second scenario in Bartick's article was nearly identical to her birth experience with her newest baby. Though she had prepared for breastfeeding by reading all the books she could find, talking with other moms, and gathering information in every place she could find it, she found that once the baby had arrived, she had no help. She requested a lactation consultant in the hospital, but no one ever showed up. She received conflicting advice from her nurses. She wrote there was "no skin on skin contact, (baby was taken) right away so we had no time to bond, and definitely no encouragement to breastfeed him, if anything my nurses seemed to not even care."
This, my friends, is the reality for the women some of you may be quick to label as "selfish." This is the reality for those you might be quick to judge as not having tried hard enough.
There are far, far better ways to advocate for breastfeeding in the face of these realities:
1) Listen to the stories.
Again, everyone has a story. The adoptive mom who feels slighted with each negative mention of formula . . . the woman who survived sexual abuse as a child for whom the thought of breastfeeding triggers traumatic memories . . . the woman whose partner constantly derided and chided her quest to breastfeed . . . the woman whose baby had a dairy sensitivity but received no advice or support on elimination diets . . . EVERYONE has a story. Stop and LISTEN to the story. Listen without forming arguments in your mind. Listen without mentally checking off a punch list of everything she could have done to "try harder." Listen with compassion and empathy so that you can grow in your knowledge of the real-life obstacles every woman in this country faces from the outset.
2) Offer your support.
If you know women in your circle of friends who are planning to breastfeed, offer your knowledge and support. Make her aware of the booby traps that may be waiting for her. Help her come up with solutions for "what if" scenarios before the baby arrives. Help her build a support network that will be activated the day of baby's birth and continue to be there through the days and weeks that we all know to be the most challenging.
Once the baby arrives, be there. Rearrange your schedule so you can offer face-to-face support. Take her older children for a few hours so she can focus on breastfeeding. Organize meal deliveries. If she is struggling, simply ask "How can I support you in this?" And then respect her response.
3) Change the culture
This is the part we are good at, isn't it, friends? Daily we are advocating change with the way we live our lives. Breastfeed your babies and speak honestly about your experiences. Make breastfeeding in public as normal as reapplying your lipstick. Lose the attitude. Smile genuinely (rather than defiantly) at passersby who make eye contact while you are nursing in public. Demonstrate to young people who haven't yet entered parenthood that breastfeeding is a normal part of having a child.
4) Direct your energy
Partner with an organization whose goal it is to bring about institutional change, change in our culture from the top down. My personal favorite is Best For Babes. I think they are doing a spectacular job of focusing on booby traps rather than the choices of individuals. Find an advocacy group with whom you can identify and support them with your time, money, and talent.
5) Watch yourself, watch your words
We advocates know that there is a movement among us to replace "best possible, ideal, optimal, perfect" as descriptors for breastfeeding with the simple truth that breastfeeding is "normal." Why? Because words are powerful. Likewise, the words that you use - especially in public forums - are powerful. This is why it is imperative that we completely remove sentiments like "lazy," "uneducated," "selfish," and "unmotivated" from the conversation. Please remember that you represent all of us when you speak.
If you must use words like "selfish," use it to label the marketers of formula. If you must talk about "not trying hard enough," use it to describe hospitals who refuse to commit to being baby-friendly. Criticism should always, always land on the barriers and never on individual women.
When you choose the seat of judgment over the seat of compassion and grace, you debase the whole movement. Advocacy works best when it invites education and cooperation. There is too much at stake to waste time and energy on the language of "the mommy wars." Our children and our grandchildren are relying on us to use our heads and our hearts as we stand side-by-side in our efforts to bring about lasting impact in the face of daunting obstacles. It's up to us.
With much respect,
original letter image from Jose Roco