I would rather pogo stick across a pit of flaming Punji sticks than discuss breastfeeding. It’s a topic that seems to be so fraught with peril that it may as well BE a pit of flaming Punji sticks. Why is a simple bodily function capable of eliciting such a strong emotional response? And what can the conflict tell us about American culture?
The current debate over breastfeeding is something that seems to defy straightforward analysis. There are so many factions, so many camps. The stereotypes of the right wing radio shock jock disgusted by women nursing in public and the crunchy mama with a baby on the boob beside her hairy armpits are not the norm. There are conservatives that cringe at the Free the Nipple movement but applaud a mama quietly nursing under a modest cover in the back row of their church, and liberals who won’t eat GMOs who think it’s ok to give a baby formula if it lets women get back to finding self-fulfillment at work faster.
As someone who has been actively nursing for over 25 years (off and on), I have something of a unique perspective. I began nursing back when it was still, to some extent, frowned upon. I got disapproving and skeptical remarks from medical professionals and loved ones alike. Dire tales were told of babies starving at their mother’s breast. Doctors urged me to supplement with formula, giving me handfuls of Enfamil samples and a Similac-sponsored diaper bag full of half-off formula coupons. I was told to chart wet diapers to prevent dehydration and to weigh my baby twice daily without fail. The entire endeavor was painted as so risky it made me second guess myself. But I shook it off and kept going – a rebellious act undoubtedly made much easier by the fact that nursing came fairly easily for me. I had a healthy baby and a good milk supply and so it was possible to carry on even in the face of criticism. Nursing wasn’t always the funnest thing I ever did, especially that first time, but I managed despite the pressure.
Now, of course, the worm has turned and according to some, breastfeeding advocates are the bullies. Doctors and nurses push breastfeeding with a heavy hand, just like they pushed me to supplement with formula. New moms are warned not about dehydration and the possible lack of nutrients in their milk like I was, but about how formula is inferior at best, dangerous or even toxic at worst. Everyone has a horror story about the lactation consultant who scolded them over the occasional bottle or the nosy neighbor who insisted their baby would have autism if they weren’t breastfed. And the women who are successful with breastfeeding are the worst. They’re so dogmatic, so arrogant, so sure their choice is the only right one. They truly believe that their success is not due to luck, economic privilege, and good genes but superior morals – because they wanted it more, because they tried harder or were more dedicated. They’re making women who can’t nurse or choose not to, feel ashamed about their decision. It feels to me like a 180 degree turn; within my adult lifetime, breastfeeding advocates have gone from heroic underdogs bravely standing up to the medico-industrial complex, to big mouth buttinskis in service of the status quo.
It’s evident that some breastfeeding Nazis are just jerks. The world has always contained a fair amount of jerks and probably always will. Some people enjoy feelings of superiority and will exude smugness like bad cologne in whatever venue they happen to find themselves in. But many breastfeeding advocates, I truly believe, mean well. They actually want to help women who would like to nurse and feel that they can’t. They just go about it in all the wrong ways. It’s at least in part because they can’t let go of what happened in the past, back when breastfeeding was actively discouraged. There is sometimes a strange disconnect with people where they have heard about or read something that happened a long time ago (like doctors pushing formula on people with scare tactics about starving babies) and they seem unable to realize that things have changed. Times are different. Very few women beginning motherhood today have ever experienced the kind of mild anti-nursing pressure that I experienced, let alone the stronger public shaming that women in the generation or two before me did.
But that narrative – breastfeeding under assault by evil corporations and ignorant doctors – is part of how these would-be saviors view the world. Through this lens, they see women who plan to bottlefeed as victims in need of rescue and not as actors in charge of their own destiny, and feel justified charging in with dubious studies and 50 year old friend-of-a-friend anecdotes to save the day. “You don’t want to breastfeed? That’s your doctor talking. Oh, pshaw, you don’t mean that. That is what these formula companies DO. They undermine you with their ad campaigns and formula samples until you think you can’t do it but you can! You really can! What about allergies!! Obesity!! Bonding!?!” It’s no wonder people feel attacked and judged. In trying to help people who don’t need or want it, they end up reenacting the exact kind of bullying that nursing women once experienced.
Why do they do this? We live in a time of busybodies, it seems. Maybe it’s always been this way. Probably, it’s always been this way. I have read enough Jane Austen novels to know that humans, particularly those of the female variety, have a judgy streak in them. And there is SO much more out there now to judge! We are constantly informed about a seemingly endless supply of once-private issues to be judgy about. It’s not limited to breastfeeding, either. I’ve seen good friends nearly come to blows over baby ear piercing or homebirth. There seems to be no room for the peaceful coexistence of people who just do things differently than one another. We define ourselves by the things we are doing better than the other guy, not according to our own internal metrics.
But it takes two to tango, and not only are we living in an era where many delight in a level of invasiveness and judgement that puts small town busybodies to shame, but we also live in a time of extreme hypersensitivity. Some people seem to take delight in a victim status and all too often will misinterpret a well-meant statement as judgement or snobbery. It’s gotten so bad that among some mommy forums online, if you do nurse, best to keep that info to yourself or risk being pegged as a braggart or know it all. To express any personal pride in breastfeeding as an accomplishment (because let’s be honest here, even when it’s easy, it ain’t easy) is taken as a rebuke. Even if someone out and out asks for breastfeeding advice or guidance or encouragement, people will chime in to share every breastfeeding horror story they ever heard and to shout down anyone who replies. “What worked for YOU? Well, I’ll tell you what worked for ME. Bottles, that’s what! After my third abscess my doctor flat out TOLD me to stop nursing, and guess what, that is fine!! It is just perfectly fine and my kids are fine and everyone is fine, ok?” By that point the poor woman who simply wanted a little support has slunk away, sorry she ever opened her browser.
The debate over breastfeeding is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with modern culture. Because of the cultural cross-pollination with some breastfeeding advocates firmly on the right (family values, y’all) and others firmly on the left (baby-led everything), the breastfeeding debate enables us to see the fundamental drivers of human culture wars just like a cutaway picture of an engine shows the workings of an internal combustion engine. Breastfeeding is an issue that is largely divorced from partisanship but not immune from it, and it really does reveal that so much of everything that gets our dander up, is at its root just petty human BS. People who like to feel better than other people. People who take offense at things that are totally innocent. People with the self-awareness of a squid. People who can’t let go of the past and people who can’t take a lesson from history to save their life. Those with agendas manipulate these tendencies into some larger crusade and we attribute noble motives to our behavior, but at the root it’s often not about the agenda, it’s about the petty human BS.
That’s why we are so quick to descend into tribalism and hypocrisy in issues of culture and politics – with both sides repeating the mistakes of the past again and again and again. It’s just like what happened with breastfeeding…bullying women for breastfeeding was wrong but bullying women for bottlefeeding was wrong and bullying women for innocently advocating for breastfeeding is wrong too. Bullying is wrong, no matter one’s motivation. But in the heat of the moment, everyone thinks that their actions are justified, everyone thinks they are in possession of a higher understanding, a greater truth that bestows upon them the right to behave badly towards others. They think they’re doing the Lord’s Work. But under the hood, inside the engine, the forces driving the debate are murky and primitive.
I truly believe that most people on Planet Earth, like breastfeeding advocates, mean well. They believe they have the answers and believe everyone wants to…in fact, needs to hear them. Sometimes, they’re even correct. But our motives are never really 99 and 44/100ths pure. Who really knows where lofty principles end and ugly humanity begins? One of the best things we could do for each other is to try and realize going in that we’re all flawed and fallible people who love the sound of our own voice. Let the Lord do his own work and give others the grace to be wrong. Of course you know best. I know best too. But nobody ever said we have to agree on everything. Maybe, just maybe, I know best for me and you know best for you and there is no one right way.