Saturday, June 5, 2010

Why Can't We Be Friends? The Breast Feeder v. Formula Feeder Dilemma

Tonight I happened upon the blog, Fearless Formula Feeder, and it got me thinking about the breastmilk v. formula war that has been raging as long as I can remember. I found myself wanting to dislike it. I wanted to want to chastise the mom behind it. Rather I found myself feeling sort of disinterested or rather like a Conneticut yankee in King Arthur's Court. It really wasn't meant for me.  The only thing I really took any objection to was the use of the term "factivist," but to be honest, I didn't take enough time reading the site to get the full story on it.

Rather I found myself pondering the line that's been drawn in the sand separating formula feeding moms and breastfeeding moms. Somewhere along the line we've started fighting each other rather than focusing on the root of the problem. I know this isn't always the case, but it strikes me that moms are perpetually on the defensive about how they feed their babies whether they're defending their right to nurse in public or their decision to formula feed. As a lactivist, I operate under the assumption that breastfeeding is best and I work to promote it as much as possible. As a mother, I know it's not always so easy.

Most breastfeeding advocates I know focus their fight on normalizing breastfeeding as well as attacking unethical practices on the part of formula companies. While doing so they often reference facts about the health benefits of breastfeeding. A good deal of the lactivist agenda is aimed at promoting the rights of the breastfeeding mother to nurse where ever and when ever they want, and promoting breastfeeding by trying to change formula marketers underhanded tactics meant undermine nursing relationships. I don't think the intention is to shame moms who wind up formula feeding; however, this is certainly an effect of lactivism.

I said before that I work to promote breastfeeding. I write about it, I nurse in public, I have a bumper sticker. But more than all the advocacy, I also offer my number to anyone with the express instruction to call day or night. I've offered to go to other mom's houses. I've answered questions on facebook and twitter. I don't say this to toot my own horn. I'm telling you this because I think the crux of the issue really lies outside of advocacy and debate. As a lactivist, when I hear a mom say she "couldn't breastfeed," I don't roll my eyes or give dirty looks, I immediately jump to wondering what went wrong. Did they have good support? Was there an issue with a c-section/medication? Were they given poor advice by a physician? Could I have helped them with latch? There's a laundry list of thoughts that run through my mind, and it's frustrating to me because, thanks to social media, so many moms I "meet" live across the country. I can only do so much online. Often these moms express remorse about not being able to breastfeed. Sometimes they even express hope that they can nurse their next child.

So it saddens me that this has become an us versus them issue. The thing is that I don't think most lactivists want to alienate formula feeding mothers. In our minds, we are taking on society and big business. Unfortunately, formula feeding mothers feel our advocacy more keenly then the CEO of Nestle. Believe me, he does not care what we have to say. The shameful marketing tactics of his company prove it. The mother who struggles with breastfeeding, whose physician offers formula, who wants to feel like she is feeding her child feels the attacks.

So what do we do about it? Why can't we be friends? Well, the first step is not jumping to judge formula feeding mothers. Instead, engage them in a conversation about why they use formula. Now I know this sounds uncomfortable, and it's a fine line to tread. But if you can show honest interest and openness, in my experience, the conversation is beneficial to both mothers. I know having this conversation has cleared tension in some of my mom friend relationships. The second step is to step off the soapbox occasionally. Now I love my soapbox, but real change doesn't occur from words alone. Offer your support to a mom who is struggling. Tell a friend who wants to breastfeed her baby to call you whenever she needs you. Be available for support to anyone who needs it.

I still believe breastfeeding is best for baby, but rather than preaching it all the time I want us to rethink how breastfeeding fits in our society. Yes, it's key to normalize nursing. It's important our children see breasts as for babies. It's vital moms feel comfortable and supported nursing in public, and we need to hold formula companies accountable. However, if we really want to promote breastfeeding, we must remember that breastfeeding is an art. We must rebuild community amongst women. We must open our arms, hearts, and minds to all mothers and come together. When we rebuild the collective skill and knowledge of women and restore female relationships, we will rediscover wisdom and finally be able to truly affect breastfeeding success.


mamapoekie said... [Reply to comment]

I think most BF activists are very supprotive IRL. Most speak up online, but take a softer note in real life and do help others.
:oreover, it's the breast is best (formula is good too) dialogue, the one you handle here, that creates a lot of the problems.
Breast is the only natural, healthy thing, everything else is inferior and unhealthy.

Maybe some women are feeling guilty because of lactivism. Hopefully this means that with a second child they will try to be more informed. If we weren't making people feel uncomfortable, we wouldn't ever see change

Jenn said... [Reply to comment]

I think they are supportive too. At least I hope they are. One of the things I am dealing with as a natural birth advocate with 2 c-sections is the feeling of inferiority when I read others' birth advocacy. When I meet someone IRL, they are kind and supportive but the language of their written advocacy often stings. I've realized it's not aimed at me, but it still humiliates me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the same thing was going on here. I wanted to acknowledge in writing the reality of the issue. Sometimes we get so caught up in passionate discourse, the most important, healing and hopful things are left unsaid.

The Fearless Formula Feeder said... [Reply to comment]

Well, can't say "disinterested" is a good review of my site, but I appreciate that you chose not to chastise. ;)

I think you are on the right track with your approach to advocacy. I love that you try and compare it to your own experience with a different kind of advocacy... that shows a lot of pathos. Good for you.

FWIW, I don't think that this boils down to "breastfeeder vs formula feeder" at all. 99% of my friends were breastfeeders (all but one have weaned by now; our kids are toddlers), and they have been nothing but supportive of me and my work, and I have celebrated their successful nursing relationships probably to a greater extent than they did. Most moms I encounter are just trying to do the best they can.

It comes down to a certain type of lactivist (definitely not all, as you've so beautifully illustrated) vs formula feeding mom. Or an ignorant, uneducated moron who thinks BFing is "gross" vs a breastfeeding mom. You know what I mean? Most people, I think, just do what they know is best for their family and don't judge others. Thank god. :)

Anyway... thanks for taking the time to judge the site for yourself - even if it bored you! And great post- keep up the good work - we need strong, sensitive breastfeeding advocated like you out there!

Jenn said... [Reply to comment]

disinterested really wasn't the word I was looking for, but it was 2 am and the best I could come up with... I suppose as a lactivist, I tend to get my back up when it comes to formula and I found I was not having that reaction. The site didn't really apply to me, so it didn't really attract me if that makes more sense? However, I was referred there through an acquaintance who struggled to breastfeed and chose to formula feed. The reaction on her facebook page to posting it was a lot of moms saying "Thank God, a site for us," which got me to thinking about how pro-breastfeeding blogs might be construed. And I don't think it's so much a true us v. them situation, but I think there is a perceived one, particularly online, and I think we need to address that misconception sometimes.

Janet said... [Reply to comment]


I successfully breastfed 3 children into their second year, never used formula, and yet your comment offends me: "Breast is the only natural, healthy thing, everything else is inferior and unhealthy."

Sorry, but in my opinion, your rigid, superior attitude exemplifies the problem. Uncaring, unkind people like you lack the empathy necessary to be positive advocates for breastfeeding, or anything else.

Pocket.Buddha said... [Reply to comment]

Great post!

your analogy about the C-sections and natural birth advocacy is really interesting.

I am often frustrated when people take my positive words and tell me that it makes them feel 'shamed' or 'guilted'. But your words have made me realize that there is more to it than "that person is projecting their own self shaming onto my words". It's taken me a long time to come to terms (and I am not really even all there yet) with the way my birth experience played out.

I did not have a C-section, but there were still more medical interventions than I had wanted. When I hear birth activists talking about a need to educate women and to stand up to medical professionals I feel horrible. I start doubting the decisions I made in the heat of the moment, and blame myself for trusting a doctor who put me and my baby at risk.

Those feelings are not the fault of the birth activist, or their words. . . But compassion for those who "fail" to stand up to medical professionals, or do not learn of the risks of some procedures until it is too late, is sometimes a little sparse.

lililly said... [Reply to comment]

Stumbled over here via the Fearless Formula Feeder tweet.

Really great post, its really nice to hear lactivists that 'get it'. And its good to know there is so much support out there for people who do breastfeed.. as when it boils down to it I think its whats the most important thing - support.

However, at the same time I don't see why its ok for people to constantly ask me why i formula fed, especially people I don't know - you are right, there is a fine line to tread! I hate having the conversation every two seconds. I hate having to 'justify' myself and be dragged over the same ground 3291087321 times when bottom line is...its no one else's business.

Also comments above like "Maybe some women are feeling guilty because of lactivism. Hopefully this means that with a second child they will try to be more informed." really get my back up.

As a formula feeder it is assumed that i am simply uninformed or not trying hard enough - sometimes its just not that simple.
I come from a pro breastfeeding society and have had the benefits etc shoved down my throat for decades. I always thought I would breastfeed because its normal and 'right'. I was informed. When it didn't happen that way i was devastated and made to feel guilty.

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