Sometimes I like to kick back and observe the utter belief/behavior/attitude pendulum that American society just can’t seem to get out of. As a group, Americans are fickle. We are inept at finding balance and middle ground. Why? My personal belief is that we haven’t mastered the art of responding instead of reacting and that our dominant, white culture is incredibly rigid and fixated on perfectionism (as well as profit – which is yes, related to all this).
It’s really quite fascinating. Until you realize how fucked up it all is. And how connected it all is to all sorts of oppressions.
As I venture into motherhood, I’m thinking about this in terms of breastfeeding. FULL DISCLAIMER: I intend to breastfeed my baby. There is plenty of research that breastfeeding is excellent for baby and the breastfeeding parent. When I was a senior in college and learning about the documented benefits of breastfeeding, I was amazed and proud of what my body would one day (hopefully) be able to do. My point in this post is that we’ve entered a period of extremes around breastfeeding. One when people will digitally tar and feather you if you dare to publicly announce you plan to stop breastfeeding, especially within the first year of your baby’s life. One where breastfeeding is promoted at all costs, and I mean at all costs.
What I’d like to promote here is a culture that is more empowering to parents, especially moms and other parents who are not cis, straight men. One that truly offers information and options and unconditionally accepts each parent’s choice or needs. That’s what we need to focus on and supporting parents to do what is right and healthy for them, which will be what is right and healthy for their baby, breastfed or formula-fed or a combination of both. Right now, we are very far from that.
But how did we get here? At least, how did we get here in recent history? I’m not going to explore back to the dawn of human existence on this planet. Perhaps just back to the dawn of my own existence on this planet. I was born in the 80’s. My mom has told me at different times that I was breastfed for six weeks or six months. Her poor brain was probably so exhausted at the time that she honestly couldn’t tell the difference between months and weeks! If, in fact, my mom did the six months of breastfeeding, it seems she was in the minority. Breastfeeding was not the norm back then, or at least its commonality cycled rapidly (what was that I was saying about a pendulum earlier?).
Then along came Dr. William Sears. Ever heard of him? It seems our country has a relationship of extremes with him where people either love and revere him as a guru or they hate him. As a social worker who thinks a lot about bonding and attachment, Dr. Sears is actually a new name for me. But apparently he is credited with popularizing attachment parenting, though this theory of parenting certainly existed well before he began espousing it. Though many of his theories are good at their core, he tends to take them to an extreme. I am skeptical of someone whose philosophies are rigid and perfectionist (indicative of our white dominant culture, perhaps?).
Some women assert that racism and sexism are the driving forces behind our current breastfeeding obsession. I’m starting to become one of those women. There are whole books on how the push for natural parenting, especially breastfeeding, may have ulterior motives. And this push has led to not just an evolution of morality but also an evolution of policy (see more here and here and btw, the way WIC talks about breastfeeding is actually pretty gross like hey, poor women we are going to really focus on your boobs and what you do with them and tie that to how well your basic needs are met). And if you notice, none of these policies actually, truly benefit the person who gave birth to this baby. When I read the WHO’s recommendations on exclusive breastfeeding (no bottles!) for the first six months of an infant’s life, I want to both laugh derisively and cry. If they care that much why aren’t they pushing for mandatory paid leave policies? And even if we have paid leave, how many people’s mental and physical health can weather the strain of being the sole food source for a tiny human for 12 hours/day, 7 days a week? Sleep deprivation is known to impair in the same way alcohol does. Where is the concern around that? Why is providing breast milk and its slight benefits to babies more important than ensuring that their parents are rested enough to make sound decisions? Why doesn’t society push for better care and support for the people caring for babies? Is it because this is traditionally the work of women and women are supposed to self-sacrifice and put their own needs dead last when it comes to family life?
Despite the fact that when you peel back the surface of the natural parenting movement, the misogyny is glaring, natural approaches appeal to crunchy, granola people. So there has been a strange meshing of liberal feminists with conservative men, a trend that has led some to dub them as strange bedfellows. And thus more pressure is created. Whether from conservatives or from other women who may be progressive, unsolicited opinions and shaming around feeding your baby run rampant in our society. People who plan to breastfeed and feel able to admit their doubts and concerns explain how much judgment they encounter. And it makes you wonder how often moms make decisions that really aren’t in their or their baby’s best interests.
To be clear, it is not that I think or mean to say that breastfeeding isn’t a good idea. It is. And on the other end of the spectrum, women are shamed for breastfeeding their children for too long. Seriously? What is the magic amount of breastfeeding time that is neither too short nor too long? Exclusive for 6 months then increasing supplementing with foods other than breast milk up to two years of age – but you better not do any more or any less and you better follow that to a T. Talk about rigidity and perfectionism. Wouldn’t that depend on the child and the breastfeeding parent? People don’t fit into nice, cookie-cutter plans. What is the point of all this judgment? How does it do anything but hurt the breastfeeding parent? And how does it help the person we’re allegedly focusing on here, the baby?
So. I plan to do it. But I also want to be part of a new societal message; one that assures parents that there is more than one way to feed a baby. As a good friend of mine recently said, “There’s this old saying. It goes, ‘Fed is best.'” If you don’t breastfeed, your baby will be just fine. Hell, I was breastfed as a baby but my sister didn’t get a single drop of breast milk. And I’d argue that she is smarter than me and definitely has less issues with her weight than I do. She’s a Nurse Practitioner who is healthy as a horse. I’m worried and scared to live in a society that would have accused my mother of poisoning my sister. What evidence does anyone have that that’s the case? Would my sister have been smarter if my mother breastfed her? I mean who the fuck knows?! We have studies that indicate higher IQs in children who were breastfed but a healthy bond and connection is also instrumental for child development and for many women, the strain of breastfeeding may impede this and thus have the opposite effect.
My concern is the fanaticism that currently surrounds breastfeeding. I’m planning to do it but I’m working hard to take it day by day and keep an open mind. In the end, I know I’ll do the best I can and make the decision that’s right for me and my baby. So few people say that, especially when they’re going into it. For me, it’s scary even just to write that hey, I’m going to do my best and I’ll breastfeed as long as I can but I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hack it. And right now, I’m not planning on breastfeeding past the first year. Could that change? Absolutely. But right now, I feel like that is what will be right for me. For you, it could be shorter or longer than that. For me and for my own mental health, I’ll probably want my body to be just for me after 21 months of pregnancy plus breastfeeding (not to mention the other two months of pregnancy I did only to have that result in a loss that led me to be screened for disease for months after). Yeah, I think I’ll be done with feeling like my body is a shared commodity or a weird-ass medical research project.
So many close friends who are also feminists put huge amounts of pressure on themselves to breastfeed. When some made the decision to stop, they felt tremendous guilt but also knew, in their guts, it was the right choice for them. As an outsider (as of now) looking in, it became so clear to me that this pressure was an extension of society’s love of telling women what to do with their bodies and ensuring women downplay their own needs at all costs. And yet. I had my doubts. My gut said I was right but I’m not immune to societal pressure and sometimes I wondered if I was actually just being selfish. Selfish, of course, being one of the most detrimental insults a woman can receive. Society, I really wish you’d get out of my head!
It’s easier said than done. I can see myself logically knowing that my self-care is crucial for caring for my baby but falling into the guilt trap that ensnares so many women, compelling them to become robotic, round-the-clock milk dispensers. But you know what? When I fall in that trap, and I will, I’m not going to berate myself for it. I’m not perfect and my strive to embrace imperfection will not be perfect either.