Breastfeeding fanaticism and the bullying of bottle-feeding families typically occurs under the guise of promoting “health” and “bonding” in infants. I believe this is, quite frankly, a load of crap. When it rises to the level of strong-arming and zealotry, and overrides or ignores other crucial factors in infant and maternal health, breastfeeding enforcement is really about promoting a cultural norm of guilt and martyrdom in mothers. This Jezebel article is a rare, honest description of the decision to bottle-feed and the reactions one mom got for choosing what was right for her family. Making decisions that truly facilitate physical and psychological health for infants requires weighing pros and cons of a variety of personal choices, including breastfeeding, with one’s specific circumstances in mind.
For example, woman A tries breastfeeding for two weeks, and by that time finds herself associating feeding her baby with excruciating pain and anguish. Woman B knows that sleep deprivation and having singular responsibility for feeding a child every three hours, every single day, day and night, wouldn’t work for her. Woman C is adamant about breastfeeding, determined to do it no matter what. Woman D wants to at least try breastfeeding, but is open to bottles if it doesn’t work out.
How could the same choice be right for all four of these women who also have differing personalities, careers, families, resources, and levels of mental and physical health? How could the same choice be right for ANY four women about ANYTHING?
Woman A stops breastfeeding and ends up feeling strongly that bottle feeding allowed her to bond with her baby and maintain her own mental health in a way that was invaluable. Despite her reservations, Woman B tries breastfeeding and it goes well. She decides to breastfeed three times during the day, while bottle feeding at night so her partner can trade off with her. Woman C’s baby is premature and too medically fragile to breastfeed. Her disappointment about not breastfeeding is deep, but ultimately overshadowed by relief when her baby comes home from the NICU and thrives on formula. Woman D ends up breastfeeding for two years, feeling it was instrumental in bonding with her baby. Who did it right? They all did!
The cultural expectation that the right thing for a good, dedicated mother is to breastfeed has dramatically different impacts on different women depending on how breastfeeding goes, and a whole host of other factors. For me, early bonding with my twins was actually more difficult because I was so distracted by the pain and difficulty of breastfeeding. This was further exacerbated by my feelings of guilt and the terror that I wouldn’t be able to bond with my children properly if I couldn’t breastfeed. Rather than promoting health, these types of rigid cultural ideals end up undermining women’s trust in their own instincts, and set up a standard that a mother should martyr herself for her child no matter what her circumstances. I believed the bigger the martyr, the better the mother. This can prove unhealthy for whole families, as it was for mine.
I did not make the right decision for my family when I continued breastfeeding and pumping for three and a half months. It took my husband begging me to stop for the sake of our children for me to question the standards of motherhood that I had internalized. I believed a good mother breastfeeds no matter what. I now believe a good mother does what’s right for her kids and HERSELF no matter what. I wish I had the self-awareness and self-confidence the mother in the Jezebel piece had during that very vulnerable time. When she speaks about her decision to bottle feed, it’s not just about what was right for her baby, but what was right for her. Only she could decide how much her desire to relax with a glass of wine, to have her husband be able to feed her baby, and to not suffer pain and bleeding should be weighed against the benefits of breastfeeding. We should be empowering women to make these decisions, not undermining them and holding up martyrdom as necessary or even beneficial to infant health.
As a therapist, I know that the single best predictor of an infant’s mental and physical health is the mental and physical health of her caregivers. So if we really cared about health, we would be promoting self-care of parents above all else. We would prioritize that at least as much as the benefits of breastfeeding, of which there are many. It killed me to give my kids formula. But I finally came to understand that having a mom whose singular focus in life was getting her breasts to function correctly was worse for my kids than formula. I went to La Leche meetings where formula was referred to as “corn-syrup solids.” I remember wondering how many of those women would be feeding their kids processed foods chock full of genetically modified corn syrup in a year or two.
I have pretty radical views about what my family eats. I don’t believe in “kiddie foods” and I don’t believe denying my kids foods they aren’t even aware of is, like cookies and macaroni and cheese, is somehow cruel. Some of my 19 month-old twins’ favorite foods are okra, plums, broccoli, organic flax waffles, and Thai food. I personally believe the way most people feed their kids is way more damaging than formula. But I know that I can’t make those decisions for other parents, just as I can’t decide whether they get help for post-partum depression, whether they address their marital problems in healthy ways, whether they drink to much, or do any number of other things that I believe to be way more harmful to kids than formula.
If we wanted to have a campaign to improve physical health and bonding, and that was the real goal, it would cover a wide range of areas, including encouraging primary caregivers (mostly moms) to take time for themselves, get massages, read, be alone with adults, and find meaning in places including, but are not limited to the caretaker role. Why not promote balanced, shared parenting at least as strongly as breastfeeding? It improves mental health outcomes as well as later achievement in a variety of areas for both boys and girls. Why? Because we don’t really care about that, do we? We seem to care most about the things moms can do to improve achievement while martyring themselves, like spending hours transporting kids to activities and classes and obsessing over providing the right kind of stimulating for their developmental stage.
The health-promoting activities I hear being hoisted on moms the most ferociously are the ones that make it harder for us to have lives outside of motherhood. Why all the focus on activities that restrict our physical movement and privacy like baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and breastfeeding, when for some of us, having sex with our partners, going for a run, or a weekly therapy appointment would actually result in better bonding with our children? If we were that concerned about the antibodies that can be transmitted to infants in a tiny amount of breast-milk, wouldn’t we be educating women more about partial breastfeeding, instead of taking a dire, all or nothing approach? What about making it easier for us to know what to feed our kids and how to afford healthy food once they start solids? With all the talk about the obesity epidemic, no one seems that concerned about the crisis in our food system, and the way our kids are eating for the years of their lives other than the first one. For that matter, what about what kids are being exposed to in utero, and later, in their homes – toxic chemicals in our bedding, rugs, paint, furniture and plastics, and in our personal care products!
I believe if we made a list of things that promote physical and mental health among children, and circled the ones most moms feel pressured about, or at least encouraged to do, we would be stunned to see that they are the ones that are the most potentially oppressive to us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying breastfeeding, or any other activity is inherently oppressive. Moms derive great pleasure from things like breastfeeding and baby wearing, and so do their babies. It’s important for moms to be able to make the decision to do them, but it’s also important to be able to decide not to without experiencing crippling guilt and/or questioning one’s worth as a mother. What I’m talking about is having choices. Real choices, rather than choices based on the martyr mommy paradigm like my choice to keep breastfeeding was.
Are we choosing from menu A (mommy activities that keep us inside, tied down, emotionally drained, etc). and list B (those things that nourish us, that make us better able to parent and more fulfilled in general) as well as list C (those things that encourage partners, family and friends and society to take responsibility for nurturing children), or are we being fed a diet from only menu A. Are we buying into the notion that real moms, good moms, not only martyr themselves, but LIKE it! Well I’m not buying it! I know now what does and doesn’t promote my children’s health and well-being, and it has almost nothing to do with how hard I throw myself on the sword. Say it with me now, No More Martyr Mommy!
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