Is it Wrong to Openly Support Breastfeeding?

posted by Mama Hope | March 13th, 2009 in Attachment Parenting

I’ve been completely enjoying the commenting on a recent post at PhDInParenting entitled “When to Give Up on Breastfeeding.” In her post, PhD explains her dismay at a post she read where a mom named Colleen gave advice that moms should switch to formula if after two weeks breastfeeding isn’t working for them.

PhD concludes her well-researched post, saying:

I sympathize with the woman that wrote the original post and I know her heart is in the right place when she tells people they should give up at 2 weeks, but I don’t think she realizes that she is undermining them if they do want to continue and that recommendations like this can have disastrous results for breastfeeding rates and subsequently for our healthcare system.

It’s really a well-written response and I do recommend giving it a read! What was fascinating to me, however, was that some moms were actually offended by her remarks.

The whole thing opened up my thoughts on the larger issue of stating our opinions openly online. While I believe that understanding and support are great positives, I ended up coming even closer to my conviction that only through directly and courageously stating our opinions can we truly make a difference.

Lively Banter

A bit more back story: The string of comments on PhD’s post quickly began to get very thought provoking.

Sommer of Green and Clean Mom drew a line in the sand:

What about those that decide to NOT breastfeed or decide to quit because “their” emotional, mental or physical boundaries are different than yours? What you have done is drawn a line in the sand and puts you on one side and someone else on the other.

Shouldn’t the most important thing be a healthy mom and baby? Shouldn’t moms feel less judged and more supported? I don’t sense support or COMPASSION. The smell is clearly a mob of women that are pro breastfeeding and it is there way or the highway but NO that is not the case. We can’t all see the same way or have the same capabilities or handle the same stresses.

Ruth of Left of the Pleiades spoke to Coleen (the original poster), explaining why she feels we need more advice like PhD’s:

I think the reason your post has upset Annie to the point of actually making a poll is because of this very reason. If I had read your article when I was struggling, and given up when it wasn’t working out at two weeks, it would have dragged me even further down into the mire.

Amanda at Family Nature defended Annie’s conscientious writing:

Not once does PhD criticize the mother, or any mother. There is no name calling. There is no judgement. It seems that PhD went to great lengths to write in an unoffensive way. So I have to wonder…what exactly are people upset about? I mean specifically; what words or sentences do people find offensive? ‘Cause I just don’t get it.

And Kelly, a reader, explained just how our words can cause hurt:

But when I read about moms who struggled so mightily for weeks and months to “give their child the best start” I can’t help but feel insulted as my son has done just fine thank you oh so much. I did give him the best start. I loved him, cuddled him, held him nurtured him . . . What I’d like to see is some acknowledgment that for the women who struggled for so long that they did so because succeeding at breastfeeding was important to them, to their identify as mothers, to their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t just so that their babies would receive breastmilk. Because when that is how their struggles are presented, what moms like myself and Colleen take away is that these women sacrificed more for their babies. Perhaps that isn’t the intent.

My Response

I saw a theme in the comments to this post, one that relates to the issue of how we state our opinions as moms in general. What I think cuts to the heart of the banter here is the use of the word “support” and the different meanings that are equated with it. It’s a big topic in mothering and mommy-blogging, of course!

I can say that for myself, I do not equate the idea of being supportive with avoiding value judgements entirely. As mothers, especially educated mothers and bloggers, when we present our opinions, I believe the presumption is that we do so out of a combination of our personal values and our informed research. The understanding is that not everyone shares our values, our limitations, or our strengths. What works for one mom doesn’t necessarily work for another!

But if we go to extremes in that regard — essentially saying, “Whatever way you do things, honey, that’s ultimately the best thing that you possibly could have done and I support it wholeheartedly because I support all moms.” — I think we undermine our ability to truly help eachother.

When I ask someone for advice, I don’t expect them to tell me that they fully advocate whatever choice I make. I want to truly know what decision they support and what their experiential and educated reasons are for that. I hope to get the same from moms online.

No, in this particular situation I don’t personally feel that Annie at PhD has mis-stepped in either conducting her poll or writing her thoughts on how she feels moms can support each other regarding beginning breastfeeding. Why? Because she is honestly stating what she truly believes to be a positive course of action to benefit moms and babies. She is not pointing fingers, she is opening up doors.

Loving Ourselves While Upholding Our Values

When I wrote earlier about breastfeeding growth charts one of points I tried to make is that the WHO charts are based on optimal growth for babies, because, according to international health experts, breastfeeding is the optimal feeding choice. Period.

That doesn’t mean bottle feeding is wrong, or that it’s not entirely possible to love, nurture and care for a bright, well-developed child with bottle feeding! “Not optimal” and “wrong” are not the same thing. Personally I find that it’s easy for us as moms to wish that we could be doing everything, every aspect of parenting,  in the optimal way. When someone shares information about a particular thing we have done in the past that they believe may not have been the optimal choice, we jump to thinking they’re telling us we’re terrible moms! I’ve been there, and I know that mothering can cause these normal emotional reactions.

But, though we do need to be respectful of others feelings and clarify our message, I believe that it’s crucial that we don’t back away from the most important aspects of what we are trying to deliver. By diluting that message, I think we do everyone, babies, moms, heck our entire human populace, a disservice.

If I understood Kelly’s comment above, I believe that she was pointing out that when moms use phrases like “I want to give my child the best start” in relation to breastfeeding it can be read as an insult by those who didn’t succeed at or attempt breastfeeding for personal reasons. I can understand and truly respect the genuine needs and emotions that go into that.

But that’s where I think each of us need to love ourselves where we are. Breastfeeding is the best start. But it’s not the only aspect of parenting a baby there is. And I don’t think that by withholding that value judgment on breastfeeding in general we make things better for moms and babies.

For example, I feel like a failure because I let D play with a cute vintage toy my mom gave him, without testing it for lead first (more on that later, truly a mistake). But do I think that parents shouldn’t say out loud, “DON’T GIVE YOUR KIDS VINTAGE TOYS WITHOUT TESTING FOR LEAD!” No! Instead I wish I had been told that. Vociferously.

Breastfeeding is best. Lead toys are bad. It’s that simple in my mind. Does that mean that moms who choose bottle-feeding are as a lot unfeeling and neglectful? No, no, no! Absolutely not! Not only does it not mean that, but it also serves absolutely no purpose to even go there.

From what I know, 99.9% of moms spend their every waking moment trying to do what’s best for their kids with the situation and the information they have before them. We are all doing our best, but just because we can’t always make the best choices, doesn’t mean that all choices are equal.

What’s important is getting the right information out there to help us make those choices, not judging each other on what we do personally.

Thanks to everyone for the extremely intelligent discussion!


Mama Hope

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12 Responses to “Is it Wrong to Openly Support Breastfeeding?”

  1. Great post! Is it wrong to cheat and borrow from comments I left on other posts? They seem like a great fit with what you wrote here.

    Melanie @ Breastfeeding Moms Unite wrote Think! Act! Breastfeed! http://www.breastfeedingmomsun.....reastfeed/

    In response to her post that raises a lot of the same issues that you do, I said:

    “…what gets me upset is when people make a less than ideal decision and then either (a) blame those that did make the better decision for guilt tripping them at the mere mention of the benefits of the better approach or (b) choose to spread misinformation or downright lies about a particular choice.

    If you can’t make the best choice for some reason, that is fine. But own it. Don’t deny the risks. Don’t feel guilty over it. Don’t feel like you have to convince others to make the same choice in order to validate your own.”

    The Gonzo Mama also wrote about a number of the controversial breastfeeding posts that have been discussed over the past few days: http://www.thegonzomama.com/20.....ggers.html

    On her post, I said:

    “I have strong opinions about what is right for me, and what I think generally is right for society. But, within that, I respect the rights of individuals to make different choices and I do not judge them for their choices because I do not know the whole background around how they got to that place.

    I also don’t judge them because I know I am not perfect (I’m a meat eater, I have fast food at least once per week, I don’t always pay my bills on time, I don’t make home cooked meals as often as I should, etc.). But when I do something that is not perfect, I don’t expect the world to rally around me and congratulate me for it. I don’t try to pretend away facts or science that demonstrates my poor choice. I don’t expect other people to not be proud of doing a better job than me in that aspect of their lives. I just recognize that I am human and humans are not perfect.”

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog post..BlogHer ‘09

  2. Great article! I was going to say “Hey take a look at my post called Think. Act. Breastfeed.” But I see Annie beat me to it. Thanks!

    Melodie´s last blog post..Foodie Fridays: Mung Bean Dahl

  3. No it is not wrong to openly support breastfeeding. It is not wrong at all and yes, it is what is best for baby but it just doesn’t always work out. I think you restated my point well. We all have different levels of what we can and cannot do. We all have different experiences and feelings on the issue. We are not all the same. I’m pro breastfeeding and support it 100% but that doesn’t mean it is something that will work for me.

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and reflecting on all my professional experiences working with moms and babies. Support it something all moms seek and need. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with Annie supporting breastfeeding and openly having her opinion or telling her story from her heart but my guest reader was indeed not well received. Frankly, I had emails and comments from readers passionately agreeing and thanking my guest poster but was afraid to publicly write a comment because of the response the guest was getting. This is not right. It’s easy to say that we aren’t judging or didn’t mean anything harmful or negative but when we sit on the other side and reflect upon it we might just see through different colored glasses.

    I helped moms professionally cope with postpartum depression, seek help for breastfeeding, find a safe home when in a abuse situation and fill their cupboards with food. Sometimes we have to remember that there is a person behind the trouble. A person with a story we might not know. We can have missions, good intentions and seek to mean well but always remember behind the screen is a person and if you knew them, saw their eyes and listened to their story you might not so freely type the comments and write the posts.

    Sommer´s last blog post..A Potential Alternative for Antibiotic Drugs

  4. Annie and Melodie,
    Thanks much for your comments and links! I thoroughly enjoyed reading up on all the thoughtful points made on this issue as well as the varied comments and reflections. As I mentioned on Melodie’s blog, how exciting when we have the opportunity to find examples of personal strength and wisdom in others that we can aspire to emulate! Though I have to admit sometimes I’m a little intimidated posting on blogs what with all the smart women out there (partly why I haven’t done a lot of it), it’s much easier for me when I can look on with eyes of respect!

    You make a very good point when you say that we should always remember the person on the other end of the posts and comments we make. And it seems that, from the various comments I’ve read, you’re dead on that women who have struggled with either the decision or the act of breastfeeding have a real need for support and understanding. I also know that from personal experience as my own mom was one of them, and to this day she still mourns her inability to breastfeed and the horror she felt when she realized my brother was getting thinner and thinner.

    But a question keeps lingering for me: Are you saying that you agree with your guest poster in that moms should be told to stop attempting breastfeeding at two weeks? Because that seems like what folks were actually responding to, not the question of her own breastfeeding choice, but the quality of the advice she gave. Do you support the advice she gave, or simply the idea that she should be spoken to respectfully while disagreed with?

    I understand if you’re just done with this issue and you don’t want to answer the question. I never got to read the original post that I realize now was actually on your blog, but if your guest poster was being attacked because she didn’t succeed at breastfeeding I can see how that would be upsetting to you and others. Yet if she was merely called on what others considered bad advice, well I guess the point I’m making is that there should be respectful ways to say, “No, I don’t agree with that.”

    In either case, what’s fascinating is that we are all having conversations, but they’re also a part of the pubic space. So in a way our task is not just to be respectful of each other as individuals, but to be respectful to the complete audience of folks who are and will read these words as they bang and burst around in the digital space. And in that, to be dedicated spokespeople for what we believe in. If we can do so in a way that maintains interpersonal connections, so much the better.

  5. @ Sommer

    I do see that there is a person on the other side of that post. I really do. And that is why I took great care to say over and over agan that I wasn’t criticizing or judging her for deciding to stop breastfeeding.

    But I also see that when she tells another woman to quit breastfeeding at 2 weeks, there is another woman on the other side of that. A woman like Ruth that posted a comment on your blog and on mine. A woman that is also dealing with postpartum depression and that will only be put into an even worse downward spiral as a result of comments like the one that your guest poster made.

    It is absolutely fine for her to say that 2 weeks is the most she would try for and I would never criticize her for that. But it isn’t okay for her to complain about lack of support for her decision and then show a lack of support to those that are trying to continue breastfeeding. They are people too with real feelings. People like me and Ruth and many others that were undermined by people telling us to just switch to formula.

    Annie @ PhD in Parenting´s last blog post..What gives you the right?

  6. Great post. There are so many things when I had my first that I regret doing now, and sadly support tended to equal being patted on the head and told it’s OK, I did the best I could. But looking back at it now that wasn’t real support, that didn’t help me, and when I had my second it made me angry to think back on it. If i had been struggling at 2 weeks and had been told “it’s OK, you made it this far, just quit” that wouldn’t be support for me, and I would have been angry looking back at it. Support isn’t always “do your thing”, sometimes it’s pushing someone to go another day, take another step, climb the next hill. When I tell a mom come on on, I know you can go another week I’m not trying to offend moms who choose not to breastfeed or who choose to quit early. I’m trying to provide real support and encouragement.

  7. Very well said; some very good points made.

    In particular, by Mama Hope: “Are you saying that you agree with your guest poster in that moms should be told to stop attempting breastfeeding at two weeks? Because that seems like what folks were actually responding to, not the question of her own breastfeeding choice, but the quality of the advice she gave.” I would like to know the answer to this.

    My comment on PhD’s post that you have quoted above: “So I have to wonder…what exactly are people upset about? I mean specifically; what words or sentences do people find offensive?” I would still like to know the answer to this as well.

    So often I find these types of debates end up being about something completely different than what *actually* said (or written). It’s a shame.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with openly supporting breastfeeding. Great discussion.

    FamilyNature´s last blog post..One Decision. An eighteen year old adoption still fresh in my mind.

  8. Thanks for this post. I feel that we are increasingly moving toward a cultural backlash against stating one’s opinion, particularly when it has to do with disagreeing with whatever happens to be a hot-button topic, and often with a mainstream one. I feel as if people are making less-than-great choices, then demanding not to be told they are making less-than-great choices. People want validation, not education.

    Last I checked, this is country in which the right to free speech is protected. I don’t understand why people feel a need to attack those who state their opinions. If you don’t agree, just move along. Rant about it on your own blog. It just seems silly and contradictory to me to go to someone’s blog and attack them for feeling attacked?

    In any case, I think there is great value in having dissenting voices. It makes people think. It makes people question themselves. It makes for better society in general, when someone is always willing to speak out and say “this isn’t right.” Some people *coughmecough* are more abrasive than others, but I think there’s even room for that. Some people learn by gentle prompting, some people learn by a slap in the face.

    It is no crime to speak one’s mind. If you don’t like what I say, or how I say it, that’s okay with me. You don’t have to agree with it. But I have no obligation to censor myself because our opinions differ.

  9. I think I openly and aggressively support/advocate breastfeeding because I wish someone had done that for me a few years ago.

    I got knocked up, hadn’t been around babies since I was a baby, and didn’t know the first thing about parenting. When the nurse at the local clinic asked me if I was going to breastfeed (before I even knew whether I was going to continue the pregnancy) I said “Hell No! that’s gross!” I just plain didn’t know any better. I had never seen it done. She looked at me with disdain but didn’t say much else.

    Thanks to an Ivillage board, I mostly changed my mind by the end of that pregnancy, but had a terrible time breastfeeding because I had a c-section and didn’t see my baby for the first 6 hours of his life (seriously, I pumped nothing but blood) and gave up after 4 weeks.

    So many women on the stupid Ivillage board just kept saying “if it’s not working, just quit, it’s not going to matter, blah blah blah” and so I quit. And I really never forgave myself for it.

    The second time around I got my VBAC, breastfed immediately, and never, EVER let somebody tell me that “it didn’t matter.” It mattered to ME. THAT is what turned me into a lactivist. I got myself into a lot of hot water on the Ivillage boards during the second pregnancy by pushing my breastfeeding agenda, but I cannot tell you how many of those women changed their minds entirely by what I said, and are now happily breastfeeding their nearly 1 year old babies. Many of them are regular readers/followers of my blog now and have become lactivists themselves.

    I said what they didn’t want to hear; and I’m glad (and they are glad) that I did.

    TheFeministBreeder´s last blog post..There’s a Name for It - "Equally Shared Parenting"

  10. Summer,
    Very well put. I’ve always respected the way you speak your mind on your blog and on twitter. I think what you say also relates to Emily’s thoughts — the value of many kinds of voices that seek to support by offering value-driven inspiration!

    Family Nature,
    I agree that those seem to be unanswered questions… And also with this: “So often I find these types of debates end up being about something completely different than what *actually* said (or written). It’s a shame.” It seems that defensiveness can sometimes distract from open debate on issue.

    What an inspiration! I’m trying to find the best balance for myself in terms of being positive while speaking my mind. Your words are a good reminder to me that not all positivity has to be “soothsaying.”

    Wow! I have to say, though I know not all VBAC attempts are wishes come true, I have great respect for moms that do succeed at VBAC. It’s also great to hear a story of transformation like yours. Sometimes it’s hard for me to look at my own past ignorance as I think it terrifies and embarrasses me a bit! Your story inspires me to realize that respecting the growth that I have made is exactly what can equip me to help others, as you have done. Thank you!


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