Friday Focus: The Social Struggle of Breastfeeding

I’m reposting in my Friday focuses this month, and next, since we are expecting our second little one soon, and I’m super busy with Abbey in Jed’s absence, as he is on patrol.

This post was from last year, and I think it would be interesting to revisit. It explains how I feel about the struggle that ensues in our culture over the female form, the breast, and women using their breasts for their actual purpose. . . feeding!
I recently read an interesting post over at The Barefoot Mother on whether the breastfeeding vs formula feeding debate is a legitimate feminist issue. You would think that since the switch to formula as the norm for feeding babies in the early second half of the twentieth century was brought about in conjunction with the second big feminist movement in our country, the attempt to re-establish breastfeeding – and the persistent backlash against this attempt – is a feminist issue. Barefoot Mothering’s post is an interesting one, that tracks the roots of female and male roles all the way back to ancient times, and discusses this issue from an interesting perspective. It got me thinking.
I think the tension about breastfeeding and formula feeding is a wider social struggle. It’s not just a women’s issue.

As a lactivist, I want to see all babies breastfed for as long as possible. As a breastfeeding mother, and a peer breastfeeding counselor, I have seen the societal barriers that make this impossible for a great number of moms in our society.

It’s important to realize that the problem at the root of the “breast vs bottle” debate is NOT that some mothers want to do what’s best for their children and others don’t. It’s not that women who want to be successful in their careers choose formula and stay-at-home moms choose breastfeeding either. The root of the intense breast vs bottle debate is a vast social problem, not one pertinent to women only: that our society has created an environment of tension around feeding choices by objectifying the female form and sexualizing the breast. Our society continues this environment of tension by allowing formula companies to market their breastmilk substitutes (which actually rate #6 out of 6 of alternatives to mother’s milk) in a deceptive and glamorous manner – and either ignoring or suppressing information from scientists and breastfeeding advocates (and even the AAP and WHO) about the risks of feeding formula to infants.

Even individual members and groups in our society that agree that “breast is best”unknowingly perpetuate social barriers to successful and enjoyable breastfeeding relationships in a variety of ways, through ignorance and resistance to change. Reactions to nursing in public, expecting moms to be back to their home and work lives soon after giving birth, setting age-limits on breastfeeding, or giving advice to “train” “clingy” babies that nurse more than parenting books delineate . . . all of these socially accepted opinions and expectationscontribute to a confusing and exhausting environment for a new mom. And that’s just a small sample of the opinions and misguided advice out there. Good breastfeeding advice is sometimes hard to come by in a social environment that as a whole isn’t educated on current research and expects a completely different thing from post-partum moms than nature (or her baby) does. And moms are sometimes embarrassed to seek out breastfeeding advice – thinking that if they can’t make it work on their own, then it must be a problem with their breasts . . . “I mean, breastfeeding is natural right? So I guess I’m just not good at it”. I have heard that WAY too many times. . . and the bottle of artificial formula comes to the rescue.

In her post, The Barefoot Mother talks about the way society shifted organically from a matriarchal to patriarchal status quo over the ages. I think that in the same way, we have shifted as a society from a natural and compassionate way of feeding and raising children to a society that is torn and in extreme tension over something that really is second nature. And just as feminism has started to shift our society back toward a more equal ground regarding gender roles, so, too, are we slowly starting to shift back to natural and compassionate parenting and feeding methods, drawn by scientific studies that are showing that natural feeding and compassionate parenting are biologically and developmentally better for our children.

But we have been halted by our society’s love for contest. Instead of moving together toward a feeding status quo that is good for our children, we argue on points that are obviously already decided for us by nature and proven by science. Just visit a message board that is discussing the subject and you can taste the tension and animosity right through the computer screen.

It is so important that we break the cycle of ignorant and misguided tension surrounding the breast feeding/bottle feeding issue. We need to work to create a society in which breastfeeding is seen as normal, desired, and achievable, and that moms are well educated about breastfeeding – not just for ten minutes in a birth class, but throughout their lives by seeing breastfeeding, talking about breastfeeding, and hearing factual information passed from doctors, neighbors, family, and friends. We can only end this social struggle by breaking down the barriers that make breastfeeding difficult; not by shaming women who choose to bottle feed. It’s ultimately society that makes that choice for them, anyway, by allowing misleading formula marketing and posing great barriers to breastfeeding success.

Science tells us that breastfeeding is exponentially better for our children than formula. The parenting style that corresponds with compassionate feeding has been proven to be better for our children, too.

So why do we keep ourselves strapped into a social attitude that continually tries to disprove these findings and keeps women badly educated on the choice that they have to make?
Yes, ladies, it is YOUR CHOICE whether to breastfeed or to bottle feed. But please understand that the reason breastfeeding advocates are trying to get you to breastfeed is because it is exponentially better for your baby. Please view with an open mind the risks that are associated with formula feeding, even just supplementing with formula. Remember, it is not about shame or guilt. It is about information and empowerment.
Please allow us to educate you and the people around you about the choice you have to make. Don’t make your choice or give advice to a pregnant or new mom without really considering the facts first. Please, be courageous and break the cycle of sexual stigma surrounding breastfeeding. If you are reading this, and you have formula fed or are formula feeding a baby, please do not feel offended. If your formula fed child “turned out fine” or “seems perfectly healthy”, then I am so happy for you. I’m asking everyone to take another look at formula (. . . on Guggie Daly’s blog) and breastfeeding and the awful contention that surrounds feeding choices – for the future health of all of our children. Let’s work together to alleviate thesocial struggle that not only makes women a slave to society’s opinions, but also poses great health risks to our most vulnerable society members- newborn babies.
It is when mothers can choose to be educated, choose to breastfeed proudly, and choose to educate other women about feeding choices that feminism is truly at work, and that we can pave the way toward a new generation of healthy children, inside and out.
Other posts about my lactivism, and how I feel (and also how I don’t) about supporting moms to breastfeed for as long as they can.

Join the conversation! I blog to connect with YOU