I had my first public breastfeeding experience yesterday. The Hatchling and I had met a friend and her baby for a walk around the lake, and towards the end of our journey she started getting fractious. I’ll tell you, it’s amazing how a hungry screaming baby can make you lose whatever vestiges of modesty you had left (not that I was that modest to begin with). I whipped out the boob, clutched the Hatchling across me, and shoved it in her mouth. Most of the tittage was covered either by her mouth or my hand, but there was still enough out to be noticeable if you were looking. Fortunately, I didn’t get any comments or leers (that I noticed, anyway), and the Hatchling got enough of a snack to quiet her down for the ride home. But it served as yet another reminder that breastfeeding requires certain sacrifices (of privacy, bodily integrity, comfort) that they don’t tell you about in the brochure.
Which is why, among other reasons, news like this really pisses me the fuck off:
A two-year national breast-feeding awareness campaign that culminated this spring ran television announcements showing a pregnant woman clutching her belly as she was thrown off a mechanical bull during ladies’ night at a bar — and compared the behavior to failing to breast-feed.
“You wouldn’t take risks before your baby’s born,” the advertisement says. “Why start after?”
Great. Really, just awesome. This is exactly how we should be doing this. Christ. OK, there are two things about this campaign that make me see red. First, it’s the coupling of the notion “breast is best” with the notion “and therefore anything else is harmful.” Look, I think you’d be hard pressed at this point to find any expert seriously arguing that breastmilk isn’t superior to formula. That battle’s been won, OK? We get it. But you know what? To imply that therefore women who don’t breastfeed are imperiling their children is holding mothers to a standard that we simply don’t apply elsewhere – even when it comes to other aspects of raising kids. I mean, can you imagine if we did? “What, you don’t dress your kid exclusively in Chanel? Why don’t you just send them out to play on the highway? Sheesh!” or “You use a Graco stroller instead of a Bugaboo??!!? That’s like sticking your kid in a Pinto that’s about to be rear ended!” Absurd, right? Right! Because in general, we don’t demand that people always and everywhere do the absolute BEST thing possible – we demand that they be good enough. Because we recognize that we live in an imperfect world where there are certain unavoidable constraints that don’t always permit us to choose the “best” option – and, moreover, that being expected always to opt for the best rather than the good enough places an undue burden on the person doing the choosing. So breast is best, OK. But dammit, formula is good enough! Hundreds of thousands of highly functioning, capable, talented adults were raised on formula. Maybe some of them would have had fewer ear infections if they’d been breastfed, but christ on a crutch, people, is that worth making a generation of mothers feel like rotting horse crap? No. No, it is not.
The second thing that bothers me about this campaign is how completely, utterly ineffective it is in its tactics. Let’s think for a minute about some of the myriad reasons why a woman might not breastfeed her baby: physical inability (inverted nipples, insufficient milk supply, etc.); logistical inability (must return to work at two weeks, employer doesn’t allow time off to pump, can’t afford to rent or buy a pump, etc.); psychological inability (postpartum depression, finding the thought of nursing distasteful, history of sexual abuse, etc.); and convenience. Now, of all those categories, the only one even potentially likely to change their behavior as a result of this guilt campaign is that last one, which I’ll bet accounts for the smallest percentage of women who don’t breastfeed. Everyone else just feels shittier without being able to do a damn thing about it. Rivka said it best: if you really want to encourage a culture of breastfeeding, try implementing any of the following:
Making an aggressive push for paid maternity leaves; longer maternity leaves comparable to the recommended length of exclusive breastfeeding; exemptions from welfare-to-work programs and welfare time limits for nursing mothers; insurance and/or public funding for lactation clinics, breast pumps, and milk-bank milk; greater support for nursing mothers doing salaried work, including protected opportunities to pump milk at work, increased flex-time employment options, and greater availability of part-time daycare slots; discouragement of routine obstetric and neonatal care practices which hinder breastfeeding; and, of course, stricter controls on environmental contaminants, such as mercury, known to taint breastmilk.
Of course, those things all cost money and require a shift in cultural attitudes about parenting, so, yeah, never mind. I guess the guilt thing is the way to go after all.