Many people don’t understand what the big deal is about breastfeeding. Why the protests and “nurse-ins”? Why do women keep making such a big fuss about it? Isn’t it natural and easy? Aren’t most women breastfeeding?
So we tend to do intuitively what Dr. Martin Luther King did, when he explained “why we can’t wait”—he gave us a moving, visceral and poignant snapshot of what it meant, at that time, to be a Negro. In the same vein, we try to give people who don’t understand our urgency the opportunity to stand in a new mother’s shoes, and feel the discrimination, humiliation, harassment and judgment she faces at the most vulnerable period in her life, as she is undertaking a critical, and life-changing new challenge. So:
Imagine you are expecting your first child. Your mother didn’t breastfeed, so she can’t show you how, share her experience, or tell you what to expect. You take a childbirth class at the hospital, but it doesn’t include even the basics of breastfeeding, or if it does, it reflects conflicts of interests. Most of your friends didn’t breastfeed, or maybe you are the first in your group to have a baby. You’re afraid to go to a support group because you don’t want to be told you have to breastfeed for 5 years when you can’t imagine getting through the first 5 months. Your ob/gyn never speaks to you about your infant feeding decision, because he feels his job ends at delivery and it’s the pediatrician’s domain, although by then it is too late. You give birth in a country that has an astronomically high caesarean and birth intervention rates, which negatively impact breastfeeding. Your baby is supplemented in the hospital with formula, often against your wishes, and the rotation of nurses is not adequately trained in breastfeeding management—some yank your boob or shake their heads in disapproval. A certified lactation counselor is not on staff during the weekend you delivered, or is overwhelmed with patients. You are discharged before your milk comes in or breastfeeding is established, and your “gift” is a diaper bag filled with formula samples and information which has been proven to undermine breastfeeding duration. Because your baby was given a bottle in the hospital, he/she has a poor latch: breastfeeding becomes unnecessarily painful and you have to track down a lactation consultant who makes home visits, doesn’t intimidate you, and is covered even minimally by your health insurance. The clock is ticking and your husband hates to see you suffer and struggle, so he tells you ”it’s okay to give the baby formula.” You go online and find a sea of misinformation or language that’s so technically scientific, it’s over your head. Miraculously, you get help, stick it out, go to great lengths to leave the room every time you nurse the baby, yet your mother-in-law and friends ask you “when are you going to give that baby a bottle.” Your pediatrician charts your baby’s weight against formula-fed babies and thinks she/he is undernourished, undermining your confidence and self-esteem. By the way, it turns out no one in your pediatrician’s office is certified as a lactation counselor, or can give you any answers or refer you for your breastfeeding questions—their answer is to hand you another formula “gift bag”. If you are lucky to have a maternity leave, or are able to afford unpaid leave, you may feel, as Michelle Obama reportedly did, that you have to go back to work just as you have gotten the hang of breastfeeding. Perhaps you won’t be able to negotiate a flexible work schedule, as she did. Most likely, especially if you are a blue-collar worker, you will have to fight for pumping breaks, put up with sneers from co-workers, and find an empty broom closet with an outlet. If you are a stay-at-home mom, you will be expected to STAY AT HOME, and not feed your baby while you are running errands to feed the rest of your family or keep your home going; you will face social disapproval, rude stares, and risk getting kicked out of restaurants, stores, airplanes, the mall. You will be told to breastfeed in the bathroom with the implication that this life-saving and healing gift you are giving your baby and yourself is disgusting. You will need to have the same endurance and perseverance as an athelete trying to run a race in flip-flops while being jeered at from the crowd. At any of these points, that free sample of formula starts to look quite appealing, and maybe some of the sneakiest formula advertising messages have worked their way into your subliminal consciousness, such as “Strong babies start here” even though your rational mind knows very well, that in fact, they don’t—formula-fed babies are at greater risk, and so are their moms. If you throw in the towel, which most new moms understandably do (including many, many physicians, scientists and moms advocating for this cause), you will probably be berated for NOT breastfeeding by the very same people who didn’t want you to breastfeed in public, and didn’t want you to make a fuss. You will be told you are lazy, selfish, or “just not committed” enough. If you do breastfeed, you will be told you are selfish, seeking attention, a pervert, or holier-than-thou. It is truly a no-win situation, and moms are not to blame.
So, if you wonder why women get so riled up, we hope you will not think that it is just because we want to breastfeed in public and “flaunt our boobs for you to ogle”. Many of us are painfully self-conscious because bottles and squeamishness are everywhere, most of us are so discrete that no one, who isn’t already looking for a witch hunt, can tell that we are nursing. Many of us aren’t trying to make a point of breastfeeding in public, or on Facebook; if we post pictures for our friends, it’s usually because we are proud of ourselves, and gosh-darn amazed at what our bodies, and our babies, can do. We simply want to be able to feed our babies when they are hungry or fussy, without having to break into a cold sweat finding a bathroom, a closet, or a car. We just want to be able to succeed at breastfeeding AT ALL without having the rug constantly pulled out from under us.
As the inauguration of President Obama unfolds, we too want what Michelle Obama stands for, a balance of work and family. We have high hopes for the new administration. Hopes that breastfeeding’s health benefits and healthcare cost savings, employment savings, and environmental boost to the planet, and the rights of mothers and babies, will finally become more important than the agenda of powerful lobbyists and their industries. We have waited too long, and as Dr. King says, ”our cups of endurance runneth over”—and truly they do, whether they are size A or double D.
What saddens me most is not that most people don’t understand the many obstacles to breastfeeding—especially breastfeeding longer than a nanosecond—that new moms in the U.S. face, or don’t understand that breastfeeding can actually be easy and wonderful IF proper support is in place. What troubles me is that most new moms themselves don’t realize that although they were urged to breastfeed, they were set up to fail. They unfairly blame themselves, or lash out at others, and perpetuate the myth that “they couldn’t breastfeed,” when probably they could have, if only they had been helped along the way. (If they can’t or decide not to breastfeed, they deserve respect and compassion!) Moms who gave up breastfeeding before they wanted to don’t see that breastfeeding moms are being discriminated against, even segregated today, and in the exhausted fog of new motherhood, have come to accept what should be unacceptable. They don’t see that the “mommy wars” have been fueled to pit breastfeeding mother against bottle-feeding mother and to conveniently avoid uncovering the real culprits that are undermining both.
Please know that not all mothers experience all of these obstacles. For some, breastfeeding is immediately easy and problem-free. There are phenomenal hospitals that follow breastfeeding support protocol. There are ob/gyns and pediatricians, especially fellows of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, who are herculean in their efforts to support breastfeeding mothers, even though much of our health insurance system does not support them to devote the extra time. There are mothers and in-laws and friends who didn’t breastfeed but will encourage you to breastfeed, because they recognize that it’s like sunscreen and seatbelts; we simply know better now, and maybe they know that they were sold out, too. Their willingness to put their defensiveness aside and end the guilt trip is admirable.
Ultimately, our culture won’t change until everyone, whether they breastfed or not, supports the rights of expecting and new mothers to achieve their personal breastfeeding goals, and to do so without being undermined by the booby traps. Low breastfeeding rates truly affect us all, in more ways than can be counted.
This post was inspired by a post from a PR & communications expert that I really respect caught my eye. He marveled at Dr. King’s ability, called him the “King of all Communicators” and urged us to read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”