This past week, Emily Wax-Thibodeux's excellent essay, "Why I don't breastfeed, if you must know" went viral. As it should have. It's a cutting, heartfelt expose of just how ridiculous the pressure to breastfeed has become, made all the more powerful by the author's recounting of her double mastectomy.
Unfortunately, even breast cancer didn't stop the parenting police.
"95% of the time people don't breastfeed for reasons other than terminal illness. This is a red herring argument. She shouldn't feel bad for having a legitimate reason for not breastfeeding and if she does then its really a personal problem [sic]," said one comment on a Today.com Facebook thread.
"We all understand should and can are different. A mother who cannot breast feed is different than a mother who can but chooses not to...Breast milk is better for an infant than formula, I don't think there is a doctor, nurse or midwife who would say that formula is better...Shame people would criticize this mother who CANNOT breastfeed like it was her choice [sic]," wrote another (who happened to be male).
And then there was the reader who insisted that,
"(t)here is absolutely zero systematic or general judgment against infant formula or bottle feeding. It is the absolute expected norm by the majority of adults and parents in our culture. No one cares if you feed your baby infant formula or use a bottle...Most children start on the breast. Most children are weaned. Most children are given formula and fed with bottles. There is no public backlash against infant formula or bottle feeding. But here's an article that pretends 'infant formula shaming' is some actual thing. No. It isn't. Not in the real world of critical thought and evidence. The data doesn't support this notion at all."
(To this last comment, I submit this simple argument: if there were indeed no "infant formula shaming," my inbox wouldn't be inundated daily with desperate, painfully raw emails from mothers who've questioned their ability or "right" to parent due to their lack of lactation. Breastfeeding mothers get their fair share of public and private shame, there's no question; but just because one group is downtrodden by a certain segment of society doesn't mean that a completely separate segment of society is down-treading on another. There's more than enough mom-shaming to go around, unfortunately.)
In the community of formula-feeding parents I work for, there was tremendous support for Wax-Gibodeux's piece, but an underlying concern about the title -- because why must we know why she isn't breastfeeding? Is shaming more acceptable for some mothers than others? What is the litmus test that rewards us with a breastfeeding "pass"? If a double mastectomy doesn't quite cut it, I don't know what will.
So maybe we should stop giving reasons altogether.
For those who fear formula as a product, no reason in the world is sufficient for a baby to be given anything other human milk. It doesn't matter if the baby has to be wet nursed by someone with an unknown medical history -- that is still better than formula.
For those who like to shame mothers -- because that's what it really is about, enjoying the act of shaming, of making yourself feel superior, or feel better about your choices by questioning those of others -- no reason in the world will make a mother above reproach. She could always have done more -- after all, breastfeeding is 90 percent determination and only 10 percent milk production, as a recent meme proudly stated. Best case scenario, she might get pity -- but pity carries its own heavy scent, similar to the sour stench of shame.
Giving a reason for why you didn't breastfeed is pointless.
That doesn't mean telling your story isn't important, because our narratives matter; they help those floundering in their own messy journeys make sense of what's happening and find community with those who've been there. But there's a difference between telling your story and owning it, and telling it to defend yourself. One gives you power, the other takes it away.
We are at a turning point, I hope. Jessica Martin-Weber, creator of The Leaky Boob website, has taken a stand against romanticizing the reality of breastfeeding, and is helping those in the breastfeeding community feel comfortable with bottle (and formula) use. When one of the leading voices in breastfeeding advocacy speaks out against a culture of fear and rigidity, that means something. Wax-Thibodeux's piece has brought many powerful voices out of the woodwork, allowing women who've swallowed their shame to regurgitate it, and make the uninitiated understand just how sour it tastes.
Now is the time to draw a line in the sand. This conversation has moved beyond breastfeeding and formula feeding and whether one party is more marginalized than the other, or how superior one product is nutritionally to the other. We've been there, done that, and nothing has really changed. We're all still hurting. We're all still feeling unsupported, unseen, and resentful, like a 3-year-old with a colicky new sibling. Now, we need to stand up, collectively, and say it doesn't matter why I am feeding the way I am. It is not up to anyone else to deem my reason appropriate or "understandable." I'm going to stand up for anyone who has felt shamed about how she's feeding, instead of just people who've had identical experiences to me, or those who I feel tried hard enough.
A breastfeeding advocate shouldn't be afraid to admit she questions aspects of the WHO Code. A breast cancer survivor shouldn't have to have awkward conversations about why she's bottle feeding. A woman who chooses not to breastfeed for her own personal reasons should not have to lay those reasons out in front of a jury of her peers.
This Tower of (breastfeeding) Babble has reached a fever pitch. It's time for it to come down. Pick up your axe and start chopping. And next time someone asks, simply tell them, "You don't need to know why I don't breastfeed. Because it shouldn't matter."