by Katherine Anderson
In my years as a mother, I have seen quite a bit of the lactivist movement. I have a daughter that nursed until she was four, and a pair of twin boys that are still exclusively nursing. I have nursed them proudly, as a woman called to motherhood. I accepted that calling despite being a young woman with little resources.
To be a mother is the greatest gift God has ever given me. I struggled with secondary infertility, and to be able to trust in my body to provide my children with the milk that is their birthright has healed my soul after two miscarriages.
Something that I have found troubling for some time is how much responsibility we ask of a nursing mother. She must educate herself so that she understands how it is done, as few women ever see the mother and baby nursing dyad. She must make sure her care providers do the best they can to support the baby latching in the first hour after birth, when the newborn is most alert and responsive. She must ensure that the pediatrician she entrusts with her child’s health and well-being is dedicated and knowledgeable in clinical lactation management. She must resist the pressure to use formula- the ads, the free samples, the hospital provided bags of gifts and booklets and diaper bags, full of their particular brand–all of which claim to provide the best to the mother’s milk (next to breastmilk, of course–in fine print).
To ask this of a woman who has just borne a child is unconscionable. Society should support breastfeeding as a parenting choice equal to that of formula feeding. While there is an undeniable increase of health risks associated with baby milk substitutes as chemical substances, there should be no such comparison between how or what a mother chooses to feed her children. There are many valid reasons why mothers choose to formula feed, and very few of them choose to refuse to try. Many want to very much. They reach out for help, and with a few exceptions, they get nothing but discouragement and admonishment that it’s too hard and to stop trying to be perfect.
It troubles me because in many movements for better support for women, of which lactivism is but a small part, we make it the mother’s job. Something she has to fight for. Somehow, it’s HER job to make sure she has a doctor who is supportive of breastfeeding- not the doctor to educate himself. It’s HER job to make sure the medication is safe for breastfeeding or not- not the doctor’s, or the pharmacist’s, or the drug companies’ to do the research so that mothers can access the medication they need. It’s HER job to argue with insurance over whether or not they cover breastpumps and lactation consultants- not their job to provide her with them in order to minimize the risk of illness. It’s HER job to risk her job fighting for her right to pump- not her employer to follow the law.
It’s HER job to stand up to people who try to infringe on her right to nurse in public- not the public’s job to accept women and children.
It’s dishonest to say that everyone can do it in the face of that kind of opposition, and to put all of the responsibility and blame on the mother for not trying hard enough without trying to change the obstacles that are in place against it at every single turn.
There are so many women who want to breastfeed, without having been duped, guilted, or manipulated into doing so, and they face enormous difficulties. That they have failed is not a personal flaw. It is impossible for many women to try any harder and that is no reason for guilt, shame, or judgement.
They deserve the things that all people deserve from the medical community- to have the most current knowledge, the most current research, and the most comprehensive support possible in order to meet their goals successfully. They deserve evidence-based care and they deserve good medical treatment and good medical advice. They deserve respect and validation. Advancing that is not anti-feminist. It is not anti-woman. It is not trying to place restrictions on what women do with their bodies- it gives them the best possible chance of getting to do what they want to with their bodies and their babies and their breasts.
If society as a whole had their way, no one would breastfeed, no one would nurse in public, no one would hold nurse-ins or speak up about lactivism. We’d all just shut up and keep our heads down and follow the status quo, which is to put in a token effort to breastfeed. That is all society deems necessary, and then gives up on women and conclude our bodies are broken. No one would talk about how bad pediatric care in this country is and why we’re so higher than other countries in infant mortality. Not to mention the fact American Academy of Pediatrics is so deep in bed with formula companies, or that we’re the only country in the Western world without paid maternal leave.
But no one wants to hear that, because it would mean we’re doing something wrong, and that we need to change things. And nobody but nobody likes change.
Get over it.