Addressing a proposal in Australia to make baby formula a prescription-only product, Spilt Milk strikes the perfect balance between breastfeeding advocacy and respect for women’s individual situations, experiences, and autonomy.
As a lactivist I obviously have a problem with the marketing of infant formula and any implication that it is as good as, or better than, breast milk. But as a human being I also know that people are hurt, seriously hurt, when they feel judged and shamed and when they are exhaustedly holding a hungry, crying, baby at 2:30 am and it feels like no one can help them.
Removing systemic barriers to breastfeeding certainly may require improved measures to reduce the popularity of formula – popularity which can be attributed to decades of marketing not only to the public but to health professionals. A big part of that marketing is about convenience: huge displays in chemist shops and regular sales at the supermarket of products in familiar-looking tins add to the impression of ease of use and the normalisation of artificial feeding. But whether we like it or not, formula and its ready availability is important to many families. Removing that now feels like a stick where a carrot should be.
Give parents the tools to make sound decisions that benefit them and their babies. Give parents not only choices, but supported, realistic choices. Don’t tell a woman who has to go out of the home to work, or who has other children to look after and little support, that the choice to dedicate perhaps days to increasing her milk supply through frequent feeding and skin-skin contact to avoid supplementing with formula is an easy one: it clearly is not. Education and information are hugely important but they are only part of the picture when practical barriers still so often interfere with breastfeeding relationships.
Adding practical barriers to formula use, as I think this proposal would, isn’t a particularly kind way to help parents. Being caught between a rock and a hard place doesn’t make the rock seem any easier to budge: it just makes it hurt more to be stuck there.
I want to zero in on the problem of shaming. It’s illuminating to shift the focus away from infants and toward the choices that we adults make about our own bodies.
For instance: I had a super healthy dinner tonight: baked tofu, locally-grown Carola potatoes, locally-grown watermelon, and sliced golden tomatoes that I grew from seed. (I had been trying to grow these ‘maters, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, since I read rave reviews about them on Garden Web, but managed to kill them on the first attempt by mixing in too much organic fertilizer when I planted them out. Another year, they failed to germinate. This year – success!) I added a dab of butter to the potatoes and marinated the tofu in teriyaki sauce. I was in late-summer heaven.
But last night? Late after the kids were in bed? I ate a strawberry Pop-Tart. And damn, was that good too.
What if someone had decided to shame me about that Pop-Tart? Would that have caused me to ascertain that those potatoes were also organically grown, instead of just sustainably? Might I have foregone the butter? (Admittedly, if I’d been feeling well instead of ushering out a nasty GI infection, that pat of butter would have blossomed.)
I would have had a Pop-Tart for dessert.
Now, luckily people have not often shamed me for my Pop-Tart weakness. We don’t eat them regularly. My kids love them precisely because a Pop-Tart is a pink unicorn in their world, and a yummy one, at that. Most crucially, though: I am NOT FAT. And therefore I can only shamed along the “bad mommy” axis for keeping Pop-Tarts in stock; I’m pretty impervious to fat-shaming. (Fat-shaming would surely be worth a whole ‘nother post, and this post would be a whole lot different if not for my thin privilege.)
Of course, “bad mommy” shaming is the main tactic used against women who don’t conform to the loftiest ideals of breastfeeding practice. They’re told in no uncertain terms that their child’s survival depends on what they feed him or her. And they’d better feed mother’s milk, but then the true shaming begins. The new mother is eating all wrong! At least, this must be true, or the baby would settle better, sleep longer, give up his eight-hour crying jags. And so they’d better watch out for garlic! Peanuts! Soy! Cow’s milk! Eggs! That dejected bottle of prune juice, purchased solely in the hope of warding off postpartum constipation? Might as well dump it, dear; no one else in your family will go near it.
Through all this, the mother is trying to suss out her child’s new and changing needs. If she’s poor and/or not white, the “well-meant” advice may well come wrapped in a thick wrapping of paternalism. How’s she supposed to develop her sense of mastery and competency in this hullaboo of “Yer doin’ it rong!”
Really, what new mothers need is respect for the fact that they still are humans, and that their body remains their own. The baby has a moral claim on breastmilk, sure; the mother has a moral claim on being an autonomous person. In most cases, she also is willing to make very significant sacrifices for her baby – her sleep, bodily fluids, her illusion of invulnerability, the very minerals from her bones. Shame her, though, and you’ve shortcircuited her chance to figure out what combination of sacrifices (because there will be sacrifices) could help her child thrive without eviscerating her as a woman – as a person.
And darn it – sometimes every mother needs a Pop-Tart. Mine was strawberry. Toasted. And I haven’t breastfed since spring 2003, so how much more do new mothers need a Tart? I don’t believe food should have to be earned through moral machinations, but I do tend to think that I’ve got a lifetime entitlement to Pop-Tarts. I’m certain that there’s still one box of brown sugar/cinnamon in the basement. I will eat it with utter lack of shame. Next morning, with nothing but a Tart headache, I will help my kids get their reasonably healthy breakfasts and lunches. They are growing. I’m pretty sure we’re doing something right. Quite possibly something that deserves a Pop-Tart and champagne celebration.
I’d be interested in your metaphorical Pop-Tarts – and that goes for non-parents, too. What small self-indulgences keep you afloat? How do you gird yourself against scolds?