Monday, September 19, 2011

On boobs, breastfeeding, and not breastfeeding

Yesterday, for the first time since 2007 (with the exception of a few short months when I wasn’t nursing Alyce during my pregnancy with Shira), I wore a grown-up, sexy, underwire-supported bra. Fancy, I know. I’m nursing Shira a lot less (only four times a day) and I figured that I might not want to wear one of my old nursing bras to the job interview that I expect I’ll one day have. Amidst the sparkles and the neon yellow choices, I made my purchases, happy to once again give some well-deserved support to my nursing boobs. They’ve earned it.

As soon as I tried them on, I knew. I love my nursing bras and if I’m fortunate enough to have more babies (yes, please), I’ll run to the local pregnancy shop and buy myself some new nursing bras. They are comfortable and easy to use. Amen to that, since learning to breastfeed is difficult enough without having to wear an uncomfortable bra. But, wow. A real, live bra does wonders for your cleavage. I hadn’t realized just how, umm, low things had gotten. Do you know who else hadn’t realized? My husband. Because the look on his face when I walked downstairs yesterday morning, wearing my new bra under my shirt, was worth all the effort.

He blushed. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen.



I never imagined how much my life story would be populated with obsessing over my breasts, making sure that they work, and that the right people get enough of them (there is a lot of competition in this house over who gets priority access). Sure, I expected a preoccupation with their size between the ages of twelve and fourteen, but I didn’t expect this. I thought only teenage girls (and boys) gave such thought to the habits of breasts.

Turns out that I think about boobs all the time. Mostly mine, but sometime I think about the ones that belong to other women, mostly other mothers. I get phone calls from friends wanting to talk about them, I have books on the shelf teaching me how to feed my babies with them, and many a blog post makes reference to them. And then there is all that time I spend watching Mad Men, wanting to hand out awards for Most Impressive Defiance of Gravity to all the women on that show. They sure know how to wear a sweater. (Joan, I’m looking at you.) Sometimes, though, I don’t give enough thought to boobs, like when I realize that I’ve been out all day long with only one side of my nursing bra done up. 

I love my world populated with breasts. And as someone who has been nursing for the better part of four years, most of my boob-related conversations have something to do with breastfeeding. I am addicted to breastfeeding. I loved nursing Alyce, and I still love nursing Shira. It’s been one of my favourite things about having young babies and I could list a hundred things that I love about it. Instead I’ll give you this many: babies are warm tucked in bed with you while you breastfeed, they have chubby little fingers with which to poke you (yes, in the boob) while they enjoy a meal, breastfeeding makes all most of their problems disappear, and it’s easily accessible. I know that breastmilk is the absolute perfect food for my babies and I’m more than impressed that my body knows how to make this perfect food. But breastfeeding is not all about the glory. Sometimes it’s really hard and annoying, and here’s why: in the beginning it can really hurt (like the kind of hurt that involves blood and blisters), babies eventually grow teeth and mine have always liked to test them out on my nipple, just to see what happens (I get really mad, that’s what happens), and breastfeeding is not always conducive to working outside the home, especially in countries with crappy parental leave. (U.S.A., I’m looking at you.)

I happily call myself a breastfeeding activist. I think all mother’s should be encouraged to breastfeed, and encouragement means more than just a nurse or doctor suggesting that it might be a good idea at a prenatal appointment. I could list a hundred things that mothers need to support happy breastfeeding, but instead I’ll give you this many: mothers need to see other mothers breastfeed, access to non-bathroom like places to nurse when they are out of the house and want some privacy, reliable access to board certified lactation consultants, and extended parental leave. And one more thing: they need to live in a culture where breastfeeding is normal, where mothers aren’t asked to leave public places or given the stink-eye for feeding their baby. Mothers need our support. They need your support.

But do you know what else mother’s need? Choice. They love choices. I love breastfeeding and I want everyone to love it as much as I do (yes, I actually mean that), but if a woman chooses to feed her baby formula, for whatever reason, that is her choice. Do I want her to have had access to as much information about breastfeeding? I sure do. But should she be ashamed of her decision to feed her baby formula. Absolutely not. Motherhood is hard work. Let’s not add shame to the mix.

Catherine Connors over at Her Bad Mother brought our attention this week to a debate going on over at Babble, regarding Babble's decision to allow formula advertizing on its site. Critics have declared that such advertizing stands in the way of breastfeeding and as such should be removed from any responsible discussions of parenting. Connors points out that that such a call to remove formula ads insults a mother's ability to view these ads as advertizing, somehow tricking mothers into believing that formula is the best choice.  "I’m a grown-up, you guys," Connors reminds us,  "I know what commercial speech is. I am capable of parsing information from advertisers. I am not stupid. I can make up my own mind." Demonizing formula feeding demonizes those who choose to feed their babies formula, and no matter what anyone says, demonizing formula demonizes the mother who feeds it to her baby. There is no separating the sin from the sinner here. Calling on Babble to remove all formula ads is harmful to mothers because it shames them. As Connors writes:
It shames working mothers who have to bottle feed because they can’t be with their babies all day and it shames mothers who are unable to breastfeed and it shames mothers who truncate their breastfeeding relationship with their babies for the sake of their mental health. It shames any mother who has paused and wondered, even for a moment, whether things wouldn’t be easier for her, whether she mightn’t be better able to cope, whether she mightn’t be happier (because isn’t a happy mom best for baby?) if, maybe, just maybe, she didn’t breastfeed. It shames any mother who regards the method by which she nourishes her babies as her personal choice.
I haven't loved my own experiences with formula companies. I was furious that my name was given to a formula company after the birth of my first daughter, resulting in a free sample can being mailed to my house. I think we need to stand up against misleading formula advertizing.  But I don't think they way to promote breastfeeding is to shame mothers away from formula. I love the community of mothers I've found online since having my daughters, and I've often relied on their conversations while learning how to parent my kids, or just to have some company on those days when the hard work of being a mother feels especially hard. There is such a population of intelligent, thoughtful, and hilarious parents out there. Let's give less room to shame and more room for reminding each other that children are awesome and ridiculous.

So head over to the original article here and see what you think. I'd also suggest that you check out the comments, which are for the most part, a balanced conversation with many different opinions--not something you often get when this topic shows up. I've left out so many important issues about promoting breastfeeding versus formula feeding, and this complicated issue deserves so much more space. But I was so happy to see someone calling out this shaming of mothers that I needed to give this conversation some space all of its own.

Plus I just love talking about boobs. Whether you use them to feed your baby or not.


  1. Have you ever read "The Politics of Breastfeeding"?
    Happily, they've published a new edition; when I went to look for a copy a few years ago it was out of print. It's an amazing read, and I highly recommend it.

    I have to disagree *must* be possible to critique formula without criticizing women who use formula. As an analogy: we can criticize the use of private vehicles, that they're bad for the environment, that the 'car culture' we live in gives primacy to machines and the economy over the interests of people; but that doesn't mean that we are criticizing people who drive, because we're recognizing explicitly that we live in a culture where the "choice" to drive isn't really a choice at all for most people.

    Similarly for formula use, when women "choose" to use formula, it is not in any way a free choice. They're constrained heavily by things like a lack of parental leave, by a lack of good informative support to learn how to breastfeed, by a culture that sexualizes womens' breasts and makes women feel uncomfortable feeding their babies in public, possibly by a lack of moral support from their partners and families -- and all of these things and more *deserve* our critique. We can, and should, criticize the culture in which women "choose" to use formula in the numbers they do.

    This is not to criticize the choosers; it criticizes the hegemony in which this "choice" is made. And importantly, such a critique creates the space for collective action to change that hegemony, so that we support and value mothers in real, substantive ways -- ways that can provide for them to make *real* choices about how to feed their babies.

    As for formula ads, I would fall on the side of banning them, personally. We definitely shouldn't criticize moms who use it, because their material circumstances often make it necessary. But giving the formula industry (who make money when women can't breastfeed, let's not forget that) a platform to promote formula feeding isn't something we owe them.


  2. Amen sister! well said!
    xoxo lise

  3. i haven't thought much about my breasts lately...I nursed my two oldest till they were each 18 months (and I was five months pregnant each time!)...alas, my third had medical issues and I only breastfed her till four months. This can be such a contentious issue! I wrote about when I was still trying to find peace with the choice I made to bottle feed my youngest child. If you visit my blog, look for the "On Making Peace" pic on the sidebar to read about a very painful journey. But now, with my kids at almost 3, 4, and 6, I am peaceful. I LOVED breastfeeding. Now I have a breastfeeding cat in my house and it's making me all tingly in that milk let-down kinda way...ha! Great post.

  4. Bravo! I have a post pending about this very subject. I had a double mastectomy when my older son was 9 months old. I was so traumatized when I had to first go out and buy formula. I am angry about this and feel this pain was caused by the way formula is demonized in the breast feeding community. My sons are strong, smart, healthy, happy children. The emotional bonds between me and my children are strong. Would I have preferred to feed them breast milk? Absolutely, but I will not feel bad or be made to feel ashamed or as though I have harmed by children by giving them formula (so there!)

    Again, bravo to you for a great post!

  5. So important to recognize that sometimes formula feeding is not a choice, but a necessity. I was a happy and successful breastfeeding mommy. For years. My sister was not. Having had several breast surgeries (medically necessary), she was unable to breastfeed. She pumped every 2 hours and supplemented with formula because she had to. There was no other option, except totally bottlefeeding. She did it for 5 months for the sake of her child, even though she became very sick in the process. And yet she was villified by other mothers when she was feeding him with a bottle.

    We need to stick together, and quit villifying each other. Period. Women need to support each other, regardless of philosophical differences. We need to stop and consider that there may be a whole bunch of reasons for what others are doing. And be accepting of differences.

  6. SR, I'm with you on so much of what you write. I think formula companies ought to be critiqued, and yes, it's very good to remember that formula companies make money when women don't breastfeed. I think there is a way to critique the formula industry without demonizing those who use formula, but in the situation Catherine Connors is responding to (the woman I quote), I don't think this kind of critique is healthy or useful. Babble is a parenting site that appeals to readers who breastfeed and those who formula feed. To say that Babble should ban all ads on its site that are connected to formula companies--just because they are formula companies, and not because they are irresponsible formula ads--certainly makes formula itself "bad," and I think, contributes to shaming formula-using moms. Ultimately I want all women who want to to breastfeed, and I want as much education as possible about breastfeeding to reach all women. I get that not all advertizing simply supports "free choice."

    Mostly I just want our culture's ridiculous obsession with making breasts only sexual to come to an end. I was once speaking to a mom about breastfeeding a toddler (Alyce was almost two when she stopped nursing), and this mom said that she wouldn't mind breastfeeding a girl toddler, but that breastfeeding a boy toddler would make her uncomfortable, as though nursing a boy was somehow sexual. This is what I want to end. That, and some decent support of parental leave.

    SR, thanks for sharing. There is so much at stake here and I'm not being very eloquent. Shocking, I know ;)

    KGH, your post on bottle feeding your third child is beautiful. I think it's a really important post. I've watched some great friends, incredible mothers, feel embarrassed by their baby's bottle, and I wish they'd had this to read.

    M. Bloom, I left a few comments on your blog today. I'm happy you posted your own story today.

    And Nicole, hooray for some acceptance. We need to be critical sometimes and challenge the status quo when it comes to maternal/child care, but sometimes we just need to support each other, too.

    Thanks so much, everyone, for reading my post and giving me your feedback. It means a lot.