Soon after, opinion pieces spring up, occasionally positive, like the previously referenced one by Joanna Moorhead, but more often than not, ones like this by Barbara Ellen. Off the top of my head, I can think of several and I know there are squillions more. For instance, this one from India Knight, this by Helen Rumbelow and this by Daisy Goodwin. And, following the quotes from Myleene Klass about breastfeeding for her family, "not to pacify the Breastapo" there will doubtless be more.
They all share a common theme. They are all ANGRY. Really very angry. That anger manifests in various ways – sarcasm, outright attack, name-calling… And it is this anger and the name-calling to which it leads that I would like to focus upon. Because there is a tendency for it to get rather out of hand.
Let’s consider this: the topic of the debate is “getting milk into babies”. That’s it – simples, as the meerkat would say. But, whilst meerkats would likely just get on with it, we have to contend with decades of marketing, misinformation and myth, which have all had an impact on how we go about this nutrition transfer (and, yes, I know it's more than nutrition transfer - but for the purposes of this piece, that's enough to be getting on with!).
So, why the anger? And to what names am I referring?
I believe this anger has several causes. To begin with, we are told “breast is best” (or, at least,we think we have been told this – though that slogan hasn’t been used officially much lately, if at all, largely because it is unhelpful and patronising). And then we are often not supported very well to breastfeed once we’ve had our babies. Meanwhile, we are subject to very heavy marketing and societal expectation that breastfeeding is hard to do, that breastmilk isn’t that much different from formula, that you necessarily “move on” from breastfeeding when your baby is still relatively young and that successful breastfeeding is the preserve of the hairy-legged lentil-weaving hippy, who also happens to be smug and judgemental to boot. So we are set up to fail, but if we manage to breastfeed and dare to talk about it, we are sneered at. Anyone enjoying themselves yet?!
What is so upsetting to those who promote, educate, inform, but above all support women to breastfeed is that the opinion pieces are so often hefty digs at people who are doing that same job. So you’ll hear of a rogue breastfeeding counsellor who was judgemental, called formula “poison” or somesuch – but dig a bit deeper and generally it wasn’t a breastfeeding counsellor as trained by the National Childbirth Trust, Breastfeeding Network, La Leche League or Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, it was a healthcare assistant on the ward, a GP, or the milkman. Occasionally it was a fully-trained counsellor – in which case, complain to the organisation who provided them and they can have some retraining (or a boot up the backside, or both). Or complain to the hospital – bad breastfeeding advice won’t get better without intervention, after all.
Now to the names that women (and it usually is women, though the inimitable Mike Brady and the divine Dr Jack Newman are men who do amazing work) who support breastfeeding are called… Some that I have heard (and I am sure that you will have others) are:
- breastfeeding mafia
- breastfeeding Nazi
- nipple police
and, of course, smug, judgemental, holier-than-thou, snooty, etc, etc, etc.
When we think about feeding milk to babies, is it appropriate to use language from the Holocaust, or from mob warfare? Really? And, if so (it’s not, by the way, but bear with me…), why don’t we talk about the formula mafia – the people who:
- bang on about getting your baby to take a bottle
- tell you you are making a rod for your back by pandering to that baby
- say it’s “child abuse” to breastfeed past whatever age they think is the right one at which to stop (this can range from three weeks to three years)
- talk about how “women like that” (ie breastfeeding mothers) just “enjoy flashing their boobs”
- tell you that you’re only doing it for you (the implication being that you breastfeed for the sexual thrill)
- pronounce that your child will be clingy, decayed of tooth, slow to talk, never sleep through, etc, etc – dreadful, doom-laden prophecies that come not from experience, but from prejudice
Because that’s it, isn’t it? It’s prejudice. It’s not great swathes of experience, because there simply aren’t enough women in the UK who have breastfed for any length of time, certainly not a generation older than the one currently having babies. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many wonderful supporters of breastfeeding out there, working in or alongside the health service, or as grandparents, aunts, etc – but the general level of knowledge about breastfeeding in society is pretty sketchy (and when there are so many newspapers and magazines publishing dreadfully ill-informed articles and cathartic (for the author) opinion pieces about how terrible breastfeeding is, is that any wonder?).
So why don’t we talk about the formula police, the formula mafia, the bottle Nazis? Perhaps people do – I haven’t come across it, but that’s not to say it hasn’t happened (and I have heard smug, judgy unkindnesses from people who breastfeed too – but I simply assume that they’d be smug, judgy and unkind whether their breasts had seen active service or not; I don’t take them seriously, except to say, “Oi, judgy-smugger, NO!”). But I don’t know – I’d be interested to hear what you think, actually. And please don’t think I’m suggesting we start calling women who feed their babies formula vile names either!
Doesn’t promoting breastfeeding put pressure on women?
Well, I suppose that depends. If you say “breast is best” – yes, it does. Because that sets a standard, but doesn’t help individual women to attain it. Promotion without support is the worst of all worlds – you tell women they must breastfeed and set them up to fail by not helping them to do it; yes, that’s neat, I’m sure that won’t cause heartache, grief, that lurching, nauseous feeling you get when you know you should be doing something but…just…can’t…!
And, anyway, doesn’t the pressure often come from inside? So you know you should be breastfeeding because you’ve been told you should, but many, many women also want to, desperately, instinctively? And being told that that instinct is wrong, that you should be squashing down feelings of guilt and upset and grief at not breastfeeding – is that not putting pressure on women, actually? Pressure to conform to society’s expectation that only women of a certain “type” breastfeed? Pressure to not be too “attached” to your child, to not make rods for your back, to not pander or comfort? Because, of course, feeding for comfort – oh, dear, are you really? No, sorry, we don’t comfort our babies, that’s wrong and bad (seriously – where is society at if comforting our babies is bad?!)…
What do we do then?
It occurs to me that we ought to challenge the name-calling, wherever we see it – I choose to do it humorously, because I feel that humour helps in emotionally-charged situations (and because someone who is levelling an accusation of “Nazi” at another person for talking about feeding babies milk is quite likely not in a great place themselves – although they may never admit it).
But do try not to be a judgy-smugger when it comes to feeding babies milk. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it really, really doesn’t help anyone to breastfeed. And that’s what we want – don’t we?