THE BLOG

Dear Lactivist: I Am Not a Milk-Delivery System

10/10/2014 14:09 | Updated 09 December 2014

Dear Lactivist,

I'm getting closer and closer to the publication of my book for working, breastfeeding women, and as I accidentally become one of those people who moves in breastfeeding circles a lot, I'm starting to notice something disturbing about how new mothers are sometimes viewed and treated. I don't know if what I'm about to write applies to YOU, lactivist hopefully reading this right now, but I'd like to ask you to read this with an open mind and ask yourself whether you recognize anything here.

Here is the major disclaimer: I am talking about a minority of breastfeeding advocates here. Most of you lovely people do not do what I am about to talk about. And "lactivists" are super important. And all of you - including the ones I'm talking about here - are amazing people who are working hard for women and babies. I'm not going to keep disclaiming this throughout this post, so please write this on your heart. I mean it: you are awesome.

OK, here goes: If your job or public persona is related to breastfeeding, do any of these sound familiar?

  1. You push exclusive breastfeeding as the only viable or laudable option for baby-feeding
  2. You believe that virtually any mother can and should exclusively breastfeed for two years if she just tries hard enough
  3. You don't like to share information with new mothers about how to supplement with formula, or how to wean off the breast altogether
  4. You tell exhausted working mothers with supply issues to set an alarm in the middle of the night to pump, or to "reverse-cycle" - have the baby sleep all day and then co-sleep and nurse with the mother all night

If this is you, I want to gently tell you that you are making me feel like you don't care about ME. At all.

You don't care if I'm stressed, or anxious, or if producing breast milk is causing me conflict with my spouse or employer, or if I lie awake at night feeling like a horrible mother for not making enough milk, or if the demands of breastfeeding are really, really hard to juggle with two or more little kids. You don't care if it will take me years to get over the feelings of shame and inadequacy that all this "every ounce counts" stuff has brought on. You don't care if I might be a better mother, or happier person, if I could somehow take some of the breastfeeding pressure off.

I feel like you look at me and see one thing only: a milk-delivery system. A machine, with dark circles under her eyes and a permanent baby bump, whose purpose is to make milk for a baby. And if anything that I want, or even claim to need, gets in the way of that milk-delivery system, it is simply to be overcome. I must be made to see that the Most Important Thing is making milk. Everything else can wait until after the kid turns two.

Probably you're not doing any of this intentionally, but remember that we are super hormonal and crazy right now, and this is how it FEELS.

I notice this phenomenon especially with working, breastfeeding mothers (did I mention I'm publishing a book??). It's not that this is a harder job than staying at home and breastfeeding, but it's a different job. Many women who breastfeed and work end up with supply issues. Fully half of the hundreds of women I surveyed said that working caused them to breastfeed for a shorter length of time than they had planned. 80% had anxiety about their supply.

You are a teacher and a counselor, and you're called in to teach and to counsel at one of the most vulnerable times of a woman's life. So you know what I wish you would teach me about, if I'm not making enough milk? Formula, for sure, but also...

I want you to teach me how to see - and be proud of - all the other ways I am delivering vital substances that my baby cannot live without. These include:

love
protection
comfort
laughter
clean diapers
music
dance parties
kisses
walks in the sunshine
walks in the rain
looking at airplanes
high-fives
bubbles
semi-regular baths
a clean-ish house

So here's what I know:

In the spirit of feminism that I think we share: My body is not anyone's to objectify or simplify down to its physical functions. My mental health matters. My relationships with my spouse and children and friends matter. My enjoyment of my career matters, and not because "I want to be a good example to my daughter." It matters because I LIKE IT, and I am allowed to like things without justifying them by saying I'm doing them to be a better mother.

I know you are trying to be supportive by exhorting new mothers to exclusively breastfeed. But in doing so, you seem to be intentionally hiding how hard it is, and leaving viable options (like supplementing) off the table, in the hopes that this will keep women exclusively breastfeeding. Well, this approach just BREAKS some of us. We try SO hard to meet those standards, we internalize SO much guilt about breastfeeding being difficult and painful (because you've told us it's glorious and painless and ecstasy-inducing), and we push ourselves beyond our limits. And then - backfire! - we quit breastfeeding altogether.

I know you are kind and smart and caring. That's why you do this job. But you are sometimes kind of mean about formula. I think your intentions are good, but you are demonizing the only other option most women have for feeding their infants. So when that supplementing or weaning day comes, whether from work stress or illness or exhaustion or personal choice or whatever, the mom feels like absolute crap, because everything you've said makes her feel like she's now feeding her baby basically a can of Coke. She uses words about herself like "failure" and "ashamed". That can't possibly be a good outcome.

So I'm asking you to consider this, please:

If I call you for help because I've made the educated, carefully thought-out, and possibly painful decision to give my kid some formula, or to wean altogether and move on to the next, lovely, interesting, exhausting phase of being a parent, I need you to support me through that. I don't need you to change where I am, I need you to meet me there. Because I'm more than the milk my body can make.

And I'm telling you all of this, hoping you're still reading and not putting me on some kind of Lactation Blacklist, because you've dedicated your career and/or personal energies to trying to support new mothers (super important!), to normalizing breastfeeding (super important!), to advocating for paid maternity leave and lactation rooms and strong laws to protect nursing in public (super important!). You are kind and caring and I think you'd want to know this, even if it stings a little.

If this piece resonates with you - if you recognize yourself in it - I'm trying to find a way to kindly tell you that some of what you're doing is not working for me, and for other women too. We need you - you're our best hope of surviving this insanity.

Please meet us where we are.

Love,

Jessica.