Yesterday, when I quoted Lorrie Hearts about a hospital’s decision to stop making free formula available to new moms in an effort to be “baby-friendly”, I got a lot of supportive comments and questions through Tumblr. (Thanks, y’all!) I also got a lot of hate and misrepresentation directed at me through Twitter. (Does this decide the never-ending social media battle in my head? Maybe!)
When I wrote about breastfeeding and formula feeding for my column in The Daily earlier this year, what I stressed was that too many moms who choose (or must) formula feed are outright shamed for it:
But why a woman doesn’t nurse is beside the point. Whether she’s unable to or simply chooses not to, the guilt has got to go.
We should reserve our motherly disdain for systemic issues that make parenting harder — workplace inequities and the maternal wage gap, the lack of paid maternity leave and affordable child-care options — not other women’s personal decisions about how to feed their babies.
So it’s all the more infuriating that the responses directed at me (shrouded in patronizing rhetoric about wanting to “educate”) have been absolutely rife with shaming.
FeministBreeder, a blogger and lactivist whose Twitter description touts herself as a “rocker chick turned natural mom” (I’m dying to know what kind of mother isn’t a “natural” one), started in by suggesting my post was “harmful to women’s health,” that I hadn’t researched the issue, and that I was “siding with the formula marketing industry” who take advantage of “vulnerable” women.
Her tweets actually embody the main issues I have with those who shame formula-feeding mothers: the condescending attitude that women who formula feed are somehow stupid or have been duped, the assumption that anyone who formula feeds or supports women who do so isn’t educated on the issue, and, of course, the shaming inherent in suggesting that formula hurt women (and babies). The other issue, which I’ll get into in a bit, is the mind-boggling classism I’ve seen bandied about.
Perhaps the most measured response I saw came from CaitFem, a doula-in-training, who wrote Formula Marketing is NOT Feminist. I’m sympathetic to Catilin’s argument that there are problems with the way that formula companies market their products (there’s quite a long history there). That said, of course free formula in hospitals is done from a marketing perspective, not for the good of women. Companies are companies and they’re targeting their audience. But I’ll tell you what - when my breastmilk ran out while Layla was in the NICU, I was sure as shit glad there was formula there to feed her. And the argument that women are “vulnerable” to free formula is just plain insulting to women’s intelligence. I trust women to make their own decisions.
But the marketing/corporate aspect was not really what Hearts’ post and my response was about - we were addressing the hypocrisy of judging women who choose to formula feed and the way they are made to justify their choice. In this case, the fact that the hospital would make formula available to women who “medically” needed it - what constitutes medical need? And what if women simply didn’t want to breastfeed? Isn’t that her right, and shouldn’t she be equally supported for that decision in the same way a breastfeeding mom is?
But to anti-formula folks, the formula-feeding mother isn’t equal - in fact she’s barely a mother.
One commenter at the f word likened formula feeding to smoking. Somalirosek on Twitter suggested that women who don’t breastfeed are just worried about their breasts sagging and denying their natural purpose in life: “why does being a feminist have 2mean denying what ur body was designed 2do? I don’t care if my boobs sag I’m breast feeding.” 30NLactating even wrote that feeding your child formula was like giving them McDonald’s. (How did she know that I blend Big Macs and give them to Layla!?)
Earlier, 30NLactating wrote (over several tweets) that “#breastfeeding has been the most challenging, and at times the most grueling, thing I have ever done in my life! But the same way I chose to become a mother. I am choosing to make that sacrifice. Anything less is not option. Being a mother is all about sacrifice and if you aren’t willing to make those sacrifices for the health and well being of your child then maybe you should think twice about becoming a mother.”
And there it is - at least 30NLactating is upfront about her bigotry instead of hiding behind pro-woman rhetoric. Motherhood is all about sacrifices, and if you don’t want to breastfeed then you simply shouldn’t have children.
You’re depressed and exhausted? Come on, you just need to sacrifice a little more! You have never-ending breast infections? Suck it up and get your ass to a La Leche league meeting! (Oh, you have to work? That sucks.) Your baby is premature and the stress of the NICU has left you with almost no milk? Just take this vitamin, drink this oatmeal shake and pump your breasts for fifteen minutes every hour! You don’t have a job that has a pump room or refrigerator? Well what’s more important - your job or feeding your child? (Someone actually said this to me once) You don’t have the time or physical and mental energy to do this? Sorry, but this is the natural way - better that you’re ready to jump out a window than give your baby formula.
But, we swear, this is not about shaming - it’s about “educating!”
Cue more condescension from FeministBreeder who tweeted her post (which bizarrely compares formula feeding to getting breast implants) at me this morning, saying it was a “wholehearted attempt to recruit fellow feminists…to the Pro-WOMAN side of this issue." Because if you formula feed you’re anti-woman. If you support hospitals providing formula in the same way they provide breastpumps you’re not only anti-woman, you’re a shill for the formula industry.
Listen, I support breastfeeding women - long before I had my daughter I was blogging about the heinous lack of resources for breastfeeding mothers and the various ways they are discriminated against. I think we need mandated paid maternity leave, insurance that pays for lactation consultants and breast pumps, employers who are required to have a space and breaks for pumping moms, hospital- and state-funded breastfeeding support groups and more. But I also believe that formula feeding your child is just as valid and healthy a choice as breastfeeding - it’s not something women should have to justify or be denied resources for or access to. If that makes me less of a feminist or a mother to some people, well - they can just suck my left one.
(For more on the science of breast and formula feeding, I highly recommend Joan Wolf’s book Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood. You can find a Q&A with her here.)
UPDATE: It has (rightfully) been pointed out to me that by focusing exclusively on women in this post, I’ve been cis-sexist by making the men who are mothers (and fathers) invisible. Sincere apologies for the erasure; it won’t happen again.