Booby Trapped: Navigating the Complexities of National Breastfeeding Month

Everywhere you look, people have an opinion about breastfeeding. August is National Breastfeeding Month, and as of 2018 (2018!) it is finally legal to breastfeed in any public or private space in all fifty states, as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, this hasn’t done much to curtail the aggressive shaming of mothers who breastfeed in public. It is worth noting that even though we often (justifiably) lay the blame on men for insisting that women’s breasts not be seen in public unless they are sexualized, there are just as many women who have drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid and feel entitled to shame nursing mothers.

No matter how mothers choose to feed their babies, other people seem to have something to say about it. It is all too common to hear stories of women being illegally forced to leave public pools, restaurants, and retail stores because the sight of her feeding her baby has made some stranger feel uncomfortable. Babies need to eat frequently…newborns as much as every hour or two…and it is completely unreasonable to expect nursing mothers to stay hidden in their homes around the clock in order to feed them. Women are shamed for doing the exact thing that OBGYNs, midwives, pediatricians, parenting books, lactation consultants, and the media are telling them to do: the trick is that no one is supposed to see them doing it.

Breastfeeding might be best for most babies, but it is not best for all mothers.

While breastfeeding is now legal in public spaces nationwide, it is nearly impossible to find a sanitary, private, comfortable space to set up a breast pump. None of the conventional wisdom around breastfeeding—that it is easy, natural, free, and promotes bonding between mother and baby—applies to the pumping mother. It is not cheap (even if you’re lucky enough to have health insurance that covers the cost of a breast pump, you’ll still have to shell out money for replacement parts), and it is (nearly always) the very opposite of convenient. Mothers who pump (and especially mothers who pump exclusively) get the short end of every stick: pumpin’ ain’t easy.

And what if—for whatever reason—a mother doesn’t offer breastmilk to her baby at all? The stigma around formula feeding has ebbed and flowed over the past few decades. I was born in 1979, to a mother who made the difficult choice to surrender me for adoption. As a baby, I was only given formula: first by the nurses at the hospital where I was born, and then by my foster mother, and later by my adoptive mother (with whom I bonded quite well, just for the record). Breastfeeding might be best for most babies, but it is not best for all mothers. That is one of the many legitimate reasons that formula was developed. The best baby is a fed baby, and the outright scorn towards formula by some breastfeeding advocates is a serious reproductive justice issue, insofar as it indiscriminately prioritizes what is perceived as babies best interest over that of women.

When I was pregnant with my first son, I couldn’t wait to breastfeed. Bolstering the American Academy of Pediatrics claim that “breast was best” were promises of a higher IQ, fewer food allergies, greater bonding, and a better immune system for babies — as well as faster weight loss for mothers. Unfortunately, because my son was born with congenital heart and lung defects, he wasn’t able to breastfeed efficiently enough to gain weight, and his health was in serious jeopardy. I had been supplementing his nursing with pumped milk all along (he didn’t have the stamina to nurse for a full feeding, and the bottle was easier for him to take), but his cardiologist also wanted me to mix my breastmilk with a high-fat baby formula, and also add a dense calorie powder called Polycose to his bottles. Those months were spent hooked up to the wheezing breast pump while I worked from home during the day, and in the evenings, I was a mad scientist, carefully measuring every precious drop of pumped milk into test-tube-sized bottles, weighing meticulously leveled scoops of Polycose and powdered formula, and doing more complicated math than I had since high school, as I charted the ounces he drank, while the curve on his growth chart continued to slope ominously downward.

I remember sitting on a public bench in my progressive western Massachusetts town, giving my son a bottle, and feeling the harsh stares from the people passing us. I was in a cloud of postpartum depression, overwhelmed by stress and anxiety over my very sick baby, and as the strangers pursed their lips disapprovingly at the bottle I fed my son, I felt only shame, and overwhelming failure. Later, I would realize that none of those people could have known the amount of time and care that had gone into that bottle I was giving him.

Understanding reproductive justice only in narrow terms that apply to you or people like you is not justice at all.

Breastfeeding is a feminist issue: it impacts women’s bodies, their health (physical and mental), their careers, their division of household labor, and their children’s health. And while how mothers feed their babies shouldn’t be anyone else’s business, the cultural discourse around breastfeeding is everyone’s issue. Whether or not you’re someone who has ever or will ever be in the position of feeding a baby yourself isn’t the point. Selective caring about issues that only affect yourself is not only selfish, it goes against the tenets of intersectional feminism. Anyone who claims to practice intersectional feminism should care about—and fight for—all social justice issues, not just the ones that impact them directly. Understanding reproductive justice only in narrow terms that apply to you or people like you is not justice at all. Being a mother is hard enough, and at the end of the day, what matters is that new mothers are empowered and supported to make informed choices about what works for themselves and their babies, haters be damned. And it’s true what they say: living well is the breast revenge.

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