Welcome back to Ask Ashley! A little late, but I definitely had a favorite from last week that I wanted to make sure I got to answering, and it hasn’t been as easy as I expected. At first glance this question seemed pretty benign, but the MAN OH MAN did it get deep and dark real fast. I apologize in advance to the person who wrote in with this, its taking me down a wormhole and with perhaps not the response you’d expect. Without further ado, here it is:
Why do you feel women/mothers get shamed for choosing not to breastfeed and it not being the “right” choice? I’m choosing not to breastfeed, for a number of reasons, but feel I never hear the end of it. I’m quite stubborn, so I have stuck to my guns regardless of others opinions. I guess my thought is what’s best for mother AND baby is the best method.
This one really made me think. I’ve written before on breastfeeding, including my feelings that I do agree with this writer that women who do not breastfeed are often shamed. I talked to my husband about this one and tossed it back and forth in my brain for a while before I could really articulate my feelings.
On the surface we wonder why this would bother anyone, since this is YOUR baby, and certainly not anybody else’s business. But then again we know that this is not a unique situation – people of the world have all sorts of opinions and feelings on things that will never affect their own lives. We see this with many civil and social right debates – abortion and same sex marriage come immediately to mind – why should it matter if I am against abortion or same sex marriage? It shouldn’t – if I don’t want an abortion or a same-sex marriage, I shouldn’t get one. I also probably shouldn’t be making life changing decisions for someone else who I’ve never known or met. Seems fairly simple to me …
Its also a phenomenon that circles around social media constantly – commenting on the parenting choices of celebrities, body sizes and shapes of women, things that have VIRTUALLY ZERO IMPACT on the commentators life. So why do we do it? Why is does this gavel come down especially hard on issues pertaining to women (see: parenting, abortion, body size/shape, and as you have asked specifically: breastfeeding).
My short answer? I feel that this shame comes from oppression. Skeptical? Hear me out.
First the medical/scientific/health perspective.
The AAP’s (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommendations are exclusive breastfeeding (no formula, food etc) for the first 6 months of the baby’s life. After that, breastfeeding should continue for one year, while introducing solid foods. The WHO (World Health Organization) also echo this recommendation, although they encourage breastfeeding up to age two. However, taking a look at the numbers for mothers in America, we know that only 13% are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months. There is a huge gap, in other words, with the overwhelming majority of women not even coming close to meeting these recommendations.
In my personal life, of all the women I know who have had babies, I know only a tiny minority of women who came close to meeting these guidelines. I met them with both babies, but let’s be honest – that’s because I had a massive amount of good luck, exceptional circumstances and good old fashioned guilt and perfectionism on my side, neither of which is healthy. My babies had zero struggles in any way with breastfeeding or gaining weight, and they didn’t have any medical issues. I work exclusively from home, meaning my babies had access directly to my boobs 24/7. I did not have to deal with health issues, medication issues, trying to find a time and place to pump, work schedules, low supply, none of it. In short, I had it as easy as it could possibly be when it comes to breastfeeding. And guess what? It was still freaking hard. I felt resentful often, especially with the added twist that neither one of my children would ever take a bottle. That means feeding and nutrition were 100% on my shoulders for the first 6 months of their lives, and still strongly on my shoulders for the following six months.
So what does this have to do with oppression?
By laying out the expectations that women exclusively devote 6 months of their lives to being the sole and only source of nutrition for their children, and then continue to be available for another 6 months, without setting up any universal laws/regulations/policies to make this anything other than a steep challenge for most, we are setting completely unrealistic standards for the vast majority of women. These recommendations are set forth by authority figures in our world – The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization. Here we have handed down the word from the highest authority on the health of our children – this is what we are recommending. Thus what follows is the assumption that this is WHAT IS BEST. And don’t we all want the best for our children?
Well, we do, yes. But this point of view fails to recognize that mothers are – wait for it – actually ALSO HUMAN BEINGS WITH NEEDS as well. I know, I KNOW. Revolutionary. These guidelines do not take into account what is best for the mother or the family as a whole. They do not take into account individual variations and circumstances and life situations. No one blanket recommendation can ever do that.
The answer to the question “don’t we all want the best for our children” is a resounding yes. But the next question is where it gets sticky – shouldn’t we do whatever it takes to get them the best? And by “we”, I am not talking about anyone but the one figure our culture pins the heaviest burden on blame and shame on – the mother. So, rephrasing this more explicitly – mothers, it is your responsibility and duty to ensure that you do whatever it takes to get your children the best, as determined by authority figures in our culture. The ultimate authority in child health in our culture says you need to breastfeed. So you do it.
It is a rare woman who questions this logic. It is something were are conditioned to accept as the gospel truth, not to question.
Historically, and particularly in religious circles, women often pride themselves in putting others before themselves. It is a virtue, a good thing, something to strive for. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Women are historically the martyrs, they are taught to OBEY. Don’t question your husband, your God, or authority in general. Be quiet, be small, and obey. Do what is best for your children, at all costs.
Women who have internalized these messages from society may lash out at other women who aren’t obeying “the rules”. You can’t just ignore medical advice! You can’t be that selfish! Ah yes, the S word. A mother’s Achilles Heel. Of all the insults you can hurl at a new mother, is there anything worse than “selfish”? Not likely, because learning to put everyone else above herself is one of the chief tasks of learning to be a woman in our society.
So when we see a woman, such as yourself, reader, who is unapologetic and not offering up a detailed explanation as to why you will not be breastfeeding, it knocks us off our feet a little. Who is this person so brazenly ignoring the rules?? The rules we have ourselves been taught not to question, not to speak up against?
Because while I am quite aware this sounds cynical, I am not of the belief that strangers who protest another woman’s lack of breastfeeding are truly, deeply concerned about the health and well-being of the baby involved. I think its what we’ve been taught to do. Women need to follow the rules and never speak up against authority. If a woman does, we quickly discipline her ourselves through shaming in both obvious and subtle ways, ways we are practiced at from a very young age, ways we police each other into being rule followers.
Because if women didn’t follow the “rules” set up to ensure their servitude, if they didn’t follow their physical and reproductive responsibilities as outlined and enforced by a patriarchal society, then what? We need the shame to remind us to fall in line. Because if we don’t fall in line, dare I say we might be standing next to men instead of behind them?
So reader, I agree with you – what is best for baby AND mother is the best method. Best of luck to you and baby and keep on keeping strong in your choices. *virtual fist bump here*
And don’t forget to anonymously submit your questions here!