Breastfeeding, Bootstrapping, and the Boundaries of Personal Experience

“Breastfeeding is a Must …” declares the headline for an article on City Limits magazine’s website, “… for Moms Who Can Afford It.”

It’s a knowingly incendiary statement: the sort of thing considered, by some journalists, de rigueur for maximizing eye-catchability. (And to them I say, “Hey, at least you didn’t use a forced pun”). A little backlash is written off as acceptable in that it means the title is doing its job, serving as an entrée to the meat of the story — which people hopefully bother to read.

I was referred to this City Limits article by the Facebook page of an online compendium of breastfeeding resources. It should go without saying that people who follow said Facebook page — myself included — tend to be pretty vociferous breastfeeding advocates.  However, reading others’ comments in response to this article reinforced the fact that some of my cohorts-in-name-only and I part ways significantly when it comes to bolstering our allegedly shared cause.

(Two quick caveats before I continue:

  1. I should probably impose a “No reading ‘users fora’ comments for any print or, especially, electronic publication” policy. I don’t need to court high blood pressure.
  2. Like my Pax (Ro)mama counterpart, Jen, one of the many hats I wear is that of professional educator. In my case, I’m an adjunct humanities lecturer at a career college that does not — emphatically not — traffic in liberal arts degrees. So convincing students of the utility of my classes is sometimes a hard sell.  All things considered, though, I think I do a pretty good job. And yet, I am so the type to read course evaluations and home in on the one or two negative comments bobbing ineffectually in a sea of positivity. That same, basic principle applies to other facets of my life, too.

Okay, so, back to the action!)

The gist of the article, written by a New York City social worker, is that, while Michelle Obama recently spoke out in favor of federal support for breastfeeding initiatives (especially in underserved African American communities), other federal programs, utilized by many poor women of color, actually impede the establishment of positive breastfeeding relationships between mothers and babies.

There were three camps of pro-breastfeeding readers who reacted negatively to this article’s premise:

  1. “WTF? Breastfeeding is free!” These people either failed to read past the article’s title, or are so mired in this kind of “strict constructionist” rhetoric that anything seeming to stray from a rotely-regurgitated adage just will not penetrate the ol’ gray matter.
  2. “Even though I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding, I also [coughmindbogglinglycough] agree with Michele Bachmann’s [coughmindbogglingcough] comments about Ms. Obama’s campaign being literally indicative of the United States’ slide into [coughbogglebogglebogglecough] ‘nanny state’-dom. Ergo, people on TANF can suck it. ” The opinions of this group aren’t so much focused on the thesis of the article as the notion that a conflict between what they see as two cogs in the same, decrepit machine lends credence to their position. And that is, “The entire ‘factory’ [to  belabor my metaphor] needs to be shut down.” Frankly, for their purposes, it doesn’t even matter that the article is about breastfeeding. It’s just another way to insinuate a general political stance into a thread of discourse. Their prerogative, I guess.
  3. “I breastfed sextuplets after having a breast reduction and I needed to relactate seventeen times and I had mastitis every day and my partner left me and I had to hand express into a Ziploc bag while working 16 hour shifts in an abattoir and my babies all reverse-cycled for 12 months so I got by on two, non-consecutive minutes of sleep every night and the babies and I had to live in a hole in the ground, under a plastic tarp. If you can’t boast my willingness to blithely self-sacrifice, you aren’t entitled to claim hardship.”

It’s this last cluster of naysayers that frustrates me the most. Their objections aren’t rooted in an obstinate lack of reading comprehension, or a political ideology. Instead, they’ve become devotees of bootstrappery, and unable — or unwilling — to see that their stories, like everyone’s, have wholly unique parameters.

I had my own share of difficulties while breastfeeding. The most difficulties? Of anyone, ever? Clearly not. But enough to say to those feeling indignant about the momentusness of their efforts going unacknowledged, “I can relate.”

Neither my mother nor my grandmother breastfed any of their children, so I didn’t have the foundation of tradition buoying me along. After having my first baby, I had to return to work outside the home, starting at six weeks postpartum. (Of my partner and I, I had the greatest earning potential and carried our family’s benefits. My husband still worked near-fulltime hours in the evenings and on weekends). Stuart (the baby) rejected  just about every bottle my husband tried and, consequently, turned into a reverse-cycler. This meant he refused expressed breast milk during the day, preferring to wait until I got home from work and he could sup “from the tap,” every hour or two. All. Night. Long.  And he ended up having some pretty significant food allergies, which meant that I had to go on an allergen-elimination diet (and execute the second Great Freezer Stash Purge of 2007. The first GFSP happened after I discovered an excess lipase issue)  — while I was newly pregnant with my second baby, no less! Poor weight gain. Anemia. No La Leche League meetings within a forty-five minute drive from my home. It was not a walk in the park.

I did have a lot going for me besides a steely resolve, though.

Stuart did not require a surgical birth and, as such, I was able to breastfeed him almost immediately after he was born. Stuart was a full-term baby and did not have any physiological or developmental issues that prevented him from latching properly and swallowing and digesting my milk. I did not have any physiological or psychological issues that prevented me from producing milk or nursing without pain or emotional distress. I had six weeks to begin to establish a nursing relationship in the comfort of our apartment. I had healthcare providers who were knowledgable about breastfeeding, and encouraging of my goals. I had a computer and internet access at home and the ability to search for, and discern, credible information on breastfeeding. I was able to acquire an electric double-pump at no cost to myself. My employer offered a comfortable, private location to use my pump, and allowed me to do so according to my own schedule . 

In my case, when the factors from column “A” and the factors from column “B” duked it out, the circumstances contributing to my ultimate breastfeeding success prevailed: “success” meaning that I achieved the milestones I hoped I would (nursing until Stuart was at least one year old, and allowing him to wean at his own pace). I can easily see how, if things had been only slightly different, I wouldn’t have made it.

Sure, the strength of my commitment played some part in all of this. But I know better than to arrogantly say, “That’s all it takes.” The implication of such a statement is that those who do not breastfeed, for whatever reason, are “weak.” In fact, the reason I take such pains to point out that the very definition of breastfeeding “success” is highly subjective is that I believe objective success/failure polarities are counterproductive.

For some, success may mean never using artificial milk or artificial nipples to feed their baby. For others, it may mean exclusively expressing breast milk for, and bottle-feeding,  their baby until they are able to begin transitioning to solid foods. The bottom line is, until breastfeeding is truly enculturated, across the board (for working and stay-at-home moms; mothers of every ethnic and cultural background; moms of all ages and socioeconomic statuses), and steps are taken to provide practical accommodation for all manner of barriers, we breastfeeding advocates need to be a little better about reserving judgment.

Does that mean we should all rest on our laurels until the fabled day arrives (or until Michelle Obama delivers it unto us? Wow, that woman is endowed with an awful lot of responsibility for a single person!)? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t suggest that. However! If you’ve been following along, you can probably surmise that I appreciate how daunting a task it seems to take a run at The System while trying to juggle the stuff of everyday life. I know it is easier to just feel disgruntled and cast aspersions at faceless folks on the Internet. So here are some things you can do to constructively forward the cause that require virtually no time commitment whatsoever:

  • Acknowledge people’s victories, including your own. I think one of the major contributors to breastfeeding mamas’ bitterness is that they expend a ton of effort to do right by their child in a not-always-breastfeeding-friendly climate only to have their breastfeeding milestones pass without so much as a pat on the back (or, even worse, with comments like, “Oh, you’re still doing that?”).

Do you know someone who is breastfeeding or pumping milk for their child? Throw a casual, “Good job!” in their direction every once in a while. And if you don’t get the same in return from people in your life, celebrate yourself! Just say, “I am proud of myself for breastfeeding,” out loud, to another human being (or, heck, in a Facebook status update). It’s all part of moving toward a curious-but-necessary re-normalization of this biological function. Plus, who doesn’t appreciate a little praise?

  • Acknowledge people’s setbacks, including your own. I feel like no one should have to justify their personal reasons for breastfeeding only at a certain level (i.e. supplementing with infant formula), or only for a certain period of time … or not at all. We’re trying to take down the paradigm, not the individual, right? Nonetheless, I’ve found  that many people really want to share their challenges: particularly people who have had to revise their original breastfeeding goals. The tricky part to navigate: knowing when they are looking for suggestions to redress the difficulties they have encountered, and knowing when they are simply looking for commiseration and recognition. Responding with, “That sounds really hard. Here’s an anecdote about something that was hard for me when I was breastfeeding my child …” and leaving the door open for further discussion is a good one-size-fits-all salvo.

Relatedly …

  • Be able to identify threats and challenges to individuals’ breastfeeding success as well as broader, societal acceptance of breastfeeding. Be open to reading articles, like the one from City Limits, and listening to people’s stories that might, initially, trigger a defensive or antagonistic response. Be aware of laws pertaining to breastfeeding in your state and imagine the different ways in which they may help and harm breastfeeding mothers. Try to avoid interpolating your own history and cultural background into the experiences of others; trust that they are accurate chroniclers of their circumstances, and that it might take action internal to their particular demographic to effect change.

And, last but not least …

  • Remember that the vast majority of parents love their babies and want to do what is best for them. The shame of being told , “If you really loved your child, you would [do X,Y,Z differently],” is pretty peerless and, I would venture to guess, not a great motivator. Understand that we humans all have different stress tolerance thresholds, different priority hierarchies, different coping mechanisms.

If one mother, for example, is part of a religious congregation that frowns upon breastfeeding during services, it may be feasible for her to attend services elsewhere, or forego attending until her baby is able to make it through the service without nursing. For another, the very idea would be unthinkable and could lead to alienation from her family or faith community. Whether or not their choices line up with the choices we would make, it is not our place to question their love for their babies, or their fitness to parent.              


This post isn’t about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies. It isn’t really about the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers, either. Trust me, though: those considerations are never far from my mind. What it is about it this:

 I would like to propose that increased acceptance of breastfeeding is too important a battle for us to employ tactics like reductive credos (“Breastfeeding is only natural!” “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”), ad hominem attacks, and scorched earth exclusivity. I wish that it was as simple as “boobs + baby + positive attitude = universally utopic breastfeeding experience.” But I think that, in the end, admitting the flaws in that equation will lead to a more comprehensively useful, fundamentally stronger campaign.


1 Comment

Filed under Amanda

One response to “Breastfeeding, Bootstrapping, and the Boundaries of Personal Experience

  1. My GOD, Woman, you’re amazing! I love this– absolutely love it all, and love the gentle way you remind us breastfeeding mamas (or non-breastfeeding mamas) that we just don’t know everything about any situation that’s not our own (and probably not even everything about our own)! Thanks, Amanda!


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