Tag Archives: shame

You Make Me Sick (?)

Consider this convenient compendium of factoids from Wikipedia’s breastfeeding article …

  • In a 1993 University of Texas Medical Branch study, a longer period of breastfeeding was associated with a shorter duration of some middle ear infections (otitis media with effusion) in the first two years of life.
  • A 1995 study of 87 infants found that breastfed babies had half the incidence of diarrheal illness, 19% fewer cases of any otitis media infection, and 80% fewer prolonged cases of otitis media than formula fed babies in the first twelve months of life.
  • Breastfeeding appeared to reduce symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections in premature infants up to seven months after release from hospital in a 2002 study of 39 infants.
  • A 2004 case-control study found that breastfeeding reduced the risk of acquiring urinary tract infections in infants up to seven months of age, with the protection strongest immediately after birth.
  • Infants exclusively breastfed have less chance of developing diabetes mellitus type 1 than peers with a shorter duration of breastfeeding and an earlier exposure to cow milk and solid foods.
  • In children who are at risk for developing allergic diseases (defined as at least one parent or sibling having atopy), atopic syndrome can be prevented or delayed through exclusive breastfeeding for four months.
  •  Atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema, can be reduced through exclusive breastfeeding beyond 12 weeks in individuals with a family history of atopy.

 … and this recent study, from Denmark:

An observational study of 69,750 infants born in Denmark has concluded that breastfeeding may decrease epilepsy in childhood. Information on breastfeeding was reported by mothers at 6 and 18 months and information on epilepsy retrieved from the Danish National Hospital Register. Breastfeeding was associated with a decreased risk of epilepsy, with a dose-response like pattern. For example, children breastfed for 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 12, and >13 months had a 26%, 39%, 50%, and 59% lower risk of epilepsy after the first year of life, respectively, compared with children who were breastfed for <1 month. The authors conclude that the observed protective effect of breastfeeding may be causal.

Now hear me out when I say that, rather than feeling self-satisfied, as a former breastfeeding mama, reading these statistics always gives me pause.

Another follower of the site that referred me to the last precis (on the incidence of epilepsy in BabyDanes) commented, “How bizarre that you have posted this! I saw a woman in town today who has two epileptic children under the age of 4 and I wondered as I walked past her, if breastfeeding reduced the risk.”

This got me thinking: about how we peddle breastfeeding; about the false  dichotomy of “sick children” and “healthy children”; about whether kids in either imaginary category should be used as marketing pawns. And about why we are making mothers feel like they must produce their “vetted breastfeeder” card before they can be held faultless for their child’s illness.


I’ll put myself and my kids out there as an informal case study.

I am the parent of two children who were sickly babies, and still face some health challenges — so far not-insurmountable ones — at ages four and two, respectively. They will likely deal with illness, to one degree or another, through adulthood. What’s to blame? Probably the confluence of my and my husband’s genes. There’s a lot of auto-immune hinckiness going on in all branches of the family tree.  We’re just lucky that, with accommodations, the stuff that Stuart and MaryAlice have experienced hasn’t had a big impact on their quality of life.

Thing is, many of the symptoms of and secondary conditions related to  their illnesses are ones for which extended breastfeeding is often touted as having near-prophylactic qualities. And both of my children were breastfed from day one: Stuart for 16 months (self-weaning about four months into my pregnancy with his sister), and MaryAlice, who also self-weaned, for roughly 30 months. What else? We introduced solids, on a conservative  schedule for allergen-avoidance, at six months. They got a combination of homemade purées and finger foods; but breastmilk was still their primary source of nutrition until toddlerhood. Brownie. Points. To. Meeeee.

A friend of mine, who did not nurse her first child (for sundry reasons, and despite valiant attempts), remarked, when Stuart was an infant (gaunt and anemic with a hyper-sensitive GI tract and weeping plaques of dermatitis): “You know, they say that breastfed babies are healthier. But when I see what Stuart has been through, I have my doubts!”


Therein lies the problem. Or a problem.

“Hold the phone!” you might be (reasonably!) saying, “Are you suggesting that these studies’ findings shouldn’t be circulated? Or that the studies shouldn’t be conducted in the first place? If you look at that data, it doesn’t imply that breastfeeding prevents or cures illness across the board, or that breastfed infants can’t get sick!”

No, and no. True, true. 

Breastfeeding advocates are regularly coming up against the challenge of how to disseminate our message persuasively and memorably while remaining on the sunny side of factual certitude. Formula companies have advertising dollars in their arsenal that we never will. (I’d add, “because breasts can’t be commodified.” But ohohoho how shortsighted that statement would be!). So why not at least co-opt their approach?

Except, unlike formula companies, breastfeeding advocates don’t have a centralized clearinghouse for our information or the vehicles we use to get the word out.  And, by dint of the “product” itself, we aren’t going to. (That would be weird and dystopian). Wonderful resources like Best for Babes aside, breastfeeding “proselytizing” probably goes over best at the grassroots level.

That great, potential strength is also a great, potential pitfall. Why? Because wielding logical fallacies is so, terribly (and I do mean terribly!) … well, fun. And easy. But they’re also easy  — and, I’d venture to guess, fun — for naysayers to dismantle.

The way this sickness-impervious-breastfed-babies fable makes the rounds is by way of misleading vividness couched in the actual outcomes of the above-mentioned studies and trials. (It’s a kissing cousin of the sickness-impervious-babies-of-stay-at-home-parents yarn). The positive take on this fallacy is, “My baby is robust and thriving and hasn’t had so much as a case of the sniffles since birth! We owe it all to breastmilk!” It’s an argument I don’t mind at all because it is person-specific and self-referential. Celebrate your healthy baby and celebrate breastfeeding, by all means. Is the implicit argument, “You should breastfeed, too, so your baby is healthy like mine”?  Perhaps. But it’s subtle and non-damning enough to be pretty innocuous (no pun intended), from where I stand.

At least when compared to the negative flip-side: “All the formula-fed babies I know are little mucous-buckets: always coming down with something. And their parents wonder why their kids are sick all the time! Could it be because they’re mainlining ‘crap-in-a-can’ [or alternate, disparaging euphemism for infant formula]?”

Sure, that exact sort of vitriolic take on the subject is probably reserved for preaching-to-the-choir internet fora. But the sentiment shines through, even in more tempered renditions (e.g. “That baby sure is sick a lot. I wonder if s/he is breastfed“). At least it does for me, as the parent of two, breastfed-to-the-gills children who struggle with chronic health problems.

Here is the snowball effect of the thoughts it evokes:

  1. Parents who choose to formula-feed their infants invite illness into their babies’ lives. There is direct, anecdotal causality between formula-feeding and illness, despite the studies drawing no similar conclusion.
  2. Sick children are undesirable.
  3. Sick children are not only undesirable because of the difficulty managing their illness poses to the children themselves and their families and caregivers. No, they are “gross.” And they spread their ick to more pristine, hardier kids. Yuck.
  4. This undesirability serves as a testament to their parents’ — their mothers’ — shortcomings. A sick baby is your punishment for Doing It Wrong.
  5. If you were a competent parent (read: if you loved your child), your kid would be healthy.

All sorts of other permutations of the same, basic idea feed this last point. I mentioned the non-parental caregiver/center-based daycare factor earlier. There’s also the chemical exposure factor (“I bet she used diaper lotion with parabens!”). The non-organic food factor (“Mom ate at McDonald’s a lot during her pregnancy …”). The medical intervention factor. (“They head straight to the pediatrician for antibiotics every time their baby coughs!”). Etcetera ad infinitum.

What are otherwise objectively reasonable convictions — avoid harsh chemicals; make healthier food selections; don’t jump the gun on prescription drug use (all “choices” fraught with their own privilege, by the way) — get mired in this over-zealous correlation-inflation. The fallout, here, is two-fold. First, we’re taking the offensive and using shame as a battering ram. I know I’ve harped on this topic before; but, since it continues to be massively uncool, I don’t feel bad about pointing it out again. The second issue: we’re leaving the door open for similar flights of empirical fancy that contradict our own. Like, “Breastfeeding can’t be the best choice for all babies: look at Stuart.” (“Heroin can’t be that bad. William S. Burroughs made it to 83!”).


More upsetting to me than the tenuousness of the rhetorical devices at play (and leave it to a former English major to be upset about rhetoric at all) is the idea that Well Children have cachet, whereas Sick Children are a liability to one’s reputation as a parent.  I mean, occasionally, in these discussions, there will be a hurried amendment to the opining: “Andreallyit’stoobadthatthekidshavetodealwithbeingill.Thatmustsuck.”

But, for the most part, the children that are held sacrosanct, the children we are supposedly jumping down each other’s throats to protect, are reduced to symbols. It’s almost as though bodily fortitude stopped being something that is desirable in and of itself (“I am so grateful for my health!”)  and started to have  … moral overtones.

(I want to take a moment, too, to acknowledge that parents of children with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities undoubtedly face even greater reproach in this doctrine of blame-assignment. It’s simply a topic for another time!)

At the heart of the matter: when someone learns about my kids’ rather storied history of illness, I don’t want their first thought to be, “How did you fail them?” And I don’t want to have that whole earlier spiel about my breastfeeding cred tattooed on my body for easy reference a la Memento. Because, yes, being obligated to prove myself is tiresome; but, more fundamentally, because I don’t feel others are entitled to information about Stuart and MaryAlice’s actual, corporeal, cellular-level selves for the purpose of reifying or calling into question their basis for discrimination. I’m using the term “discrimination,” by the way, to mean determining who deserves praise, and who deserves criticism; who should be given sympathy, and who is getting their just desserts.

(This piece by Julia at Kidneys and Eyes about the site Too Big for Stroller [which doesn’t merit a hyperlink, because ew] offers a variation on the same theme and is well worth a read).


Does mentioning potential benefits to maternal and infant health still have a place in discourse about breastfeeding? I would say, yes. Absolutely. I don’t have a concise vision for how this piece of the puzzle would ideally fit (how to find that impactful, consumer-friendly balance of fact and plain-spoken coherency?) ; but “yes,” nonetheless. However, I also believe that we need to examine our tendency to use wellness as a way to patly incentivize breastfeeding, because of the ease with which such promises are misconstrued and either (A) end up having an inverse effect on the reliability of our message, or (B)  “other”(-as-a-verb) certain mothers.

Let me reiterate: when you are as passionate about breastfeeding as I am, I know how enticing it is to cling to any and all affirmative-seeming associations and proffer them desperately against what often feels like a deluge of disadvantageous societal messages (“booby traps” in Best for Babes parlance). I’d submit, though, that we also have a responsibility to consider the potential fallout from leaning on shaky logic.

And, yes, it’s pretty common to cast aspersions and flippantly over-simplify Big Thoughts in our interactions online when we would never do so “IRL.” On the other hand, if we give ourself a “pass” because of this, we’ve set up a holding pattern: that is, we want to re-normalize breastfeeding; we have determined that safe spaces for doing so are far too rare “out there” … so we create an antithetically hostile climate “in here”?

Where does that leave our fellow mothers, but stuck in a limbo between competing spheres of judgment?

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Full-time, Part-time: Cloth Mother, Wire Mother

These orphaned hedgehogs adopted a scrub brush as their surrogate "mother." In some people's opinion, the scrub brush is still a superior mother to YOU.

The Feminist Breeder had a great post a few days ago about the problematic recent trend of women, previously stamped with the “stay-at-home mom” label, claiming the designation of “full-time mom” instead.

The phrase isn’t fractious in and of itself; people can call themselves waffle irons for all I care. Hackles get raised, though, when the implied corollary is “part-time mom.”

TFB is quick to point out, both in the body of the post and in response to reader comments, that construing parenthood within an economic model is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, anyway. We can take equal issue with the term “working mom,” as it insinuates that caring for children and maintaining a household is not “work.” (To this end, however, I have seen greater movement toward the WOHM [work-outside-the-home mom] designation, which seems fair enough). The main thrust of TFB’s argument is that, whether one works outside the home for compensation, or within the domestic sphere without compensation, one is always a full-time mom. The characteristics that make a person a mother can’t be quantified in terms of number of diapers changed, number of meals prepared, or even hours of “face time.” Being a mom is, in fact, such a nebulous, highly individuated quality that applying a universal definition is kind of pointless.

Unless you’re down with the Cult of True Womanhood.

And, hey! It turns out some people still are! Check out this comment in response to the TFB post:

I have used the FT/PT distinction in the past, but in a real way I think. For me, the PT mom isn’t the mom who goes to work. It’s the one that doesn’t nurse cause she wants her breasts perfect, doesn’t even try for the natural, vaginal birth because she wants to stay tight, who dumps the kid in daycare so she can have the day to herself even when she’s not at work, and who doesn’t go get her kid out of daycare/school when they’re sick, but leaves them there to get everyone else’s kids sick. It’s those mom’s who don’t seem in it or to care really that get me. In my world those few mom’s that do earn the PT title are the working mom’s also, but certainly not all of them.

First: Plural nouns do not require the use of apostrophes.

(Now that I have that punctuation smackdown out of the way …)

Second: I’m really excited that she included the clarification  “in my world,” because this is fabulous anecdotal evidence supporting the possibility of interdimensional  and/or interplanetary travel. You heard it here first, arbiters of scientific fact!

In my world, I’m pretty sure the Part-time Moms, as defined above, don’t exist.


This is, in some respects, part and parcel to the fresh versus frozen blueberry debacle that Jen wrote about a couple of months back. What’s the old adage?   “You can’t boost yourself up by bringing others down”?

Let’s be honest, though: it can make you feel good about yourself temporarily — especially if you’re really needing to internally justify some choice that is teetering on the razor’s edge of your personal parental standards. “Yes, I let my child eat three packages of fruit snacks for breakfast … but at least they were Annie’s Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks. Have you read the label on  [Brand X] fruit snacks? The parents who let their kids eat those might as well just pour high fructose corn syrup down their gullets!”

You feel all superior for a moment. And the moment passes. And you (by “you,” I mean “me”) allow some other ridiculous, kid-related ephemera to gnaw at your conscience.


With her thumbnail sketch of a Part-time Mom, the commenter is really going for the jugular. Birth choices. Breastfeeding. Daycare “dumping.” I think it’s safe to say that HFCS-laden fruit snacks aren’t weighted with the same cultural baggage.

“But, wait!” you shout, “I know someone who works with someone whose sister-in-law is that exact tight-vagina-ed, perky-breasted, blithely baby-chucking succubus that she described!” Or maybe it’s one of those Real Housewives of Perdition. Whoever this Part-time Mom  happens to be, chances are it’s probably not someone to whom you are very close, or who you find very sympathetic in general; and vilifying their mothering choices figures into the Supreme  Matrix of Identifying More Reasons Why They Are Horrible. Am I right? Yes?

Because, if the person making these choices was a friend, a loved one, a person whose every move and affectation we don’t critically examine with a jaundiced eye, we are likely to process — to even speculate about — their decisions with a lot more gentleness. Gentleness that might look a little something like this:

  • Elected to have a medically unnecessary cesarean birth to avoid sexual dysfunction.  Maybe she knows someone who experienced urinary incontinence or vaginal prolapse, and associated that with their vaginal birth. Maybe her OB-GYN has told her that she was risking urinary incontinence or vaginal prolapse if she attempted a vaginal birth. Maybe “big babies run in the family,” and no one bothered to dispel the myth that this automatically translates to more pain, tearing and potential for longterm damage. Maybe she wasn’t aware of the physiological aspects of vaginal delivery and postpartum recovery of the structures involved.  Maybe she was a survivor of sexual violence and did not want to risk the birth of her child triggering traumatic memories. Maybe her partner made insensitive remarks about not being able to think about her romantically after seeing a baby come out of there. Maybe cesaerean births have  been so normalized by the medical establishment in the United States that she didn’t consider all the ramifications of an elective surgical birth; it wasn’t a hard sell; “keeping tight” seemed just as good a reason as any.
  •   Didn’t even try to breastfeed because she wants perfect breasts.  Maybe her medical providers were not supportive of breastfeeding, and did not inform her that new research suggests breastfeeding does not contribute to breast ptosis (although, sadly, pregnancy itself does!). Maybe, even if she was aware of this study, the entrenched lore says otherwise — and dominant beauty standards prop up (no pun intended!) “perkiness” as an ideal. Maybe her partner convinced her that she would not be desirable if breasts were associated with baby-feeding.
  • Dumps her kids in daycare, even when they’re sick (or questionably sick), even when she HAS THE DAY OFF!  Maybe …

Oh, hell. Let’s make this personal. That particular facet of the Part-time Mom mythos is me. My kids are in daycare because I work (outside the home, for compensation. Yes). I work, among other, more esoteric reasons, because I have two post-secondary degrees, greater earning potential than my (brilliant, capable, undervalued-by-whoever-determines-salary-standards) spouse, and carry the family’s benefits. I place enormous value on the quality of care providers we have engaged, but I am faced with certain financial and location-related limitations. I miss my children and worry about them when I am at work, but not to the point that I cannot fulfill my basic, job-related obligations and call into question my ability to work.

And speaking of: when you (again, read: “I”) have two children under age five, both of whom are being monitored for chronic health concerns of varying degrees of severity and are still susceptible to all the crud that gets passed from grubby hands to mucous membranes and back again, it is more alluring than the One Ring to just stick them in a clean diaper, hurry them out the door and hope that that 3:30 AM bout of diarrhea was their last. Or give them a dose of infant’s Motrin and a popsicle and hope the fever goes down. Or run the humidifier all night, squirt some saline mist in both nostrils and hope the torrent of nose-gunk dries up. Because let’s just say the theoretical boss? While generally very understanding and accommodating and willing to try to frame your experiences in child-rearing in the same terms she uses for wrangling her three dogs … sometimes she seems a little skeptical that a small humanling can really be sick so often.

Finally,  we’ve come to the bit about leaving children in daycare when the mom doesn’t have to be at work.  Like one of those obscure-ish holidays (“Oh — it’s Presidents Day?” [scratches head]) when daycare is still open. I admit that this one has given me some pause in the past. If you love your kids so much and are always lamenting how little time you get to spend with them, why don’t you take advantage of an opportunity to do just that?

First, the quick, brush-off: “Because most childcare providers charge for days when the child doesn’t attend, anyway, so I’d be ‘losing’ money.”

Then, the slightly more considered response: “Because an odd handful of days each year isn’t going to make enough of a difference in my or my children’s perception about the amount of time we spend together.”

And, at last, the truth comes out: “Because I am a big introvert and need to be alone with my thoughts (someplace other than my car) every once in a great while.” (When this time alone with my thoughts does happen to fall on Presidents Day, I promise I’m contemplating the rich history of our nation’s executive office from sun-up to sun-down, though).


So. My radical idea is this: treat every mother — even the Part-time Mom, doing everything “wrong,” who doesn’t “seem in it or to care really” — with the same gentleness, the same regard as we would a friend or a loved one. Imagine that flat caricature into three-dimensionality. Do not falsely conflate child abuse and neglect with straying from (sometimes equivocal, and definitely culturally relative) best parenting practices.

All of the knowledge we have, as parents, and all our strongest convictions, weren’t acquired in a vacuum. I know that proponents of some parenting styles like to promote their approach with claims about biological essentialism. But, uh, I don’t think that implying that a person is fundamentally, like, contravening nature is going to win a lot of converts. Instead, we’ve got to knock off the “smirking from on high” act and spread the wealth a little bit.

How does one do that? Well, like this:

  1. Jen has had a positive experience with cloth diapering.
  2. Jen shares her positive experience with cloth diapering.
  3. “But isn’t it messy/stinky/costly/time-consuming?” ask the people who have never known a world without disposable diapers, or who ruefully recall trying to sun-bleach pre-folds on the clothesline in mid-November, thirty-some years ago (that would be my mother-in-law).
  4. “Why no!” explains Jen, “And here’s why … . Oh, and here are some other advantages to cloth diapering, too …”

The clincher:

*Jen does not demonize them when they turn around and buy an economy-sized box of Pampers, in spite of her persuasive argument.

She knows that they did not invent disposable diapers and saturate the market with them. She knows that they did not pour millions of dollars into touting the convenience of disposables, and downplaying the post-consumer impact. She knows that they did not set the price of disposable diapers, so that an $8 weekly expenditure seems less costly than a $200 start-up investment in cloth.

And she also knows that, by confidently speaking to her beliefs, she has planted a seed. While her advocacy may not tip one person’s opinion in her direction, it might do just that for another. This is how the snowball starts rolling.

Share away, then. Talk frankly about those most taboo, most feared aspects of vaginal delivery and breastfeeding with expectant moms who trust and value your opinion. Problem-solve by suggesting feasible ways in which they can strike a happier (for them) balance between work and family life.

And, simultaneously, start attacking the right monsters. Hint: they aren’t the “Part-time Moms”.

Question the widely accepted employment practices that serve as barriers between parents and children trying to form mutually healthy relationships. Think about whether you would be willing to brace yourself against whatever fall-out arose from adopting Canadian-style maternity leave benefits as a national standard (including protests about funding sources and the perceived legitimacy of mothers “taking a year off”). Expose the artificiality, and misogyny,  of aesthetic “ideals” that commodify and co-opt women’s bodies and that teach us to always and only value form over function.

If we truly care about effectuating longterm change, if our goal is truly improving the quality of life of mamas and children, this is how we slowly inch our way there.

If we only want to “cast stones” at those whose parenting acumen isn’t up-to-snuff, though … we’d better be prepared to hunker down in a hermetically sealed, concrete bunker (certainly not a proverbial glass house!) for the rest of our parenting days. And take lots of Valium.

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