The Minefield: Bullies, Best Friends, and Well-Intentioned Messengers

NOTE: This is a work-in-progress looooong post that I’m considering as a new first chapter for my book (www.workpumprepeat.com) . I’m posting it here in the spirit of crowd-sourcing. This topic is SO difficult to navigate, and there is no clear answer to what is “good” or “bad” messanging about breastfeeding, for women who are struggling with it. I would really love and appreciate feedback – including critical feedback – about whether this hits the mark, or is way off, or is somewhere in between. THANK YOU!!

You’ve noticed, haven’t you, how it seems like everyone has something to say about breastfeeding?

  • You should do it, for a specific length of time (which varies depending on the particular bully), and you’re a narcissist and unfit mother if you don’t do it.
  • Also, you definitely shouldn’t do it in public, or in a way that interferes with your job in the slightest, or in a manner that asks for any sacrifice, patience, or even just tolerance from any other person on the planet. Otherwise you’re trampy and entitled and a drain on society.
  • You shouldn’t supplement breastmilk with anything, no matter how hellish your emotional or mental state is, or how demanding your job is. Definitely give only breastmilk until your kid is a year old.
  • Once your kid turns one, you must stop breastfeeding immediately, so as not to be an incestuous weirdo. And if you breastfeed beyond when the kid can “ask for it,” you should do prison time.
  • You shouldn’t drink alcohol or caffeine. Also you should only eat organic whole foods; otherwise you’re poisoning your baby.
  • Oh, also: you have to really, really enjoy it, otherwise you’re a broken un-woman who is missing out on the greatest gift of her entire life.

Okay?

 

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how the hell to make milk while doing your job, we need to talk a bit about the people and messages you will encounter on this journey of trying to breastfeed and work.

Throughout this book, you will read stories about amazing people who make life easier, saner, less scary, and more welcoming for working women who are breastfeeding. And you’ll read about bullies and jerks in all shapes and stripes, who will try to shame, intimidate, intrude, pressure, and judge.

The good news is that there really are people in both categories–and there are a lot more heroes than jerks. You’ll find both across social media, popular culture, your local playgroup, and even the medical profession. And actually, I’ve found that there are three categories of messages about breastfeeding, and about being a working mom:

  1. Bullying
  2. Awesomeness
  3. Stuff that is not meant to be mean at all, but it makes us feel like crap because we’re really vulnerable already

This chapter is here to help you understand this three-part minefield that faces the working, breastfeeding woman, and to help you identify the types of conversations you will encounter in the wild, so you know whether to run toward or away from them.

 

1. Bullying

Breast Is Best

The most obvious area where the bullying types turn a message into a weapon is in the small subset of “breast is best” messengers who use the term not as a rallying cry or a form of support for women who are not supported in breastfeeding, but as a tool to help them race to the top of the Smug Mom pyramid.

When I began to really struggle with managing breastfeeding and working, I came to hate BIB, to curse it loudly and colorfully whenever I saw or heard it, and to assume that everyone who uses this phrase is a jerk. I wanted to (and often did) shout out loud, “I fucking KNOW. Get off my back about it, because I’m doing the best I can.” When I was at the hardest points of breastfeeding and working, BIB felt like an indictment of my worth as a mother. It sounded, to me, like “Breast is best . . . and you are the worst.” I felt like a failure.

But wait: I want to note that as a campaign, BIB is actually really important. Remember that we have had a generational break in breastfeeding. Our mothers were sold on the wonders of science and the benefits and ease of formula. Breastfeeding was not widely promoted, and it certainly didn’t appear much in popular culture. The fact that breastfeeding is kind of a big deal again is due in large part to the ongoing work of those (nice) BIB folks. I am grateful to them because I know that their work is a big part of why I even valued breastfeeding enough to give it a try, and then to write a whole damned book about it.

But here’s the thing: hearing and seeing BIB again and again, even if it’s meant in a totally innocuous way, can get pretty painful if it’s starting to look like you might not make whatever goals you’ve set for yourself. So hearing it from people who clearly want to make you feel bad about it, well, that’s actual bullying.

For example, social media is a terrible place for bullying in general, and this area is no exception. Women who breezed (or gritted) their way through extended breastfeeding sometimes post smug things like, “If you really cared about your baby, you’d know breast is best and you’d do anything in your power to avoid formula.” Others take the pseudo-sympathetic route: “It’s not that I’m anti-bottle; I know that a very, very limited number of women absolutely have to use formula as a last resort, when they’ve tried everything else, and I don’t judge those women.” The implication is that you are only spared judgment for giving your baby formula if you half killed yourself trying to avoid it, and/or if your baby is on the brink of starvation.

Yes, exclusive breastfeeding, if it’s possible, is beneficial for your baby, especially in his first few months, when his gastrointestinal system is still developing. But it’s not always possible, and it’s not always the right choice for every woman.

Meeting breastfeeding goals is something a woman should get to feel really, really proud of. If you can do it and it works for you, and your job allows for it, well, that’s a pretty neat thing that you did. Congrats.

Women who are super successful at exclusive breastfeeding are not better mothers. They are not better people. They’re just people who are doing a difficult thing, and that’s awesome. Unfortunately, the smug minority are making everybody else–women who are just doing their thing, their way, without trying to shame others for doing it a different way–look bad. They’re the grown-up version of the clique of girls in your middle school who said you couldn’t sit at their lunch table because you hadn’t gone to second base or whatever. Don’t give them your attention, which is the power they seek.

When you do come across these women (and some men!) in the wild, DO NOT engage with them. They are smug and mean and lack the ability to envision anyone’s life as being different from their own, so responding to them will not result in a productive debate.

 

Too Long / Not Long Enough

You’re probably going to have to deal with people who want to judge you on the length of time you breastfeed your baby.

On the “you must breastfeed for X length of time” side, people make blunt-force weapons out of recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (“one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant”) and the World Health Organization (“exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond”). These are recommendations, not laws, people. And your personal situation has to be part of the picture, right alongside these recommendations.

These numbers are used by bullies to make you feel even more pressure than you might be putting on yourself. Anything less than six months, or a year, or two years, depending on who is pressuring you, is simply not good enough. Never mind that you work, and/or that you have two other kids, and/or that breastfeeding gives you horrible anxiety, and/or that you had a breast reduction in your twenties when it never occurred to you that you’d care about how much milk you could make, and as a result your baby howls with hunger because you just don’t have the milk he needs. You’d better do it for a full year if you want to be a truly good mother.

On the “stop breastfeeding before it gets weird” side, you might get personal attacks based on nothing more than personal opinion. “If she can ask for it, she’s too old for it” is popular, but subtler approaches like “Isn’t he a little beyond that?” and “Why are you still breastfeeding?” are common, too. You might get this flak from relatives, strangers, or even co-workers, all trying to make you feel weird and not-normal for doing something so completely normal that it’s why we have a human race to speak of. These bullies will try to make you feel like you’re creepy. They’ll say that you’re selfish and messing up your child. You’re not either of those things. Breastfeeding a child is totally natural, and it doesn’t really have an expiration date.

Here’s what else I realized: I have no idea what breastfeeding an older child is like, so I need to listen to the women who do it and who say it’s great for them and for their kids.

Both of these end of the judgment spectrum are bad for women and bad for the babies whose poor mothers are getting whiplash from all this noise.

An additional wrinkle to this kind of bullying is that some people think one kind of shaming on this topic is wrong, but they are totally cool with participating in the shaming at the other end of the spectrum. For example, I’ve lost count of how many women have told me that it’s wrong to make a woman feel bad for not breastfeeding for “long enough,” but that breastfeeding for “too long” is creepy and wrong. And you know what? That used to be me. I wanted everyone out of my business for weaning my kid, but I thought breastfeeding a toddler was weird. And then I realized I was being a hypocrite. I’m anti-mom-judgment, and that has to go all the way.

So, put these two messages together–breastfeed for a long time, but not too long–and what do you get? Apparently, a four-hour window to be what everyone around you wants you to be as a mother. A magical, elusive time slot in which you’ve breastfed your baby for long enough to be a good mother, but not so long as to be a weirdo.

I say screw that. However long you breastfeed (or don’t) is your business.

Your Milk Is the Only Important Thing About You

I’m going to take you back in time now to a few months after I had my first baby. After an early bout with ugly postpartum anxiety, I was back at work and really struggling. I could feel the dark waves of anxiety washing over me with greater frequency. I was obsessing over making enough milk for my son. And I began to panic.

I called a lactation consultant I had successfully worked with in the past and explained what was going on. I actually used the phrase “I feel like I’m drowning.” I told her I was having panic attacks. These are pretty obvious red flags for a medical professional. I then said I needed to stop breastfeeding, and wanted her advice on how to slowly wean my son so I wouldn’t get mastitis again.

She replied, “If you don’t want your baby to get the flu, you have to keep breastfeeding him through the winter. That’s only five more months.”

Hearing her words, all I felt was total despair.

The worst part about all of this is that I was so vulnerable that I just agreed to do what she said I had to do. And yes, sure, I did get through flu season while still breastfeeding, but I was not in a good place while I did it. I look back at that time of motherhood, and of my son’s life, with regret. I was only sort of half-there, emotionally, because I was pouring everything I had into keeping the milk flowing while working crazy hours and doing crazy travel. It wasn’t the right decision for me to keep breastfeeding, but because I did it for the length of time that she deemed appropriate, I am pretty sure this lactation consultant would have called her intervention a success.

Wait: I take it back. The worst part about all of this is that this woman was a medical professional who was blatantly ignoring warning signs. She was also a human being who had another human being on the end of the line, scared and wounded. She couldn’t even see me, and my emotions, as a valid part of the picture.

All I was to this woman was a woman-shaped milk-delivery system for a baby. It didn’t matter that I was kind of coming apart at the seams, as long as I kept on making that liquid gold.

Do I think this woman is representative of most of the lactation professional community? No way. But I had the bad luck of ending up with this person as my first line of support, and when you’re in that position, it feels like The Voice of Breastfeeding has spoken, and there’s no room for dissent.

Years later, I wrote a blog post that went viral, inspired by that story and by the stories I’d heard from some of the women whom I interviewed for this book. It was an open letter to that minority of over-the-top “lactivists,” in which I asked them to see new mothers as vulnerable people, and, simply, as people. I tried to explain what it’s like to be in such a vulnerable state, and I tried to explain what it feels like to have your importance on earth be boiled down to milk-making, at a moment when milk-making is going horribly for you.

I included a lot of disclaimers stating that I know the majority of the pro-breastfeeding community means really, really well. I truly believe that. And then I said this:

“I want to gently tell you that you are making me feel like you don’t care about ME. At all. You don’t care if I’m stressed, or anxious, or if breastfeeding is causing me conflict with my spouse or employer, or if I lie awake at night feeling like a horrible mother for not making enough milk, or if the demands of breastfeeding are really, really hard to juggle with two or more little kids. You don’t care if it will take me years to get over the feelings of shame and inadequacy that all this . . . stuff has brought on. You don’t care if I might be a better mother, or happier person, if I could somehow take some of the breastfeeding pressure off.”

I then asked them to try to figure out where each of us is, and meet us there, instead of insisting that we meet them at their gold-standard of breastfeeding success.

I got some amazing and heartwarming responses to this post, including many from the lactation professional community. Some said they’d gained a new perspective on what their clients are going through. Many affirmed that this “whole-person” approach is how they’ve always done lactation support.

But boy, did I meet some internet bullies. A sampling of what people had to say to and about me on this topic:

  • “My role is to help you breastfeed. Here’s what I’m not: a life coach. A therapist. A spiritual advisor. Your spouse. Your mother.”
  • “What a load of bollox, selfish, self-centered crap.”
  • “Sounds like she’s pushing her own guilt onto others and blaming them for it.”
  • “Want help formula feeding, call a pediatrician.”
  • “It’s survival of the fittest and it certainly gives the advantage to babies born to more sensitive mothers.”

In case the point of that last comment is not clear: the author was suggesting that I am a deeply crappy mother, and therefore my babies are at an evolutionary disadvantage because they’re not getting enough breastmilk, and Darwinian selection eventually will kill off my line and leave the earth to superior beings like herself.

I wish I could get in a little time machine and go back to the day I called that lactation consultant. I’d tell that broken version of me to hang up the phone and find someone who was able to see me as a whole person, not a milk delivery system with some inconvenient emotional problems. LOTS of those people exist, but I didn’t know that at the time.

 

Working Mothers Are Selfish

This is a fun one.

“I’d love to work, but I just could never pay someone else to raise my children for me.”

“That must be so nice to get a break from your kids all day!”

“They’re at daycare from 8:00 to 6:00? That’s a really long day for a little baby!”

“It must be . . . interesting being a part-time mom.”

Thanks, everybody. Also: I wonder how often dads hear this stuff.

Most working mothers work because it’s a financial necessity for their families. Some working mothers work because they want to show their daughters and sons that women can succeed professionally. And some working mothers work simply because it fulfils them. All three reasons are valid.

Every single one of these mothers is–you guessed it–100% a mother to her children. No more or no less than those wonderful moms who stay at home with the kids.

And that’s all I’m going to say on that point.

 

2. Awesomeness: Your Breast Friends

You need breastfeeding friends across all facets of your life. In an ideal situation, your spouse would be one of them, as would your pediatrician, your OB/GYN, any lactation professionals you encounter, your parents and in-laws, your baby’s caregiver, and your work colleagues.

These people should cheerlead you through difficult breastfeeding moments (and days, and weeks), they should bring you gigantic glasses of ice water at opportune moments, they should wash the damned parts to your damned breast pump, they should remind you that being a working mom doesn’t change anything about you being a good mom, and they should listen–really listen–to you, to how you feel, and to whether this breastfeeding and working thing is working for you.

If they’re true supporters, they won’t bring along any preconceived notions about whether, when, where, how, or for how long you should breastfeed. They will listen to your breastfeeding goals for yourself, and they will support you in changing those goals, in either direction, because they believe you capable of making good decisions for yourself and for your baby. They will also look out for your mental health, and they will take this mental health very seriously.

Ideally, we’d also have celebrities and the media as superfriends. Take actress Jaime King, who, in a 2014 breastfeeding selfie posted online, totally nailed how to talk about breastfeeding without making anyone feel crappy: “These are the moments a mother lives for. Breastfeeding should not be taboo–and bottle feeding should not be judged–it’s ALL fun for the whole family.”

You might not get all of these allies lined up in your corner, but figuring out who is going to be a breastfeeding best friend is pretty simple, and, in my experience, requires you to ask only three questions about their behavior on this topic:

  1. Does this person avoid telling you what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do?

If the answer is yes, this is a potential breastfeeding best friend. Exceptions can be made for medical professionals telling you something that is based on proven, medical fact (e.g. “you shouldn’t heat up breastmilk in the microwave”), and true friends trying to help you with your mental state (e.g. “you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself”). A breastfeeding best friend reminds you what you’re capable of doing, and helps you think through what you could or might do.

  1. Does this person have your back when other people are jerks to you?

For example, does she give people the stink-eye who give you guff for nursing in public places? Does she let you vent about your spouse or parents or boss or anyone else who makes you feel bad about how you feed your baby? If so, then she’s a keeper!

  1. Does this person seem to value you as a whole person, rather than focusing only on your body’s ability to make milk?

This is the biggie. People who really get it understand that breastfeeding is part of a complex picture for new mothers. This picture includes a massive life change (maybe the biggest one we’ll ever experience, short of when we finally kick the bucket), a lot of hormones, a lot of stress (for some of us, anyway), and a huge learning curve. Plus, for us working moms, going back to work.

Friendly people feel that you are important as a standalone human being whose breasts happen to be spraying milk whenever you take off your bra. They get that you and your mental and physical health are important because you are important. They get that you are going to need a lot of support to help you through new motherhood, and to help you give breastfeeding a shot. They don’t think that whether or for how long you breastfeed is the defining factor of who you are as a mother or a person. And they don’t see you as a person-shaped milk machine who is a selfish failure if that one thing doesn’t quite work out as planned.

 

THIS is a breastfeeding best friend.  Become a collector of these people, because they will save you time and time again.

Now that you know who the goodies are, I also want to provide some perspective that the pro-breastfeeding messages and people are not necessarily meant to make you feel like crap.

3. Some Perspective

Let’s just admit together that we new mothers can be, ummm, let’s say, a tad sensitive about breastfeeding messages. And working mothers are probably the worst culprits, because so many of us are already carrying around working-mom guilt. There are so many minefield topics that, even when innocently intended, can set of a major case of The Guilts.

For example, I used to get really touchy about women who talked about meeting or exceeding their breastfeeding goals. It has taken me some time (okay, five years, two kids, and writing book) to realize that Facebook posts like “Made it to a year without a drop of formula! #blessed #exclusive #BFing” are not actually about me, or aimed at me, in the slightest.

You know what I realized? People who post online about finishing a marathon are not judging me just because I don’t even know where my running shoes are. Those posts aren’t about me, and they’re not an indictment on my slothful lifestyle. They’re just a personal celebration about doing something difficult and rewarding.

But somehow the equivalent breastfeeding brag-posts make me feel all squirmy inside.

You see, sometimes the messages we see and hear are not meant to be bullying or guilt-inducing at all, but we’re all so completely screwed up from the actual bullying (which does exist) and the hormones and the naturally-occurring Mom Guilt that even innocuous things feel like crushing indictments.

I try to remember all of this whenever I start getting sensitive about pro-breastfeeding messages and their messengers. Most moms, and the vast majority of pro-breastfeeding activists, are genuinely just trying to help women get through a challenging time, and to get the rest of society to be more supportive of breastfeeding. Because while you and I might feel beaten half to death with pro-breastfeeding messages, there is still a lot of work to be done to normalize breastfeeding and make sure our laws, our culture, and our institutions support it.

Another thing I try to remember is that some breastfeeding women really do want coaches who are going to push them through barriers so they can keep breastfeeding, so it can be confusing for a spouse or friend or lactation professional to have to try to guess: “Does this woman want me to push her toward her goals, Rocky IV-style, or is she at the end of her rope and any supportive pushing on my end will be interpreted as pressure, and do harm to her?” They don’t know what you need unless you tell them, explicitly.

A third potential minefield is related to pro-breastfeeding people who share the scientific facts about the benefits of breastfeeding. There’s no reason to pretend the science around breastfeeding doesn’t exist. (If you are in the mood to ignore basic science, go talk to someone who wants to convince you not to vaccinate your children.) But for women who are struggling with meeting their own personal breastfeeding goals–often because of work pressures–seeing those facts over and over again can start to get pretty painful. When you feel like you’re failing at breastfeeding, seeing or hearing something about breastfeeding and IQ, or breastfeeding and a baby’s health, can just be soul-crushing.

Try to remember that most people who cite breastfeeding data are doing so because they truly believe that more education is needed. If the person or media source is not actively beating you over the head with this data, they probably don’t mean you any harm. It’s still hard to let this stuff roll off your back if you already feel guilty and sad about breastfeeding, and I’m not trying to tell you to ignore those feelings. I’m just asking you to keep the breastfeeding science stuff in perspective, and to try to start out giving the benefit of the doubt that this is not a personal attack.

All of this is just a friendly reminder–to myself as much as to you–that not everyone is trying to make you feel like crap about breastfeeding, or using formula, or being a working mom, or whatever particular thing you end up beating yourself up about. Some people really are just trying to help.

If you feel you’re being judged or pressured by someone you need more even-handed support from, try telling them how you feel, in a gentle and empathetic way. Like this: “I know this isn’t your intention, but I am already feeling pretty crappy and overwhelmed and what you’re saying to me is kind of making me feel worse about it. What I really need right now is . . .”

If the person listens and adjusts, you’ve really got a keeper there. If she persists with the same message and tone, then she isn’t the support system you need right at this moment. And if she gets defensive, and goes nuclear on you, then you’ve done a really great job of flushing out a toxic person from hiding, and you can now avoid her like the plague, and not pay attention to her judgy statements, because she has made it clear she only really cares about pushing her particular point of view.

 

 

Here’s the long and the short of all of this: My body is not anyone’s to objectify or simplify down to its physical functions. My life is complex and different from every other woman’s complex life. My mental health matters. My relationships with my spouse and children and friends matter. And I am to be trusted to make choices that reflect my complex reality, and the greater good of my family as a whole.

I really believe that the empathetic, supportive, and meet-you-where-you-are people outnumber the bullies and the shamers–it’s just that the bullies are much noisier. But if do you encounter some of these unpleasant people, picture me waving to you frantically and telling you to get the hell out of there and find someone who values you as a human being–and acts like one herself. They’re out there, waiting for you. Give yourself the gift of insisting upon having those kinds of people in your life.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “The Minefield: Bullies, Best Friends, and Well-Intentioned Messengers

  1. I like it! As long as people read to the bottom, I think it’s a very helpful message! I completely agree that we are so vulnerable as breastfeeding moms – trying to figure it out – and trying to make it all work, while we work … it can be exhausting! Sometimes your support system is also trying to figure it out and they say the wrong thing. Like you mentioned, I always felt bummed out when people said “it’s a long day” for the baby to be at daycare – ugh – it was a long day for me, just trying to hold it all together and get baby to/from daycare and pump for baby amidst meetings and even to have the energy to do it all … but that comment always made me feel worse :(. The lactation professionals that get you and your situation – AMAZING relief. The ones that push and ignore signs of exhausted mommy … not really doing their job IMO.

    Like

  2. Don’t make me cry! Crap, too late!

    I may be a SAHM and don’t have to deal with the judgmental comments about work/life balance, but I feel like such a failure at times since I never managed to produce enough milk with my daughter. It’s even worse when you don’t have what to anyone else is a “legitimate” excuse to not be able to ever breastfeed exclusively. Or truly pump exclusively if you don’t count it when you supplement with formula. I mean to the point where over half is formula… What is the supplement at that point?

    I finally stopped torturing myself at six months. Not that I couldn’t have physically handled “exclusively pumping” longer, but emotionally I just couldn’t take both beating myself up over lack of supply AND being exhausted from lactating. Well, I still hate using formula now, but I try to focus on the positive of never using Gerber babyfood! Okay, I’m kidding I have used some, but a heck of a lot less proportionally than formula instead of breastmilk.

    Not to get on a high horse about that, or be judgey about the Moms who don’t make their own babyfood… but I’m just trying to get myself up from rock bottom.

    And that is probably where *some* of the bullying comes from. Trying to compensate for their own “inadequacies” in other areas whether it is related to childcare or not.

    Like

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