Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Profit of Guilt

Jennifer, over at the Black Breastfeeding Blog wrote a post challenging the argument against breastfeeding advocacy that keeps cropping up, which says, basically, that the encouragement of breastfeeding makes those who can't or won't breastfeed their children feel guilty. I started to respond in the comments section but it became obvious that I had more to say about this subject than could neatly or politely fit in the comments box - so I've decided to post it here.

The guilt argument is the most irrational, illogical and utterly ridiculous of all the arguments that those who oppose breastfeeding advocacy come up with . I seriously believe that people who use this argument are emotionally, and quite possibly intellectually impaired. I'm at a point now where I won't even follow the links to these particular anti-breastfeeding rants because I don't think they're worthy of the attention they receive.

First of all, people only feel guilty when they think they had it in their power to make a better choice than they did. So, if someone feels guilty for not breastfeeding, that's because they think they could have and didn't.

I have a hard time believing that someone who really made every effort they could to breastfeed and/or who really feels they made the best choice for their child by using formula would feel guilt is being inflicted upon them by any kind of breastfeeding advocacy.

Someone who really wanted to breastfeed and genuinely couldn't might feel a sense of loss or sadness or even some anger when the topic comes up. But, if they have even an ounce of emotional balance, they wouldn't expect others to not advocate for breastfeeding just because they couldn't do it.

I had four miscarriages between my first and second children. I spent two years of my life going through a whole range of emotions. There was some guilt when I thought that there was something I could have or should have done differently to prevent the miscarriages. But once I realized that I was powerless to control whether or not those babies stayed in my body - the guilt dissipated. I still had to deal with a lot of anger and sadness and loss - but not guilt.

And certainly it was difficult to deal with other people around me being pregnant. And discussions about pregnancy, getting pregnant or giving birth were all hard for me.

If I followed the logic of these anti-breastfeeders - I would have expected that no one discuss pregnancy around me - and definitely no one should have been allowed to be pregnant in front of me. Oh the guilt!! How dare they!

Silly, isn't it?

Similarly - I tried to have unmedicated births with both of my children, but I couldn't. I wound up getting an epidural both times. The first time I ended up getting medication because I was unprepared for labor. I really didn't understand what the pain would be like, and so I didn't adequately prepare myself for it. That combined with a nurse who insisted, every 5 minutes, that I get an epidural and after about 11 hours of labor I gave in.

Afterwards I did feel loss and sadness and yes - guilt. But my guilt didn't come from an outside source. My guilt was internal. I knew that if I'd properly prepared, I'd have had a much better chance of having an unmedicated birth. And quite the opposite of being bothered by those who advocated natural childbirth - I applaud those who encourage it and make it possible for others. And in that time between my first and second children - as I hoped, and sometimes that hope was just a glimmer, that I would have the chance to experience labor again - I learned about various methods to help a woman through labor without medication. I was grateful that those advocates were there making it possible for me to learn the things I needed. And even now that I have given birth to a second child and accepted medication once again and know that I won't be having anymore children - I still am happy that there are those out there who are helping other women find their way through childbirth without medication.

If I use the logic of those who oppose breastfeeding advocacy, I should walk around feeling guilt and anger, scowling at doulas and muttering under my breath at midwives. I should picket birth centers, or at the very least write long, scathing articles about how the very existence of a birthing center where medication isn't allowed within a hospital makes all the women in the regular L&D ward, getting epidurals, feel consumed with guilt.


My message to those who oppose breastfeeding advocacy and think it promotes guilt in mothers who don't breastfeed - is GROW UP! Get over yourselves. Motherhood is filled with choices. Sometimes we make good ones, sometimes we make ones and wish we had gone down a different path.

Most often, we make decisions based on variety of factors that include our personalities and temperaments, the information we've been given, and the support we have for our decisions and choices. Support is an enormous factor - motherhood is difficult all on its own - in the best of circumstances. When we are drawn towards choices that our spouses, doctors, family and friends don't support us in, or send us mixed messages about - then it is not surprising that often mothers choose the path in which they'll receive the most support.

And knowledge and information are a form of support. So when doctors hand out information about formula feeding, when our mothers and mother-friends have bottle-fed and can gives us guidance and knowledge about how to do that there is no wonder that many women make that choice despite hearing that breastfeeding is the healthier choice.

Breastfeeding advocacy is so necessary right now. Only once doctors start matching their actions to their words, rather than telling people "breast is best" while handing out formula samples. Only when the friends and family of new mothers can help and support them in breastfeeding, will things really change. And that second part is a slow process.

I know my daughters will breastfeed their children because for them that's just what's done. They will have always seen babies being breastfed. They will have a mother and friends and family who can help them through the rough spots, who will be able to teach them different holds and different methods for making breastfeeding easier. They will have heard my stories about how my milk took days to come in. They won't expect it to be easy at first, but they'll know how fulfilling it is once they get past the early days. They won't know all this because anyone had to tell them about it - they'll know it from seeing it all their lives and from being surrounded by women who breastfeed.

Between now and then, many, many many more women will have to be encouraged to breastfeed - so that their children and grandchildren will benefit from having mothers and grandmothers to support them in nursing their children. Until then breastfeeding advocacy is necessary to help change the attitudes and practices that have come with long decades of predominant bottle use.

Looking at the pictures, and accompanying history, Jennifer has posted on the Black Breastfeeding Blog has shown me that bottle use was advocated, promoted. It's not completely something that people just started doing on their own. They didn't have family members who could show them how to bottle feed properly - so there were those who made sure that women got plenty of information on how to bottle feed safely.

The difference between the bottle-feeding advocates of the past and the breastfeeding advocates of today is that those who encouraged and taught women to switch from breast to bottle were most likely motivated by financial gain, where as the majority of the people who now encourage breastfeeding don't make money from it.

And if anyone - anyone at all is promoting guilt - benefitting from the guilt that mothers all too often inflict upon themselves for their shortcomings ( real and imagined) its the formula makers who give out samples of their formula in every possible venue permitted to them.

And let me make it clear - I do NOT say "free formula," I say formula SAMPLES. Because the formula handed out is not free. The cost of the those samples are figured in to the purchase price of every can and bottle of formula sold. So as soon as you're hooked on formula, you begin paying back the formula company for the stuff they handed out to you when you still had milk of your own to give - with interest. Formula companies are loan sharks, drug pushers who give you a little and then take a whole lot. And they reel in so many mothers by using guilt.

What new mother wants the guilt of thinking that they let their baby starve. There's this brand new mother, with a helpless newborn infant. Everyone says that breast is best. She's been told to breastfeed. But she's also been sent home with formula. Her mother bottlefed her and can't give her any information about breastfeeding. Her best friend tried breastfeeding but said it hurt and her nipples bled, so she gave up after a few days. Her cousin tried too, but didn't have enough milk.

The baby's crying and since the baby is dry, she can only imagine that her baby wants milk - but nothing is coming out of her breasts. And she starts to think what if not making enough milk is a family trait? What if she's starving her baby? How can she live with the guilt of knowing that she had food right there for her baby, but she let it starve because she thought breastfeeding was best? How could it be best if she can't even tell if her baby is getting anything. How is it best if her baby starves?

And that's the moment formula manufacturers count on. That moment when guilt, fear and self-doubt come together to make a mother go for the only sure thing in a world filled with questions. When everything is turned upside down and nothing she's ever known or done can help her with this new little person - there it is - the formula sample, representing certainty and release from doubt and guilt. Because at the very least she will know that her child is fed.

So I would ask every person who think that breastfeeding advocates are doing nothing but making bottlefeeding mothers feel guilty - Just who is it that profits from guilt?


Nina said...

Sing it, Sister! I love your post here--a friend sent me the link, and I just wanted to let you know more people are reading it. :)

You really say it well, here. You have put into words what many of us have felt for so long. Thank you!

Fat Lady said...

Thanks Nina. My annoyance at the people who oppose breastfeeding advocacy had been building for more than a week as I encountered so many voices of opposition to the wonderful thing NYC hospitals are doing by not routinely handing out formula samples.

I was just a pot boiling over, but because I was so heated, and because my beautiful little girls wouldn't give me two consecutive minutes to write - I was afraid that this long post that I wrote in bits and pieces over the last couple of days was totally incoherent. I'm glad I managed to get my thoughts out there with clearly enough to connect with someone.

Jennifer James said...

You should get this published. It's great!

Doulala said...

I am probably starting to sound like a broken record but, *sigh* I think I love you!

I wish everyone could read this.

Elizabeth F. said...

Amen, Amen, Amen! I love it!

professor said... really hit the nail on the head and verbalized it wonderfully...
You should publish this piece...

Fat Lady said...

Thanks everyone for your kind comments. It's nice, when feeling as passionate about something, as I feel about this, to know that others hear and understand me.

The Bear Maiden said...

So wrapped up in my *&&^ that I haven't visited but I agree, you hit the nail on the head most eloquently, *and* without foul language! Quite a feat :)

But seriously. I know I soldiered on through those first scary breastfeeding days... despite The Sun being place in the NICU with bright, deydrating lights (and told I couldn't breastfeed him --I cried) because his bili count was high; despite being left alone in my room with a big ol' hospital pump nobody showed me how to use and wondered why I couldn't get any milk (it didn't come in for 5 days); despite NOBODY coming to my room to make sure I knew HOW to breastfeed; despite TF getting mad at me because I refused to give The Sun formula when we got home... I soldiered on despite all this, because all the women I knew and trusted had breastfed. I grew up in a country where despite Nestle trying to take over the world, they hadn't *quite* yet penetrated the country folk, and so they still breastfed. To me, breastfeeding was "normal" and I never doubted my ability to do it. Both the Professor and my mother showed me how, and sat and talked to me while I did and never made me "go in the other room".

And I feel so badly for the countless women I meet, who don't have that and who "fail". Because they DIDN'T fail... The doctors and people around them failed *them*.