If you’re been alive for the fast five or so years, you may have noticed something peculiar: the emergence of a new zeitgeist of contempt for breastfeeding. Even a cursory look at the lifestyle section of many online newspapers reveals a contemporary back-catalogue now groaning under the weight of the collective bitching of a vocal minority of failed breastfeeders.
In this post I question the motives of these failed breastfeeders, let’s call them ‘formula apologists’ – the folk who make it their raison d'etre to criticise breastfeeding - that is, to criticise its promotion and its significance. You see, nobody comes immaculately to the infant feeding debate. Its discussion can never be abstract. As I discussed in the chapter of my book aptly titled ‘Defensiveness’, the agenda of these people is not as transparent as they would hope. Ask yourself this question: by virtue of being failures, do these people really qualify as noted dispensers of feeding advice? Do they have the well-being of all mothers in mind, or just mothers that ad credence to their personal experience? In most instances, these ‘formula apologists’ are engaging in a massive case of ex post facto justification. To explain, I’m going to run you thorough some of their most prolific whinges:
WHINGE #1: SCIENCE IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT
Formula apologists lament about something they call the "scientisation of parenthood” and the "de-authorisation of the mother" (Lee 2011; Furedi 2008). These made-up rhetorical devices are a vain attempt to politicise a sound and rational advancement: scientific authority has come to trump parental convenience in our moral consciousness (boo hoo, guilt, torment, condemnation, etc). They sob that "the freedom of the mother to shape her mothering practices has been compromised" (!!!!) (ob cit).
I discussed this in my book (sorry to keep plugging the book but it’s relevant folks), and I quote:
“Facts regarding the risks of formula feeding are locked into a Pandora’s Box and treated as hate speech. Woe betide mothers call each other out on their choices – that would cause hurt feelings, they argue. Indeed, formula-apologists are heavily reliant on the rhetoric of emotion, demanding that we be mindful of mothers’s subjective 'feelings', because logic and objective morality muddy the agenda they are seeking to advance. Essentially, they aim to replace a moral view of infant feeding with an emotional view” – Breast Intentions.
To use their words, formula apologists cry that: "contemporary culture requires that the parent – the mother especially – pay serious attention to scientific and expert guidance about ‘parenting’ in order to reduce risks to child health and welfare" (Lee 2011). OMG science, how very DARE you! ..Now readers, is it just me or, isn't science guiding parenting a freekin GOOD thing?? Better to be guided by science than by knee-jerk emotion. Or are the formula apologists suggesting that science is only a good thing if it enhances parental convenience?
These folk pout that It's A Woman's CHOICE How She Bloody Well Feeds Her Child Thank You Very Much, except, like, it isn't really, cause we think women only have "constrained choice". What's constraining this choice, they argue? SCIENCE! It's those science bastards again. Science "presents the evidence about formula feeding as predominatively negative" (Knaak 2005; see also Knaak 2006). But formula isn't negative they argue - at least not for Mom. Many mothers cherish formula as a utensil of liberation! Cited benefits of formula feeding include - and I quote: "convenient", "easy", "providing freedom from the baby", "providing a means of getting back to normal" and this bizarre twist of fuck: formula enables us to "re-establish our identity as non-mothers" (Earle 2002; Lee 2007). Dudes, I hate to say it, but if you want an identity as 'non-mothers', that ship sailed with your last uterine contraction. Soz.
WHINGE #2: BREASTFEEDING IS SEXIST
Yup, you read that title correctly. Your boobs are conspiring against you, those misogynistic globes of torment! Not only do formula apologists downplay scientific evidence, they also whittle breastfeeding into a tool of oppression. Misapplying feminist rhetoric, formula apologists attempt to reconceptualise breastfeeding as a social practice, and a sexist one at that! (Blum 1999; Hausman 2003; Law 2000). They frame breastfeeding as part of political 'gender relations' (Jansson 2009). This reductionist diversion strategy defaces breastfeeding, turning it from a biology to ideology.
The irony is that whilst many formula apologists claim to be feminists, they are simultaneously playing right into the hands of patriarchal capitalism - a system that defines the male body and mind as the norm and female functioning (hello, lactation!) as a deviation. What’s more, the formula apologists’ response to a normal bodily function is even moreso anti-feminist because it is needlessly reactive and awkwardly paternal:
“The blame-free breastfeeding culture they seek to create, infantalises women, framing them not as active agents capable of controlling their destiny and achieving their goals, but of passive wallflowers at the mercy of forces they are powerless to defy.” (Breast Intentions).
Formula-apologists, on your way, back to feminist school!
WHINGE #3: MORAL ACCOUNTABILITY HURTS OUR FEELINGS
Here’s where the agenda of formula apologists becomes so transparent, if it were a condom it would be illegal. Despite celebrating their ‘choice’ in forcing their infants to consume fourth-best nutrition, formula apologists still demand that they are good mothers. Yup. So, on one hand they want to broadcast this stellar identity as "good mothers", yet recall on the other hand they also want to "re-establish their identity as non-mothers". Taking the proverbial cake, some?
Formula apologists are angry at the notion of being held morally accountable for their decision to formula feed. They're pissed at the notion - there mere thought - that their babies could be regarded as victims of their actions. Check out this lament from Ellie Lee, one of the most outspoken formula apologists: "The health of children in particular has been identiﬁed as a potent site for development of risk consciousness in this regard, because of their presumed innocence and vulnerability" (Lee 2007). Notice the sly addition of the word 'presumed'. Kids are ‘presumed’ innocent.
Yet despite Ellie’s cries of guilt and maternal victimization, in one of her own studies, only 20% of formula feeders stated that they cared about the effects of formula on their babies' health (Lee 2007). (Only 20%! Jeeeze that "good mother" accolade needs some work). And herein lies the big beef harboured by formula apologists, in their own words: "'Health' has attained increasingly moralised connotations, as it is more and more considered to be a state that can, and should, be chosen by responsible individuals" (Lee 2007; Burrows et al 1995; Nettleton 2004; Murphy 2004). Choosing to be healthy, we are told, is a bad thing. Go figure!
The hole is dug further:
"Contemporary culture is thus one that requires parents to agree – even if they do so ambiguously – that they will always put the child first" (Lee 2011). This again, we are told, is a bad thing. (The cheek of it!! Putting kids first!)
If this weren’t pathetic enough, formula apologists then boo hoo over the fact that they aren't being patted on the back and positively rewarded for their mediocrity. One mother who shared her story on a formula-apologist site sniffled that: "Nobody says 'Good for you for feeding your babies!'" ..Well, formula guys, if it makes you feel better, no one ever says to me: "Good for you!" whenever I put clothes on my kids. Perhaps I had better phone the Samaritans.
WHINGE #4: FORMULA FEEDERS ARE THE PERSECUTED MAJORITY
We’ve just looked at how formula apologists believe that individuals (read: mothers) do not have personal responsibility for the choices that they make. So, this begs the question: who does? Their answer to this conundrum is to blame the woolly notion of ‘society’. Society is to blame for the choices mothers make. In arguing this, they appeal to leftwing liberal ideology to shelter them from acknowledging the consequences of their choices. Let's look at this classy charade:
And then the irony becomes deafening: Despite demanding that others heed their emotional sentimentalities, the pro-formula lobby are not what you could call tolerant. Indeed, they are viciously intolerant of any divergence from their ill-perceived right as mothers to not have their liberty impinged upon by their bothersome infants’ needs:
“A major way formula apologists attempt to strengthen the faux-link between breastfeeding success and luck is to raise concern about the morality of judging. If success is simply down to good fortune in the form of societal privilege and working breasts, then in theory, breastfeeding mothers should not judge those who are not lucky enough to enjoy these attributes, they argue.” – Breast Intentions.
In the eyes of every formula apologist, poor bfing rates stem from a hazy collectivist scapegoat they call 'society'. Whilst, to a degree, I concede that society is responsible towards us, aren't we in turn responsible towards society? Heck, aren't we society?
Another layer to the irony inherent within formula apologism: the main self-appointed advocates for the apologist lobby are middle class educated women who actually do very little to help those disadvantaged women they claim to defend. Despite parroting their rhetoric without really helping anyone, the quasi-political activism they engage in is dedicated to convincing themselves that they are somehow beneficent to those below them. It's Slactivism at it's most pungent. Warm fuzzies aplenty but very little political change.
It's time we all: woman the hell up, big girl panties and all.
There are two strands to the breastfeeding vs formula feeding debate and you should want to be on the side of the academics. Their discourse is characterised by scientific method over emotion. The other side of the debate is not. It belongs to the bitter bloggers, the columnists and quasi-professional media whores. They see infant feeding as a key battleground in a culture war. Of these two narratives – the academic and the angry – which one reaches the ears of those who need, most immediately, to form a judgement about infant feeding? The mother agonising over whether to continue breastfeeding is ill-served by the voices of bitter failures. For her agony rests in truly wanting to breastfeed, but simultaneously being told by a failed majority that breastfeeding ‘doesn’t matter that much’. Every mother who returns home with a baby in a carry-crib and a body pumped full of hormones deserves much more than cards, flowers, and a laundry-list of sob stories. The ‘breastfeeding doesn’t matter’ formula apologists would do well to heed the desires and dreams of the new mothers coming behind them, rather than undermining them to fuel a personal self-pacifying agenda.
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