How the tyranny of lactivism led one woman to use her friend as a wet nurse


Elisa Albert wrote a powerful piece for The Guardian entitled My friend breastfed my baby.

The writing is lyrical, the author’s anguish is palpable and the story has a happy ending.

Unfortunately, Albert never questions the real cause of her misery, her unflective acceptance of the anti-feminist propaganda of the natural parenting movement.

Albert had an unintentionally unassisted homebirth of a healthy son because her midwife failed to show up (how many times have we heard that story?).

…I gave birth at home, after a 13-hour posterior, or back-to-back, labour, which the long-practising, well-respected midwife did not bother to attend…

She had difficulty breastfeeding. Her son languished for an entire month, underfed most of that time.

At a week-and-a-half old, my baby began to lose weight. Breastfeeding was not going well. This was not abnormal, we were reassured… One lactation consultant offered advice that was contradicted by a second, whose advice was contradicted by a third. I should use a breast pump every two hours. I should supplement with formula. I should neither pump nor supplement; I should let him get so hungry he would do whatever it took to latch properly. Around and around we went.

Albert sunk into despair:

The imperative to feed my baby from myself blotted out the sun.

She was touchingly grateful when her best friend breastfed her baby.

I handed the baby to her and collapsed into a nearby chair to sob and thank her and sob and thank her, over and over again. The baby drank and drank and drank. His latch was indeed shallow, but she had a surfeit of compensatory milk…

The baby was no doubt grateful to finally eat his fill. Albert spent the next 3 months working strenuously toward exclusively breastfeeding her baby.

I supplemented with formula until I got nursing on track, which took three months, biweekly follow-ups, a hospital-grade rental pump, and a level of determination and commitment I was proud to discover I had…

At no point in what were literally months of misery did Albert ever question the toxic, anti-feminist assumptions that were the real cause of her anguish. Sadly, her story will probably contribute the to the anguish of other mothers who find themselves in the same situation.

Why did Albert, undoubtedly an otherwise sensible woman, come to feel that breastfeeding was so important that it “blotted out the sun”?

It’s pretty simple actually. She believed the New Age version of age old sexism: that a woman’s worth resides in her uterus, vagina and breasts.

I was supposed to accept that, because breastfeeding was exceedingly difficult, I could not do it. I was supposed to concede to that potent cocktail of bad advice that devalues the functional power of the female body. To which I said, and still say: no.

“Valuing the functional power of the female body” is profoundly retrograde. We should be valuing the power of the female mind and character, and relegating reproductive choices to what they are: personal choices that tell us NOTHING about whether a woman is a good woman or even a good mother.

Ms. Albert does not question the absurd propaganda of the lactivist movement that refuses to recognize that not all woman and not all babies can successfully breastfeed and the wholesale rewriting of history to blame formula use on formula manufacturers.

For most of human history, wet nurses were exceedingly common. The best of the best made an excellent living as highly prized employees. Sisters and good friends nursed each other’s babies as a matter of convenience. But 100 years of aggressive formula marketing has effectively erased the tradition of women helping each other in this way.

No, for most of human history, babies who had trouble breastfeeding were not rescued by wet nurses; they died. Wet nurses were not exceedingly common. They were an affectation of privileged women who didn’t want to breastfeed, an aristocracy who hired other women (or used slaves) to do offload what they viewed as an animal function onto lesser beings whom they viewed as closer to animals.

Formula was invented NOT as a substitute for breastfeeding, but as a substitute for everything under the sun, much of it dangerous, that was being used to feed infants who couldn’t successfully breastfeed, or whose mothers had died in childbirth.

Formula companies never had to market aggressively because the need for formula is so high. The marketing that formula companies do is NOT to convince women to bottlefeed, it is to convince women who were going to bottlefeed anyway to choose one brand over another.

Albert does not question the fact that lactivism gives short shrift to infant suffering. Her baby was starving, literally since babies should not lose weight. That suffering could have been entirely averted by using formula as soon as it became apparent that Albert was not producing enough breastmilk. But lactivism insists that there is no amount of infant agony (and that’s what hunger is for infants) that is not justified by the purported benefits of breastmilk, which in first world countries are actually trivial.

Albert no doubt views her story as one of female triumph where one woman assisted another until she, through months of misery and perseverence, ultimately breastfed her infant exclusively.

But there is another way to look at this story, one that I suspect is closer to the truth:

It’s a triumph of the toxic propaganda of the breastfeeding industry, the one that makes 100% of its income from convincing women to breastfeed. It’s a story of infant starvation and suffering that could have been averted by feeding the baby formula. It is a story of maternal misery and feelings of inadequacy that rests entirely on the exaggeration of the small benefits of breastfeeding, and the sexist belief that women should be judged by the function of their reproductive organs.

This is not a story of the power of women. It is a story of their loss of power to a philosophy that harms women and harms babies, and is so insidious that even women as sophisticated as Albert fail to recognize for it for what it is: yet another way to make money by inducing women’s anxiety about their bodies.