Lactivism: socially sanctioned mother-on-mother bullying?


Wouldn’t it be great to know that you are a better mother than other mothers?

Wouldn’t it be even greater to tell those mothers to their face that you are an awesome mother and they are mothering failures?

In most times and places that would be considered unspeakably rude, even if it were true. But the rules of social propriety go right out the window when the subject is breastfeeding. Not only is mother-on-mother bullying socially sanctioned, it is actually institutionalized in programs like the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Consider Ashleigh’s story, “Breastfeeding destroyed me psychologically.” featured on The Fearless Formula Feeder’s blog. Her eloquent description of the psychological agony she endured is difficult to read:

Breastfeeding took my happiness

Breastfeeding destroyed me psychologically. Destroyed me. It took my happiness, it took my feeling of worthiness, it prevented me from fully bonding with my child, it contributed deeply to my postpartum depression, and it made me want to die. I no longer wanted to live, and that is terrible. Even today, on the days I forget to take my medication, I find myself in fits of tears over the loss of what should have been, but wasn’t, because of my broken body. I shouldn’t feel broken, but I do. I shouldn’t feel unworthy of motherhood, but I do. I shouldn’t feel like I failure, but I do. I shouldn’t fall into spells of depression and self-loathing all from seeing a photo of a friend breastfeeding, but I do. I shouldn’t feel a deep despair simply from noticing another woman’s breasts grew during pregnancy, but I do. Breast will never be best when it makes a mother feel like that… when it makes a person feel the way I did, the way I still do. My identity has become reliant on my lack of ability to breast feed, and it shouldn’t. I am a good mom, even if I did formula feed. Every day for the rest of my life I will struggle with the feelings of guilt and shame, and I hate that. But as long as there are lactivists who shame and humiliate formula feeding mothers, there will always be that feeling of incompetence in my heart- and its truly not fair.

There was a biological reason why Ashleigh had so much difficulty breastfeeding. She suffered from IGT, insufficient glandular breast tissue. That’s different from small breasts. Typically small breasts reflect a lack of fatty tissue surrounding the milk glands. In Ashleigh’s case, she literally did not have enough milk glands to make the milk her daughter needed.

Suzie Barston, the Fearless Formula Feeder, responded:

I’m sorry things haven’t changed. I’m sorry that this situation gets more ridiculous by the day. I’m sorry we are arguing over the perceived dangers of formula advertising in resource-rich countries when we could be focusing that attention on the very real dangers of postpartum depression. I’m sorry feminism – or, rather, those who dwell at the intersection of feminism and motherhood – has failed to see the full scope of the infant feeding issue, essentially turning its (their) back on women for whom the Patriarchy is not a formula company, but rather those who insist on reducing women to biological functions. I’m sorry I haven’t made a dent in this fucked up discourse. I’m sorry you are hurting. I’m sorry. I’m just so damn sorry.

I wouldn’t say you haven’t made a dent, Suzie. You have accomplished a tremendous amount, but the problem is so large that it is going to take many people working together to get this insanity under control.

We need to recognize and acknowledge that lactivism as it is practiced in first world countries has nothing to do with health; it is just a form of socially sanctioned mother-on-mother bullying.

That type of bullying has existed since the beginning of time (“He’s 4 months old and not sitting up yet? So sad that he’ll never be a great hunter-gatherer.”) But I suspect that even in pre-history such obnoxious behavior was deemed socially unacceptable.

What’s the difference with contemporary breastfeeding in first world countries?

The bullies justify their bullying by invoking “Science.” As Charlotte Faircloth explains in ‘What Science Says is Best’: Parenting Practices, Scientific Authority and Maternal Identity:

The scientific benefits of breastfeeding … serve as a (seemingly) morally neutral cannon about which mothers can defend their mothering choices and ‘spread the word’ about appropriate parenting. I noticed that for some particular women, sharing ‘information’ with other mothers.

Science is used as a cudgel to beat other mothers, and not merely by individual lactivists, but by institutions created by lactivists:

… [U]nder the assumption that science contains ‘no emotional content’, a wealth of agencies with an interest in parenting – from policy makers and ‘experts’ to groups of parents themselves – now have a language by which to make what might better be termed moral judgements about appropriate childcare practices…

Science actually shows that while breast is theoretically “best,” its benefits in first world countries are trivial. Therefore, the decision to moralize infant feeding, which is what lactivism has become, is not based on science; it’s based on an abuse of science for the self-aggrandizement of lactivists.

Why are we spending society’s time and money to promote breastfeeding when the science does not justify the tremendous effort and expense?

Because some women enjoy the fact that lactivism is socially sanctioned bullying. The Orwellian Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative is emblematic of the misuse of institutional and government authority to enable mother-on-mother bullying.

The greatest threats to babies are vaccine preventable diseases and unintentional injuries. A truly “baby friendly” hospital initiative would educate women about the benefits of vaccination and about keeping their babies safe in cars, and from household poisons and other threats. Breastfeeding would be extremely low on the list of safety initiatives.

But lactivism was never about babies. It was always about mothers and their need to not merely feel superior to other mothers, but to blare their own superiority to everyone else.

Let’s get a grip. Several entire generations of Americans were raised nearly exclusively on formula and all possible health parameters continued to improve. There’s no reason to expect that lactivism is going to have any impact on infant health, and plenty of evidence that it is having a harmful effect on women’s mental health.

That’s got to stop.