Mother blame 2019: microbiome edition

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It’s always the mother’s fault.

There is a long and storied history of mother blame extending back millennia. Women who couldn’t conceive were labeled “barren” even though infertility is caused by male factors 20% of the time. Women who had only daughters and no sons were blamed for the sex of their children, even though it is sperm that determine gender, not ova. For hundreds of years of recent history, women were told that their dreams could affect the outcome of pregnancy; dream of something frightening and the baby might be deformed. Within the past century, “refrigerator mothers” were blamed for autism even though there was never any evidence to support such a link.

We must “discover” ever more arcane “benefits” so we can continue to shame, blame and humiliate women who can’t or don’t breastfeed.

The latest recruit to the deeply satisfying pastime of mother blame is the microbiome. For the past few years it has been used to chastise women who can’t or don’t breastfeed. Recently, it has offered an a new opportunity to chastise women who pump breastmilk because — duh! — women who give up career and livelihood to breastfeed supposedly represent the apogee of contemporary motherhood.

On the face of it, there’s no reason why breastfeeding, which in industrialized countries has only trivial benefits, has become a public health cause celebre.

There are so many, many issues that have a much greater impact on child health that are being ignored, while breastfeeding advocacy benefits from millions of dollars of public and private funds, extensive public health campaigns, and redesign of hospital policies. We have public health campaigns against smoking because that costs millions of lives; we have public health campaigns to promote vaccination because vaccines save millions of lives; we have public health campaigns to promote breastfeeding … which has never been shown to save even a single term baby.

If you want to see how trivial the impact of breastfeeding is on public health you need only look at the impact of breastfeeding on infant mortality in the US during the 20th Century when breastfeeding rates fluctuated dramatically from a high of over 75% to a low of 25% and back up to 75%. Breastfeeding rates had ZERO impact on infant mortality.

While breastfeeding advocates breathlessly promote studies that show trivial benefits within tiny groups of carefully selected individuals, we’ve already done the largest public health experiment possible and it shows that breastfeeding is NOT a public health issue since it has no impact on public health.

Why then do we continue to justify a multimillion dollar effort to promote breastfeeding rates in the absence of public health benefits?

Frist, breastfeeding advocacy is a huge business. While individual professional breastfeeding advocates don’t make large sums of money, 100% of the income of lactation consultant derives from breastfeeding promotion, and 100% of the income of lactivist organizations like the Orwellian-named Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative comes from the more than $11,000 they charge each hospital for the privilege of being designated lactivist baby friendly.

Second, breastfeeding promotion, which has its modern incarnation in La Leche League as an effort to keep women in the home and out of the workforce, is a response to the profound social disclocation of women’s emancipation. The political right has retreated into religious fundamentalism and the political left has retreated into mindless worship of “nature.” Simply put, aggressive promotion of breastfeeding is deeply retrograde and anti-feminist.

So we must “discover” ever more arcane “benefits” so we can continue to shame, blame and humiliate women who can’t or don’t breastfeed or — don’t breastfeed the “right” way by staying home with their infants 24/7/365.

It’s part of the effort to maintain a traditionally misogynistic “blame the mother” culture.

As Phyllis Rippeyoung explained in her paper, Governing Motherhood: Who Pays and Who Profits? published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:

This individualizing of responsibility for child welfare has also been seen among breastfeeding proponents, as most explicitly illustrated in an editorial by Dr. Ruth Lawrence, a founder of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. In her essay, “The Elimination of Poverty One Child at a Time,” she argues that breastfeeding is the panacea for health and cognitive inequalities between poor and non-poor children. She ends the piece by writing that breastfeeding may be the only gift that poor mothers have to offer their children.

… I have been unable to find any research assessing whether breastfeeding … will actually reduce either poverty or the consequences of growing up poor, one child at a time or otherwise. In research I have recently completed, I assessed the relative impact of breastfeeding versus the family educational environment on reducing gaps in child verbal IQ between the poor, the near poor, and the non-poor … This research indicates that individual solutions to low test scores will not solve the problems of inequalities in school readiness.

It is hardly a coincidence that the women who are targets for shaming by breastfeeding advocates are more likely to be poor, non-white and under-educated. It’s so much easier and cheaper (not to mention politically gratifying) to chastise these mothers for not breastfeeding than to address the terrible environments in which many are forced to raise their children.

The ugly truth is that money spent on breastfeeding advocacy benefits only the advocates — the very people who write and promote research that continually “discovers” new “benefits” — not mothers or children.

We should stop spending money on public health campaigns to promote breastfeeding and divert that wasted money to initiatives that we know will help ALL mothers and ALL children, not just those who breastfeed or are breastfed.

But is so much more satisfying to shame mothers for not breastfeeding — and blame them for everything!

  • rational thinker

    “Women who had only daughters and no sons were blamed for the sex of their children, even though it is sperm that determine gender, not ova.”
    King Henry the 8th of England comes to mind. If time machines did exist this is the first asshole I would go back to visit.

  • mostlyclueless

    There’s a guy on reddit who has taken to jumping on all the parenting forums and gish galloping about the microbiome. I keep wanting to engage him but he seems so nuts it’s like, what’s the point? Meanwhile he uses big words so people who don’t know any better assume he’s right.

  • Peter Harris

    To protect the microbiome, and your health generally, keep clear of poisons such as glyphosate.

    It’s now confirmed, glyphosate is linked to an increase in Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1383574218300887

  • Hannah

    When we were dealing with infertility everyone had “advice” for me (the female). Eat “clean,” exercise more, exercise less, trust God more, just relax, etc. etc. I don’t remember one time having anyone (other than our fertility doctor) mention that it could be male factor. This is so on point.

  • I am happy to do some equal-opportunity parent-blaming here:

    https://www.foxnews.com/us/vegan-parents-charged-after-starving-their-5-month-baby-by-switching-from-doctor-advised-organic-formula

    Potatoes are not an adequate formula substitute.

    • rational thinker

      I get very upset when I see one of these articles every few months. I hope the parental rights are terminated.

      • Well, I don’t have a problem with veganism per se, but being too dumb to see that you’re killing your baby in a protracted manner disqualifies you from parenting.

        • rational thinker

          I only have a problem with the militant ones like this couple who near killed a baby.

  • Babs

    When thinking of the parents of the students I teach in a rural area where median household income is $27,000, I laugh when I think of their likely response to lactivists and their stupid microbiomes. These are completely uncontrollable people/jail-birds. If these parents were even aware that some uptight white lady was pressuring them to breastfeed, they’d answer with an impolite expletive. I’m not even exaggerating. They’re absolutely wonderful people to work with, and I’ve often thought if the US goes full Stalinist thought police, we will still have the group I teach to liberate us. And despite all this, as a rich white lady I STILL felt pressure to breastfeed even while living in this area! I’m certainly not the solution to Orwellian lactivists…haha!

    • StephanieJR

      We should all answer with impolite expletives when under pressure to breastfeed.

  • AnnaD2013

    I agree that less/no money should be spent on BF promotion!!! Also, I really agree with the statement that the political right has descended into religious fundamentalism (breastfeeding is NOT part of the Ten Commandments!) and the political left being obsessed with nature and the natural (it is anti-feminist). The bottom line is, children have a right to be fed, and mothers should have the freedom to choose how to do so without being shamed. Even in the Women, Infants, and Children program, there is pressure to breastfeed. A mother who is breastfeeding gets WAY more food stamps for groceries than a mother who formula feeds, and it is so wrong. Both moms need to be nourished well, and so do their children. If we spent less money on BFing promotion, perhaps there would be more funds so all mothers could feed their children well.

  • namaste

    O/T, but do you guys remember Deserae Miller, ms. “A live baby is usually the goal. Not everybody has that same goal.” Well, she’s pregnant again. Time to cross our fingers and hope she doesn’t kill this kid.

    • Merrie

      If you already know that your baby is not going to survive, that’s the only time I can imagine not having that goal. That rare and heartbreaking situation aside, I don’t understand how so many people manage to lose sight of the fact that THE ENTIRE PURPOSE OF PREGNANCY AND BIRTH IS TO GET THE BABY! Smh.

    • mabelcruet

      I remember her-that comment of hers was frightening and sickening. I can understand it if someone said their primary goal was having a baby, and their secondary goals were to try and have an unmedicated birth or a Waterbirth or whatever, but to go into pregnancy not giving a damn if your baby lives or dies proves that its the pregnancy that is the goal, that’s where she gets to role play and do her performance art for her audience. Poor little baby, born to a narcissist POS mother like that.

      • rational thinker

        I have to give her credit for honesty. Most of these types lie about which is more important to them.

      • Cat

        I think there’s some kind of deep-seated need to idealize motherhood and believe that all mothers would walk into a burning building for their kids. In reality, I’ve known plenty of mothers who were incapable of seeing their children as real people with actual needs. One of my closest friends recently had a mental health crisis so severe that we, his friends, basically had a rota going so that we knew someone was watching and/or checking in on him at all times. His mother saw everything we saw and probably more, but her reaction has been to have a “me me me” tantrum lasting weeks because, for once, she’s not the centre of attention (oh, and to tantrum again because he went through the very painful process of coming out in middle age when everything ought to revolve around her right to have grandchildren NOW).

        Given that some mothers act like this towards their living kids, it’s probably not surprising that some regard an unborn baby that they can’t even see as a disposable prop in their own drama.

        • space_upstairs

          Insofar as motherhood is a gender role, it makes sense that it would invite the same kind of vanity and BS in performance that other gender roles, like feminine beauty and masculine toughness, do.

          • Cat

            You know, I’d never thought of it like that before, but that does make sense.

        • rational thinker

          I agree. When I found out I was pregnant with my son (my first) the bond for me was immediate ( also with my second) and I think it is for most mothers that wanted the pregnancy. Most women do bond with the baby while they are pregnant. So it is hard for me to read about these assholes that only care about themselves and having a vaginal birth to brag about. The one post that doctor Amy wrote called callousness of a homebirth mother shows how much the baby did not matter and the method of birth did.

          • space_upstairs

            Because motherhood (child-rearing) is a gender role, I think we have to ask not just whether the woman wants a child, but why. We like to think it’s always to have someone to teach and nurture for their own enjoyment and someone who can remind them of the things adults tend to forget – the “romantic” view of the parent-child relationship. But historically, women would have children to work on the family farm or in the family shop, and many still do because they want to fit in, please their spouse, or other such motives. (I admit, part of my motivation was to help my husband fulfill his dream of being a father in a loving family, since he wanted to teach and nurture and see childhood in action again and the like, but I was also able to find my own reasons amd see validity in the “romantic” ones.) If a woman cannot come to appreciate the parent-child relationship on its own terms, or is expecting the child to turn out a certain way and that child does not, as in either an overly narrow “romantic” view or as part of having wanted the child so as to fit in or pleast the spouse or the like, one can expect trouble. This relationship can fail like any other.

  • Mothers are expected to be responsible for their children. And in practice, most mothers are responsible for a LOT of decisions with regard to their children. This responsibility has inappropriately been extended to areas that the mother CANNOT actually control–for instance, autism, as you mention above.

    I have no problem judging mothers (or fathers, but generally it is mothers) who do things like fail to get their kids medical care, or give them bleach enemas, or take some other harmful action (or inaction) that falls under the heading of abuse or neglect.

    However, children are not products: They are people. You cannot enter a certain set of inputs (all-organic pregnancy diet, no epidural, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, etc) and get a predictable, satisfactory output that lives up to your expectations. Parents who fail to realize this can wind up seriously messing up their kids, and judging other parents (which usually means mothers) for not following a restrictive set of “best practices” or producing a child with some perceived flaw is wrongheaded.

    • space_upstairs

      Not to excuse the behavior itself, but I think those who use quackery deserve pity as well as scorn. They become bad mothers by being convinced that they will be bad mothers if they do not try to heal existing chronic health issues or prevent such issues by avoiding mass-market, high-tech health care and instead using “natural” niche methods. But then if someone tips them off that they are misguided and misinformed, well, hello cognitive bias. Unless something happens to de-convert them as with many commenters here.

    • rational thinker

      Yes parents need to start realizing that their child is not just an extension of themselves to mold.I think parents who never could think for themselves or were looking for approval from peers before they even had kids are at risk for this type of behavior. They follow nonsense advice to try to make their child perfect often times to the detriment of the child. A person like this with a child who has a disability often spells disaster for the child in particular with the bleach enemas, restrictive diets and things of that sort. A non disabled child is a little better off in the sense that no one is trying to cure him all the time but instead is expected to be perfect and go to Yale. These things they pushed on their child was never even about the child in the first place. It has from the beginning been about the social standing of the parent. I guess you could equate this behavior to dog or cat owners and pet shows they force them to compete in when the pet would most likely rather be sleeping on the carpet at home. Then when a pet wins a blue ribbon who was it really for?

      • space_upstairs

        Thinking for oneself is technically not possible. I only kind of fake it by taking into account multiple external influences and weighing them according to how important they are to my identity. Those at risk are, I think, those who have too few major influences and/or fail to recognize them as external. (People who claim to be indifferent to groups are often the biggest followers.) So…these people probably need some new influences to get out of their fad parenting trap. Unfortunately, social media and Google make it all too easy to deny yourself new influences, so you keep buying the same old stuff and making advertisers (and thus Social Media and Google) rich.

        • rational thinker

          Very true.