Breastfeeding and the embrace of victimhood

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If I offer support to the victims of an earthquake in South America does that mean I can’t offer support the victims of a typhoon in South East Asia, too?

If I express support for those who lost their homes in a hurricane does that mean I can’t express support for those who lost their homes in a wildfire, too?

Support is not a zero sum game.

If I support women who have breast cancer, does that mean I can’t support women who have ovarian cancer, too?

Sounds ridiculous, right?

So why can’t I support formula feeding mothers AND support breastfeeding mothers?

Because lactivism embraces victimhood as central to its understanding of breastfeeding and the women who choose it.

This Facebook comment is a perfect example:

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“Don’t shame me for formula feeding by saying breast is best but I’ll downplay your accomplishment of breastfeeding by saying fed is best” That’s all I’m hearing from you.

In the world of lactivism, support is a zero sum game and any support offered to women who choose formula feeding is viewed as support that is stolen from breastfeeding mothers.

The celebration of their victimization serves several important roles in the lactivist cosmology. First, and foremost, it guarantees moral superiority. As Sommer and Baumeister explained in the book The human quest for meaning:

…[C]laiming the victim status provides a sort of moral immunity. The victim role carries with it the advantage of receiving sympathy from others and thereby prevents [one’s own behavior] from impugning one’s character…

Never mind that women who try breastfeeding represent the overwhelming majority of women, lactivists insist breastfeeders are a tiny minority, oppressed by the formula industry, and ceaselessly harassed by formula feeders. They’re victims dammit and that means that nothing they do to promote breastfeeding is ever wrong.

Second, the insistence on victimization serves to simplify the world by creating a false dichotomy. For lactivists, the world is divided into diametrically opposed camps of breastfeeders and formula feeders. It seems never to have occurred to them that combining breastfeeding and formula feeding is not merely possible, but common. Since the world is divided into diametrically opposed camps, in the lactivist cosmology everyone is either with them or against them.

When you are a breastfeeding victim, the fact that others don’t agree with you, or at least validate your feelings of victimization, is viewed as a form of re-victimization.

Other women choose formula? They are victimizing you by refusing to mirror your choice back to you.

Formula feeders want to choose formula without being harassed by hospital lactation consultants, vilified by breastfeeders, or told that they aren’t “baby friendly”? They’re victimizing you.

What if I (or anyone else) point out that the benefits of breastfeeding in the industrialized world have been massively exaggerated and are, in reality, limited to a few less infant colds and episodes of diarrheal illness in the first year? I am supposedly victimizing you. Lactivists insist I hate breastfeeding, and imagine I bathe daily in Similac, drying off using hundred dollar bills sent by Nestle as payment for services rendered.

Third, their status as self-proclaimed victims has been instrumental in allowing lactivists (particularly professional lactivists like La Leche League) to take control of public health messages and discussion in the public sphere. Breastfeeding rates were low purportedly because of the victimization of breastfeeders. That was the justification behind massive public and private initiatives to support breastfeeders and thereby promote breastfeeding. How has it worked out?

As a society, we have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting breastfeeding in order to improve child health and save on medical costs. Where’s our return on investment? Where is the evidence that overall infant health has improved as a result of breastfeeding rates nearly quadrupling in the past 50 years? There isn’t any. Where are the billions of dollars in healthcare savings we were promised as a result of increasing breastfeeding rates? No one can find them.

Yet lactivists continue promoting these programs and initiatives on the grounds that breastfeeding mothers are being victimized.

Interestingly, the goalposts of lactivist victimization are always moving. Fifty years ago the evidence of breastfeeders’ victimization was that hospitals did not support their efforts. In 2019, when hospitals do everything humanly (and inhumanely) possible to increase breastfeeding rates and when even cans of formula proclaim “breast is best,” failure to wholeheartedly embrace and praise public breastfeeding is viewed as … you guessed it … victimization.

Indeed, the goalposts have moved so far, basic civility to women who choose formula feeding as best for their babies is routinely cited —as in the Facebook comment above — as victimization of women who breastfeed.

It’s time for lactivists to grow up and stop bleating endlessly about their victimization. Breastfeeding is just one of two excellent ways to nourish an infant, nothing more and nothing less. Breastfeeders aren’t morally superior, aren’t better mothers, and certainly aren’t being victimized. They’re no different from formula feeding mothers, both trying to do what is best for their babies, their families and themselves.

Support is not a zero sum game.

We can support women who breastfeed AND women who formula feed. We don’t have to choose between them … no matter how much lactivists insist that we do.

  • jsegad
    • jsegad

      Surprised this is coming from University of Washington faculty and ACOG vice-president. She really seems to misrepresent the US based data and deviates pretty heavily from ACOG committee opinion language. What’s the story here?

      • mabelcruet

        That seems to me to be an incredibly misleading and frankly dishonest piece. She has deliberately and carefully avoided enlarging on the issue of the different types of midwife in USA and UK, and fudged the fact that the higher homebirth risks are linked to the lack of qualifications -she’s created a false equivalency and suggested that USA homebirths could be as safe as UK or Holland as long as standards are improved, without explicitly specifying those standards should include a proper midwife, not a homebirth hobbyist. It’s a deceitful and unprofessional article.

        And if she’d bothered to look at the UK homebirth figures, she’d realise that whilst the college recommends it as safe, most mothers don’t want it and very few choose it, even when offered. We have a varied range of delivery options and the biggest investment has been in home-from-home ‘alongside’ birthing units which appear to be considered very favourably by most women.

        • Volyund

          Also, are you really going to compare home birth in Netherlands to anywhere? Netherlands is a very small densely populated country. Average distance to a hospital is negligible compared to US, especially rural US. Among the Dutch: obesity rate is much less, they have much more fit population, their prenatal care is top notch for free for everybody, they are racially homogenous, they are better educated, they have far less teenage pregnancies, and lastly they do more prenatal screening tests and end up aborting more fetuses with abnormalities. All those things further reduce pregnancy and delivery risks. Gosh, did I forget anything?

          • mabelcruet

            Far fewer teenage pregnancies because they have such good sex education in schools, but also because birth control is free until age 21, and then cheap and readily available after that. Abortions are free and readily accessible, and there isn’t the religious stigma that exists elsewhere-they do have some anti-abortion pro-forced birth protest groups, but the government and municipal councils deal with this very firmly with established buffer zones and firm policing.

        • Sarah

          Yep. Whenever anyone trying to talk up NCB references the popularity of midwife attended births in the UK, they almost always leave out the fact that most of these take place in hospital settings. Whether they’re doing it accidentally because they don’t know or deliberately to obscure, it’s not a good look. If you want to be more like the UK in this respect, you add more midwife led units located INSIDE hospitals with consultant led units adjacent.

          • mabelcruet

            The standalone/freestanding midwife units are generally under-used, even though NICE insists that they are safe for straightforward births. I think expectant women maybe don’t feel particularly safe in them, no matter what the data shows. Because homebirth activists are so vocal, I think we tend to overlook the fact that most women are sensible, risk-averse and carefully choose the option that they feel most comfortable with, which is usually close to the big building with machines that go ping. Something else that is different in the UK is the fact that women don’t generally stay in hospital for too long after delivery-most are discharged within 24 hours of delivery if everything is ok, and then they and the baby are followed up in the community by community midwives and health visitors. Possibly that makes the choice of delivery unit less difficult, because you’re not going to be away from home and family for too long.

          • Sarah

            Yes, even quite crunchy and NCB inclined women in the UK will often still choose the hospital MLU, especially for their first birth. It’s seen by many as the best of both worlds.

            Also we’re getting older and fatter by the year, and freestanding units of course are very restricted in who they can take. They’re essentially facilities that are only suitable for a percentage of birthing women that is shrinking over time. The amount of provision we have in that category is pretty optimistic!

      • PeggySue

        Wow. 50 whole births without incident.

        This OB-GYN may never have seen a real trainwreck disaster of a transfer.

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      Deeply disappointing and discouraging when professionals play fast and loose with the truth.

  • Bee

    “The goal posts are always moving” yes, yes they are. Maureen has moved them so far that they are unachievable. The only way to see the predicted benefits is to be never formula fed, and that includes all your ancestors. That and the 100% exclusive breast feeding must be extended. The reason we haven’t seen the predicted benefits is because we haven’t been doing it exclusively enough or for long enough. Never mind that the populations the benefits are extrapolated from don’t fit that exclusivity model.

    • Juana

      It’s like positive thinking/The Secret/whatever: if the universe isn’t dishing out what what you’re wishing for, you’re not wishing hard enough.
      If the benefits of breastfeeding don’t turn up, you’re not doing it hard enough.

  • mabelcruet

    I don’t understand how they reconcile two opposing viewpoints. On the one hand, they claim breast feeding is natural, its instinctive, its in our genes, we are all born knowing how to breast feed because its a fundamental part of womanhood and motherhood, and every woman can breastfeed. On the other hand, it’s an accomplishment, its something achieved by warrior mamas struggling against all odds, its a prize worth fighting for, worth every second of pain and discomfort and cracked nipples and no sleep, because we are warriors fighting for our baby’s future health and happiness, and all women should be celebrated for managing to breastfeed and given golden boobies with platinum nipples and diamond studded Montgomery glands for this huge lifetime achievement.

    Which is it? Something normal and natural and everyone could do it in their sleep, or something absolutely impossible that we only achieve via a monumental struggle so overwhelming that we need to award prizes? It can’t be both.

    • Mel

      You can’t reconcile it because you are not adding the correct epithets to the arguments.

      Breastfeeding is natural so women who do not are abnormal.
      Breastfeeding is instintinctive so women who do not are abnormal.
      Breastfeeding is integral to mothering so women who do not are abnormal.

      Breastfeeding is an accomplishment so women who do not are losers
      Breastfeeding is a prize so women who do not are losers

      That’s the only way that the meme about “fed is best” makes sense.

      For non-lactivists – including most EBF moms – a fed baby is the goal so a statement like “I fed my baby formula” is not undermining a mom who breastfed…because who doesn’t like a happy, healthy, full baby?

      This also cues into the ‘ok’ reasons to not breastfeed for lots of lactivists – those of us who are already abnormal losers due to disabilities, building families through adoption or surrogacy or, you know, being an abnormal loser who doesn’t want to breastfeed their baby.

      My response: duly noted – but I’m playing all of my “Pain Olympics” cards if you start whining at me about no one caring about your accomplishments. I’m gonna use the words “NICU”, “durable medical equipment”, “pediatric rehabilitation”, “medical scheduling nightmare” – and then I’m going to end with the words “Honestly, we’re so damned lucky to live where we do when we do because my kid is worth all the work.” Feel free to cry a river – but I’d just as soon play with my son, thanks.

      • mabelcruet

        Being childfree, I have missed out completely on all the guilt and worry heaped on mothers who don’t conform to the ‘correct’ attitudes and behaviour, but hearing about it makes my palms itch to slap someone around the head a few times. My only warrior mama experience has been managing to keep 2 day old kittens alive by feeding hourly via syringes-now that was exhausting for a while, but I don’t think it quite compares!

  • rational thinker

    “Don’t shame me for formula feeding by saying breast is best but I’ll
    downplay your accomplishment of breastfeeding by saying fed is best”
    That’s all I’m hearing from you.” The part that sticks out here ” I’ll
    downplay your accomplishment of breastfeeding by saying fed is best”
    says it all. Breastfeeding is an accomplishment and formula feeding is not and if you formula feed you should know how inferior you are. This right here shows that this is in now way about feeding babies but boosting an ego.
    Sanctimommies need to learn that breastfeeding itself is not an accomplishment but making sure your child has a full belly IS no matter how that gets done.

    If deep down you know you only had a baby so you could show off your baby bump or so you can brag about a biological process like breastfeeding or home birth or birth without painkillers ect, and especially if you view your child as a miniature version of yourself that you can shape and mold into whatever YOU want them to become then maybe you should not have a kid to begin with.

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      So now the claim is that breastfeeding is an “accomplishment.” Is it an accomplishment like if I can finish my half marathon this weekend?

      But I thought breastfeeding was natural and women’s breasts are made for breastfeeding and if women couldn’t breastfeed then the human race would have never survived? Can’t say that about running half marathons.

      So is breastfeeding perfectly natural and everyone can do it? Or is it an accomplishment if you can pull it off?

      Running a half marathon is an accomplishment, and I would never say everyone could do it. It’s an accomplishment specifically because not everyone can do it (hell I’ll be lucky to finish – I’m out of shape)

  • KQ Not Signed In

    “Lactivists insist I hate breastfeeding, and imagine I bathe daily in Similac, drying off using hundred dollar bills sent by Nestle as payment for services rendered.”

    Dammit, you made me snort Emfamil out my nose, and I don’t get my next Shill Payment until the 5th!

    • mabelcruet

      Does anyone know the department I should send my change of address details to? It’s just that I’ve never got my shill cheques so they are maybe getting lost in the post….

      • rational thinker

        I haven’t gotten my shill check yet either, I guess I shall have to file a formal complaint to the payroll dept and if that doesn’t work I will contact human resource dept.

        • mabelcruet

          I reckon we could add on interest, standard 8% for unpaid bills I think. I can add that to the fee I get from experimenting with stolen organs and selling off thymus glands to drug companies. And don’t forget flogging placentas to cosmetic companies to extract hormones from for face cream-that’s a nice little earner too…

          (Dear GMC-this is a joke, I don’t steal organs. Please don’t strike me off the register)