Are lactivists abusive?

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It’s not difficult to recognize that this husband is abusive:

My daughter, 10 months old has recently started biting during breastfeeding… [M]y breasts kind of look like a war zone- I’m bleeding and sore because of the biting and simply cannot take it anymore.

… My husband does not like this. He was okay with me pumping and feeding our daughter until I started supplementing with formula. He believes that breastmilk is best and formula is the devil because it’s not “natural” or something…

It reached the tipping point yesterday when he hid the formula so I’d have “no choice” but to breastfeed our daughter.

I ask him why he’s doing this, and he simply says he doesn’t think I’m not trying hard enough because I stopped simply because she’s biting me, and that a good mother wouldn’t stop doing what’s best for her child simply because she’s in pain.

Most of the comments on the Reddit thread are supportive of the mother. For example:

What’s the difference between this abusive behavior and the typical behavior of many lactivists?

… How fucking dare he. I am filled with righteous indignation on your behalf. A good husband wouldn’t gaslight his wife into thinking that she is somehow doing her child wrong by making certain her child gets the nutrients she needs while make certain that her own body isn’t relegated to the status of a chew toy… [I]f my husband did this to me (hid formula to try to force me to breast feed; doubled down by accusing me of being a bad mother if I didn’t follow his command) I would tell him I’d see the formula back immediately, or I’d see him in court.

So here’s my question: is there any difference between this abusive behavior and the typical behavior of many lactivists* and lactation professionals?

A foundational document of contemporary lactivism, Diane Weissinger’s Watch Your Language, is a veritable primer on emotional abuse. It explains in detail how to use fear, obligation and guilt to force women to breastfeed.

What are the tactics employed by both the abusive husband and by lactivists?

1. Thought policing:

This is the key tactic:

When we … say that breastfeeding is the best possible way to feed babies because it provides their ideal food, perfectly balanced for optimal infant nutrition, the logical response is, “So what?” Our own experience tells us that optimal is not necessary. Normal is fine, and implied in this language is the absolute normalcy and thus safety and adequacy-of artificial feeding… Artificial feeding, which is neither the same nor superior, is therefore deficient, incomplete, and inferior. Those are difficult words, but they have an appropriate place in our vocabulary.

What better way to ensure fear, obligation and guilt than to insist that infant formula is “deficient, incomplete, and inferior”? The abusive husband employs the same tactic when he tells his wife that breastfeeding is “what good mothers do.”

2. Lying: Lactivists lie routinely in promoting breastfeeding. Yes, breastfeeding can be beneficial, but in first world countries with access to clean water the benefits for term babies are trivial. Honesty is unlikely to promote the fear, obligation and guilt desired by lactivists so they lie instead. This deprives women of the opportunity to make informed decisions about breastfeeding since the information they are given is proganda, not scientific evidence. The abusive husband employs the same tactic when he implies that the baby will suffer by being weaned at 10 months of age.

3. Invalidation: In the world of lactivism, women’s thoughts, needs and values are dismissed out of hand. Maternal exhaustion? Who cares. Maternal need to return to work? Just pump. A history of maternal sexual abuse that leads a woman to avoid anyone touching her breasts? She should just get over it. Mothers’ feelings aren’t simply irrelevant; they are invalid.

4. Gaslighting: This is a specialized form of invalidation that involves denying reality. A mother says her baby is hungry? Tell her all babies scream like that. A mother finds breastfeeding agonizing? Tell her her pain doesn’t matter. A mother needs medication incompatible with breastfeeding? Tell her she doesn’t really need it. In other words, lactivists — like the abusive husband — refuse to accept the lived reality of breastfeeding for many women, substituting preferred beliefs instead.

These are not the only emotionally abusive tactics used to promote breastfeeding, but they are among the most prominent. Rather then treating women respectfully as individuals with their own needs and desires, emotional abusers treat women as existing merely to be manipulated to satisfy the abuser’s needs. This husband “needs” his wife to breastfeed their child so he abuses her in an attempt to force the issue. Lactivists “need” other women to breastfeed so they abuse women in an attempt to force the issue.

Like this husband, lactivists deploy thought control, lying, invalidating and gaslighting to exert control. If it’s abusive behavior when a husband does it, it’s abusive behavior when lactivists and lactation professionals do it. In both cases, it must stop!

 

* I am not suggesting that the emotional abuse meted out by lactivists has anywhere near the destructive effects of the emotional abuse that can occur within personal relationships.

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  • rational thinker

    If you switch out the words my husband with my lactation consultant I don’t think she would have gotten a lot of supportive comments. I think most them would be telling her “you can do this” or ” you are giving your baby the best don’t quit now”
    This husband hiding formula is no different from the hospital lactation consultant who throws out a pacifier and refuses to give mom formula when she asks for it to force mom to breastfeed.
    When a husband does this crap people get enraged but when another woman does it the common response is “she is just doing her job, she cares that your baby gets the best start. Don’t you want the BEST for your baby?”

    • Grey Sweater

      This is a really smart distinction. I still don’t understand how lactation consultants can tell new moms they don’t have formula at the hospital. It’s such an obvious lie. If I hadn’t experienced the pressure firsthand I’m ashamed to say I don’t even know if I would have believed it happens. In every other situation, it seems patients at hospitals are allowed choices: caregiver, nutrition, procedures, etc. In childbirth, all agency is removed from the delivering mom. I gave birth well over a year ago and it still sort of haunts me.

      I wish lactation consultants were forced to disclose that moms are under no obligation to follow their instruction and that they often aren’t medical professionals at all. I hear so many stories about them insisting on entering the room and then the patient receives a big bill for their services. Such a racket.

  • Montserrat Blanco

    I still do not see how it can be anybody’s business what a woman does with her breasts. I mean, seriously?

  • StephanieJR

    Slightly surreal; I frequent the mentioned subreddit (Am I The Asshole?) often, and was wondering if that post would get wider circulation. I’m happy to say that most commentators went right to Not The Asshole, and at a guess, anyone who thought the mother was as asshole, was downvoted to hell. Many people were extremely angry on her behalf.

    It’s not the first post about parenting I’ve seen, with a good few about feeding a baby; one I saw recently (but can’t find right now) was about the OP’s SIL asking her (after meeting for the first time over Zoom), about sleep training her five week old baby, and something about not wanting to use formula with the baby (SIL is apparently a type A/perfectionist personality). OP made a face at those choices, and SIL got very defensive and offended, so OP wondered if she was an asshole for being ‘judgemental’. Once again, overwhelmingly NTA, with many pointing out how bad the situation was for such a young baby. I’ll go see if I can find it again.

    ETA: Found it! https://www.reddit.com/r/AmItheAsshole/comments/ghrbxw/aita_for_making_a_new_mom_cry_on_mothers_day/