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.

  • rational thinker

    All of us regulars here have most likely seen the Adam ruins everything video about formula on you tube. I found a response video to it posted by a total moron and interested to hear thoughts on this one : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYw5NennuOc

  • EMT2014

    When Thing 1 was born the nurses at the Japanese Red Cross hospital took him to the nursery every night for 3 nights and gave him a few teaspoons of formula until my milk came in 2 or 3 days later. I got to sleep! It was great. A couple weeks later he cluster-fed from 11PM-5AM. I was hysterical by 4AM and my husband called the hospital. They suggested we go buy some formula at the drugstore, which, unfortunately, did not open until 5 or 6 in our little town. Luckily, he finally settled down about half an hour later and never did it again. Then he nursed for 2 years with no problems, and now he’s an adorable 5-year-old pain in the butt 🙂 I very much doubt anything wrong with him is due to the half-cup of formula he got!

    When Thing 2 was born (in the US) she would NOT settle the second night in the hospital, so I asked the nurses to take her for a while and give her a little formula so I could sleep. Not only does our shiny new Kaiser hospital not even HAVE a well-baby nursery, the nurse said she’d have to get a *doctor* to sign off on the formula! “I’m her mother!” I shrieked (well, hissed, since it was 3AM). “I WANT her to have formula, isn’t that good enough?!” It was not. Luckily the nurse had the same opinion of Baby-Friendly BS that I did, and the doctor signed off on it immediately AND apologized that the staff could only take her for an hour or so, just enough time to pass her around to everyone and admire her (she’s very pretty 🙂 and get a NICU nurse to swaddle her super-tight (which was also useless; neither of my children appreciated a swaddle and my mother was horrified to hear that they’d trussed her up like that). She’s closing in on 20 months is in roaring (sometimes literally) good health, and still nurses voraciously (I’m not looking forward to weaning her at 2!).

    Tl;dr: Americans are idiots and FED IS BEST.

  • 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.

      • rational thinker

        Its great that you recognized this about the hospital and its lactation consultant early on. Most of us
        don’t realize what they did was wrong until after we have the second baby in a non BFHI hospital. Then we remember the first hospital and realize what was done to us.

      • rational thinker

        Didn’t they bill you for over a thousand dollars for services and a pump you did not want?

        • Grey Sweater

          I can’t remember what their bill was exactly but it was a lot. And the pump rental was $200 for a month I think, little did we know (they knew) insurance reimburses completely for any pump you buy. A way to sneak yet another line item in there. Like I’ve said here before, I breastfed for almost a year and a half and never had one issue. Their “interventions” were all unnecessary and just a scam to bill us.

          Also, part of the bill was billed directly to my daughter. So if we hadn’t have paid it, she would have been a newborn with debt collectors after her. Wonderful system.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            Heh. I laugh in sarcasm because I ran into a similar issue when a pediatrician’s office mistakenly put DD down as the person responsible for the bill, and then didn’t get the memo that I’d paid the copay for that visit anyway. The collector called and insisted on talking to DD. I pointed out that if they checked DD’s date of birth, they’d see that she was three years old, and that as I was her mom, they could certainly discuss billing with me. “Oh no, we can’t because of HIPPA.” Um, again, SHE’S THREE. If you really, really want me to put her on the phone, I can, but she’s currently throwing a temper tantrum about her socks not measuring up to her standard, so…
            After I reiterated a) that she was three and b) that I was her mom for about the fourth time, they finally clued in that yes, it would be okay to discuss the situation with me. Sigh. I swear…

          • Grey Sweater

            So annoying. My baby got soooo many hospital bills. Double the work to sort through both sets and thousands of dollars of mistakes. Infuriating!! I’m loving the idea of maybe just letting them talk to her on the phone though. Let’s use the power of an angry toddler to drive collectors crazy!

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            As I recall, she was 40 minutes into that tantrum, and it would have totally served them both right to talk to each other! 😀

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        Yep. A few LCs mean well, many are moderately daffy (the very new-age, wooey one with an undergrad degree in music that I encountered once comes to mind), and some are outright harmful/dangerous/toxic. I’ve said here and at hospitals many times and will no doubt say again: in any other situation, a mandated reporter would be required to report me to CPS for leaving my newborn in the care of someone who was bedridden, on opioids, and recovering from major surgery, but somehow it was magically okay because I was the mom and magical newborn unicorn sparkles something…?!
        I’ve been thinking lately about Baby Books 2’s postpartum period, and about how while I had PPD, it wasn’t as bad as with kids 1 and 3. I really do ascribe that fact partly to his being the best-sleeping baby EVER (like, sleeping 4 night hours, waking for 30 minutes to eat, then sleeping another 6 straight night hours regularly from about 10 days old), and partly to the fact that I planned from the first to bottle feed and have a C-section and both of those happened with little backchat from the nurses or lactation consultants.

        • Grey Sweater

          First, congrats on having the best sleeping newborn ever! Please give that kid a high five from me.

          Totally agree that LC quality probably varies. I don’t even begrudge the new age ones really if that’s what people want I guess? But I think the fact that hospitals allow them to wander round and bill seemingly indiscriminately is infuriating to me. And what you said about post delivery rings so true. I couldn’t believe that they kept insisting I nurse and hold a teeny baby when I was recovering from surgery! I could hardly hold my head up much less an eight pound wiggler.

          Semi off topic, it is reassuring to me that your planned c section went smoothly. I have to have one if we have a second baby and as much as a vaginal delivery was a nightmare, surgery scares me too! I’m a wimp. Thanks for being so open.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            Glad that my experience could be helpful. I will say that having it planned meant that I felt much more in control and like I knew what to expect, and that helped a lot. Like, I was sad about not having a vaginal delivery or being able to breastfeed, but I didn’t *expect* to have one or even try, so it was much easier for me to acknowledge “I feel sad about this, and that’s okay, but now I’m going to make Junior his bottle and have a nice cuddle, and perhaps watch a show to take my mind off things” vs having my thoughts go out of control. May it be similar for you, should you decide to have another!
            He’s still an obnoxiously good sleeper some four years later.

          • Grey Sweater

            That’s a good way to look at it!! I’m sure part of my bad experience was that it was so different from my expectations, I think it would be a relief to take the uncertainty out of the process (at least as much as possible). Thanks for the encouragement!!

            And may my little monster follow in your son’s footsteps. Good sleepers are a gift!

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            Heck yes they are. Everything is better when everyone is getting enough sleep!

  • 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/