Finally got around to catching up on my blogroll today, and found out that August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month (at least in the States) and that August 1-7 was World Breastfeeding Week. That led me to Storknet's monthly newsletter, with an article titled "Going for the Gold: World Breastfeeding Week 2008".
Within the article are some statistics, such as the fact that "in the United States, the percentage of infants ever breastfed increased from 60% of those born in 1993-94 to 74% of those born in 2005." Good news, right? But the article continues, "despite this increase in the number of women who initiate breastfeeding, only about 12% of infants continue to be breastfed exclusively for a full six months."
Now, to me, this is really poorly worded. The message is phrased as if it's motivational: we've achieved major improvement in this area, but we still need to work on this other area. Come on, everyone! Let's pull up our socks and get 'er done! ("USBC Chair Joan Younger Meek ... urges us to rise to the challenge and meet the goal of six months of exclusive breastfeeding.")
But this isn't something we as individuals can control. "You've lost ten pounds and are nearly at your goal. Five more to go - rise to the challenge!" = appropriate. "You're nearly finished cleaning the house, and you've done a great job on the bathrooms and kitchen. Now you just need to vacuum the livingroom - rise to the challenge!" = appropriate. "You are feeding your baby as much breast milk as you produce. Now you just need to start producing more, so she doesn't starve to death! Rise to the challenge!" = not appropriate. It's a physical attribute that we have no control over, and is analogous to asking us to change our eye colour via will power. Rise to the challenge!
With all the hubbub about Breastfeeding Week/Month, I'm seeing the phrase "exclusive breastfeeding" a lot, and it's irking me the way this is put on a pedestal. When I am in my most calm and rational mind, I understand that breastfeeding is a spectrum, and that the fact I am giving my daughter 70% breastmilk is fantastic, so much better than 0%. Sure, it's not 100%, but it's pretty great, nothing to feel ashamed of. I just wish this message were given to new moms, myself included; the image of a spectrum, rather than a binary state: Exclusively Breastfed vs. Not Exclusively Breastfed. Success vs. Failure. Good Provider vs. Inadequate Mother. Devoted Parent vs. Not Trying Hard Enough.
There are a lot of circumstances that lead to Not Exclusively Breastfed, and they are not all the same. One woman may decide not to breastfeed because she doesn't want to be tied to the baby all the time, and would prefer to spend her time at the gym working to get her pre-baby body back while the nanny gives the baby formula.* Another woman may pick up a nasty infection at the hospital during birth that interferes with her baby's ability to nurse, causing permanent damage to her supply. Yet another may return to work at three months post-partum, whether by her own choice or her employer's, and be unable to pump enough milk to sustain her child through the day at daycare. And another may have given birth prematurely, a situation that will lead to baby being formula-fed until s/he is strong enough to nurse.
(*She may then write a book about it, which Mom #2 stares at in disbelief for two chapters before returning it to the library.)
Vastly different situations, and I'm sure you could think of dozens more. But all are lumped under the same FAIL category when we embrace the mindset that Exclusive Breastfeeding is the only goal worthy of praise.
Becoming a mother has hammered into me the truth of the statement, "The Personal is Political". I am suddenly no longer simply an individual, I am a Woman, a Mother, standing in for millions of my compatriots in whatever choices I make, whatever images I portray, whatever messages I accept. When I see an article like this one, and the incredible comments that follow, I don't just dismiss it as something distant and unrelated to me. I look at that mother's experience and realize it could be mine. I look at the vitriol contained in some of the comments and know that, by proxy, it is directed at me. I prepare myself for an "encounter" any time I nurse in public, and although I am more than prepared to quote the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms if anyone asks me to sequester myself while nursing, it has not escaped me that in this, as in so many battles, there is no such thing as a win for the mothers. We are told to breastfeed, and subtly berated if we fall short of the exclusivity "gold standard". Yet there is little to no societal support for us doing so. And any mention or image of breastfeeding is so controversial, so uproarious, that we become entangled in protests, nurse-ins, flame wars, and litigation. Can't we all just get along?
What a quagmire. What a quandary. Is it any wonder that I sometimes look forward to the time when I will no longer be a nursing mother, and need no longer open myself up to such criticism and anger?