Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Vulnerability of Motherhood

There is this unwritten rule in our society, and it is: if a woman of any age is out in public with a child of any age, anyone who comes into contact with her is welcome to comment or offer criticism on subjects ranging from the child's manner of dress to the behaviour of the child and everything in between.

I call this drive-by parenting, and the best thing about it is that you don't have to actually be a parent to participate! No, single people are just as welcome to criticize as anyone else.

I was vaguely aware that this sort of thing happened, but the first time I heard a tale of it firsthand was from a friend who had troubles with her milk supply and so had to supplement with formula. She told me that she'd been approached in a local mall and asked point-blank "What's in that bottle?". I was horrified. What business was it of anyone's? That child could be adopted. That mother could have cancer and be taking drugs that could pass through the breastmilk. There could be (as there was) a supply issue. The woman could be babysitting and feeding a bottle of breastmilk. There are probably dozens of other legitimate reasons for giving a kid a bottle, whether breastmilk or formula, and having recently found myself in a similar situation I think that most mothers think long and hard, perhaps even agonize a great deal, over the feeding of their babies. The fact that strangers feel entitled to comment on it, knowing absolutely nothing about that family's situation, makes me jaw-clenchingly angry.

I had the opportunity to witness my very first drive-by last Wednesday afternoon. My car was at the dealership for an oil change, so I took Gwen for a walk in the stroller to kill time. We ended up at a nearby mall, where I sat in the kids' play area to nurse Gwen. Another woman came by with two tween-aged kids, a boy and a girl, who commenced playing with the crayons and blocks and so on while the woman sat on the bench beside me, idly paging through a kids' book. Not long after, a fifty-ish woman came walking by. Without pausing in her stride, nor meeting anyone's eyes, she commented briskly to no one in particular, "They're missing school already!?" with a look of disapproval shot towards the tweens. Aware, as apparently she was not, that it was the 25th of June, I turned to the other woman and asked, "Isn't school out for the summer?" She confirmed that it had been the last day. But Granny Drive-By was already long gone. She didn't want a conversation, she didn't want an answer, she didn't want to give anyone a chance to defend themselves by giving valuable information. She just wanted to drop her ill-informed opinion, giving someone the opportunity to feel like crap, and continue on her merry way.

I don't know how the other woman was affected, but I was in a blind rage.

Ever since I heard about the "What's in that bottle?" comment, I've been working on coming up with snappy retorts that make it clear I don't think it's anybody's business how I feed, dress, talk to, or treat my child. But with this event, I suddenly understood that when the Drive-By happens to me, and it will, I won't get a chance to respond, whether in defense of my actions or of my right to make my own parenting decisions.

The very next day, we were told that we had to start supplementing Gwen a lot more rigourously than we had been. One week and 10.5 ounces later, it seems this was the right choice. Bottle feeding, for us, is the new black. Bring on the drive-by.

Things have changed in the past generation. When Chris and I were infants, breastfeeding was not nearly as common as it is today. Breastfeeding was what animals did, and maybe third world women who couldn't afford formula. But here in North America, we knew better! We could have Scientifically Developed Formula, specially created to give your baby all the nutritional value he or she needed. I was breastfed, and my mom tells me it was a bit of a rarity at the time. Chris was formula-fed, and his mom has been subtly pushing me to give up breastfeeding since the first week of Gwen's life. But today, we know that breastmilk is absolutely the best food you can give your child. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends babies be breastfed exclusively for six months, and continue receiving breastmilk for their first two years and even beyond. There are hundreds of reasons why Breast is Best.

It's wonderful to have all this support and knowledge about breastfeeding, encouraging new moms to do what's best for their babies.


As mentioned above, there are a lot of reasons why any given baby at any given time might be drinking from a bottle. And I think we've swung too far into Breastfeeding Fanatacism. I've seen moms at the drop-in who are supplementing with formula and feel they need to defend this choice by explaining their baby's whole life story before they can say anything else about any concerns or questions they have that week. I've heard other moms talk about how all they can find on the 'net is info on how great breastfeeding is, and no useful info on how to formula feed. And I've mentioned here before about how breastfeeding is touted as a Beautiful, Natural, Bonding Opportunity, a myth that annoys me no end because if you, as a new mom, don't find it Beautiful and Natural, there must be something wrong with you!*

So, society wants you to breastfeed. And you know it is best for your baby. So, assuming you are willing and able to do so, off you merrily go, nursing your baby whenever and wherever she happens to request it. But there is another facet to this issue: the pure unseemliness of public nursing. My friend Tricia was recently in another local mall (apparently, that's all we new moms do; go to the drop-ins, and then hang out at the mall) and was looking for a place to nurse her son. She was kindly but firmly directed towards the 'family room', which is of course nothing more than a washroom with a couple of stalls, a change table, and one chair right next to the garbage can. Yes, any new mother would love to spend an hour or so sitting in such a room! Ever so much more pleasant than sitting in the mall proper, watching the world go by! So you're subject to criticism no matter what you do; society expects you to breastfeed, but they sure as hell don't want to see it.**

*I also think that breastfeeding is so hard and painful in the beginning that once it stops hurting and starts working, women are so flooded with relief that they think it is a Beautiful and Natural Bonding Opportunity, when in fact it is just Mind-Numbingly Dull. But that's just my opinion.

**I am completely over my fear of nursing in public. I have even considered doing a summer tour of Important Nanaimo Landmarks and nursing at every one of them, just to stir the pot and give myself something to do. In certain situations I do use the Hooter Hider, but if I don't feel like it then I don't.

By the way: Your right to breastfeed anytime, anywhere is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


Anonymous said...

"What's in the bottle?"
"White russian."


Yes! breastfeed wherever the hell you choose! And while you're sitting there bored, breastfeeding, you can come up with snappy rejoinders to people who don't like you breastfeeding there, like "take a picture, it'll last longer" or "In an hour I'll be gone from here, but www.hotbreastfeedingsluts.com will still be there"

too evil?

Amberism said...

well, you already know I lie about what's in the bottle :).

yeah, breastfeeding has never been beautiful and bonding for me. Although, it does get more enjoyable...


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