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Tempest in a D-Cup

I would rather pogo stick across a pit of flaming Punji sticks than discuss breastfeeding. It’s a topic that seems to be so fraught with peril that it may as well BE a pit of flaming Punji sticks. Why is a simple bodily function capable of eliciting such a strong emotional response? And what can the conflict tell us about American culture?

The current debate over breastfeeding is something that seems to defy straightforward analysis. There are so many factions, so many camps. The stereotypes of the right wing radio shock jock disgusted by women nursing in public and the crunchy mama with a baby on the boob beside her hairy armpits are not the norm. There are conservatives that cringe at the Free the Nipple movement but applaud a mama quietly nursing under a modest cover in the back row of their church, and liberals who won’t eat GMOs who think it’s ok to give a baby formula if it lets women get back to finding self-fulfillment at work faster.

As someone who has been actively nursing for over 25 years (off and on), I have something of a unique perspective. I began nursing back when it was still, to some extent, frowned upon. I got disapproving and skeptical remarks from medical professionals and loved ones alike. Dire tales were told of babies starving at their mother’s breast. Doctors urged me to supplement with formula, giving me handfuls of Enfamil samples and a Similac-sponsored diaper bag full of half-off formula coupons. I was told to chart wet diapers to prevent dehydration and to weigh my baby twice daily without fail.  The entire endeavor was painted as so risky it made me second guess myself. But I shook it off and kept going – a rebellious act undoubtedly made much easier by the fact that nursing came fairly easily for me. I had a healthy baby and a good milk supply and so it was possible to carry on even in the face of criticism. Nursing wasn’t always the funnest thing I ever did, especially that first time, but I managed despite the pressure.

Now, of course, the worm has turned and according to some, breastfeeding advocates are the bullies. Doctors and nurses push breastfeeding with a heavy hand, just like they pushed me to supplement with formula. New moms are warned not about dehydration and the possible lack of nutrients in their milk like I was, but about how formula is inferior at best, dangerous or even toxic at worst. Everyone has a horror story about the lactation consultant who scolded them over the occasional bottle or the nosy neighbor who insisted their baby would have autism if they weren’t breastfed. And the women who are successful with breastfeeding are the worst. They’re so dogmatic, so arrogant, so sure their choice is the only right one. They truly believe that their success is not due to luck, economic privilege, and good genes but superior morals – because they wanted it more, because they tried harder or were more dedicated. They’re making women who can’t nurse or choose not to, feel ashamed about their decision. It feels to me like a 180 degree turn; within my adult lifetime, breastfeeding advocates have gone from heroic underdogs bravely standing up to the medico-industrial complex, to big mouth buttinskis in service of the status quo.

It’s evident that some breastfeeding Nazis are just jerks. The world has always contained a fair amount of jerks and probably always will. Some people enjoy feelings of superiority and will exude smugness like bad cologne in whatever venue they happen to find themselves in. But many breastfeeding advocates, I truly believe, mean well. They actually want to help women who would like to nurse and feel that they can’t.  They just go about it in all the wrong ways. It’s at least in part because they can’t let go of what happened in the past, back when breastfeeding was actively discouraged. There is sometimes a strange disconnect with people where they have heard about or read something that happened a long time ago (like doctors pushing formula on people with scare tactics about starving babies) and they seem unable to realize that things have changed. Times are different. Very few women beginning motherhood today have ever experienced the kind of mild anti-nursing pressure that I experienced, let alone the stronger public shaming that women in the generation or two before me did.

But that narrative – breastfeeding under assault by evil corporations and ignorant doctors – is part of how these would-be saviors view the world. Through this lens, they see women who plan to bottlefeed as victims in need of rescue and not as actors in charge of their own destiny, and feel justified charging in with dubious studies and 50 year old friend-of-a-friend anecdotes to save the day. “You don’t want to breastfeed? That’s your doctor talking. Oh, pshaw, you don’t mean that. That is what these formula companies DO. They undermine you with their ad campaigns and formula samples until you think you can’t do it but you can! You really can! What about allergies!! Obesity!! Bonding!?!” It’s no wonder people feel attacked and judged. In trying to help people who don’t need or want it, they end up reenacting the exact kind of bullying that nursing women once experienced.

Why do they do this? We live in a time of busybodies, it seems. Maybe it’s always been this way. Probably, it’s always been this way. I have read enough Jane Austen novels to know that humans, particularly those of the female variety, have a judgy streak in them. And there is SO much more out there now to judge! We are constantly informed about a seemingly endless supply of once-private issues to be judgy about. It’s not limited to breastfeeding, either. I’ve seen good friends nearly come to blows over baby ear piercing or homebirth. There seems to be no room for the peaceful coexistence of people who just do things differently than one another. We define ourselves by the things we are doing better than the other guy, not according to our own internal metrics.

But it takes two to tango, and not only are we living in an era where many delight in a level of invasiveness and judgement that puts small town busybodies to shame, but we also live in a time of extreme hypersensitivity. Some people seem to take delight in a victim status and all too often will misinterpret a well-meant statement as judgement or snobbery. It’s gotten so bad that among some mommy forums online, if you do nurse, best to keep that info to yourself or risk being pegged as a braggart or know it all. To express any personal pride in breastfeeding as an accomplishment (because let’s be honest here, even when it’s easy, it ain’t easy) is taken as a rebuke. Even if someone out and out asks for breastfeeding advice or guidance or encouragement, people will chime in to share every breastfeeding horror story they ever heard and to shout down anyone who replies. “What worked for YOU? Well, I’ll tell you what worked for ME. Bottles, that’s what! After my third abscess my doctor flat out TOLD me to stop nursing, and guess what, that is fine!! It is just perfectly fine and my kids are fine and everyone is fine, ok?” By that point the poor woman who simply wanted a little support has slunk away, sorry she ever opened her browser.

The debate over breastfeeding is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with modern culture. Because of the cultural cross-pollination with some breastfeeding advocates firmly on the right (family values, y’all) and others firmly on the left (baby-led everything), the breastfeeding debate enables us to see the fundamental drivers of human culture wars just like a cutaway picture of an engine shows the workings of an internal combustion engine. Breastfeeding is an issue that is largely divorced from partisanship but not immune from it, and it really does reveal that so much of everything that gets our dander up, is at its root just petty human BS. People who like to feel better than other people. People who take offense at things that are totally innocent. People with the self-awareness of a squid. People who can’t let go of the past and people who can’t take a lesson from history to save their life. Those with agendas manipulate these tendencies into some larger crusade and we attribute noble motives to our behavior, but at the root it’s often not about the agenda, it’s about the petty human BS.

That’s why we are so quick to descend into tribalism and hypocrisy in issues of culture and politics – with both sides repeating the mistakes of the past again and again and again.  It’s just like what happened with breastfeeding…bullying women for breastfeeding was wrong but bullying women for bottlefeeding was wrong and bullying women for innocently advocating for breastfeeding is wrong too. Bullying is wrong, no matter one’s motivation. But in the heat of the moment, everyone thinks that their actions are justified, everyone thinks they are in possession of a higher understanding, a greater truth that bestows upon them the right to behave badly towards others. They think they’re doing the Lord’s Work. But under the hood, inside the engine, the forces driving the debate are murky and primitive.

I truly believe that most people on Planet Earth, like breastfeeding advocates, mean well. They believe they have the answers and believe everyone wants to…in fact, needs to hear them. Sometimes, they’re even correct. But our motives are never really 99 and 44/100ths pure. Who really knows where lofty principles end and ugly humanity begins? One of the best things we could do for each other is to try and realize going in that we’re all flawed and fallible people who love the sound of our own voice. Let the Lord do his own work and give others the grace to be wrong. Of course you know best. I know best too. But nobody ever said we have to agree on everything. Maybe, just maybe, I know best for me and you know best for you and there is no one right way.

Staff Writer
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Kristin is huge geek, a libertarian, and a mother of 4 sons and a daughter. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor.

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79 thoughts on “Tempest in a D-Cup

  1. More than anything, I think the debate around feeding infants shows the danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good. If you are caring for your baby’s most basic need, no one should say shit to you. And, yes, both formula and breast milk qualify as “care” that meets the need. Full stop.


    • This was our opinion when Bug was born. If you can nurse and want to, awesome! If you can’t or don’t want the hassle, that works too. Just keep the baby fed.

      As for why a woman might not breastfeed, that is none of anyone’s business.


      • I will give a shout out to The Good Doctor who helped articulate this general line of thinking in a remarkably thoughtful letter he penned to us when we felt up against the wall trying to do something our situation simply would not allow for. He gave us… Zazzy, really… the permission to do what was best and right guilt free.


  2. I’d been blissfully unaware of many of these debates prior to my wife becoming pregnant. I blame the internet and social media in particular. We’ve always had busybodies, gossips, and scolds. Now they have megaphones in a culture that revels in self-righteous narcissism.


    • Does someone qualify as a busy-body if they start giving you dirty looks because you are nursing your baby in front of them? Because breast-feeding advocacy extremism is one thing, but changing the culture to stop public shaming of women taking care of their infants’ needs is quite another.


      • That people do that is petty, and quite silly. That anyone thinks they’re ever going to convince a big, pluralistic society to agree to follow their personal standards about what should and should not be frowned upon is insane.


  3. I too first became aware of the breastfeeding, um…, overly enthusiastic advocates, when my wife became pregnant. We also found it pretty east to ignore them, once the pattern became clear. It may be that this would be more difficult if you live on Facebook, but really: It’s people saying silly things on the internet. If you are going to let this ruin your day, you have deeper problems than whether or not you breastfeed.


      • I’m thinking tits are probably older than Catholicism.
        I know for a fact there are some tits out there that look like they’re definitely older than Catholicism.


        • I think Lee was probably referring to the modern breast feeeding movement. There was a time when nearly everyone used formula but the far-right and far-left decided this could not be.


          • Really?

            I wish to state my endorsement of suckling.
            I prefer an A-cup, but I usually end up with a C-cup or a D.

            This should be an option available at any fast-food place located along an interstate.
            I can see myself saying, “No, thank you,” whenever they ask me if I would like to “go large.”

            Surely the Swedes are doing this by now.
            Liberals here should be up-in-arms about the unavailability of it.


      • Hmm – I learned something today. The La Leche League (not necessarily a Torpenhow Hill construct) was formed in Illinois and had nothing to do with anything Hispanic, culturally or religiously. The name was a way to get around the fact that it was 1956, and you couldn’t use words like “breastfeeding” (or, as Lucille Ball famously discovered, “pregnancy”) in polite company without using a loan-word.


        • THOSE people…our firstborn was two weeks premature and absolutely would not latch. My wife was a wreck as her perceived failure to nurse her baby was piled upon a really rough delivery, and then the La Leche League showed up and pretty much just bullied her to tears.

          When we arrived at the hospital for the birth of our second, I asked the nurses to keep the League away from us, and we were all much happier for it.


  4. we also live in a time of extreme hypersensitivity.

    No one has to. Everyone has the choice to ignore the busybodies. Just look at the thread on the mute button option.


    • This. But also, it strikes me as slightly paradoxical to think arguments attacking people for being hypersensitive will reduce or dissipate people’s hypersensitivities.


      • My goal was to describe the reality of the debate, not advocate for a position. And I do think at least some of the participants in this particular debate are too quick to take offense over things that are innocent and well-meant.


    • Maybe?

      When we were in the hospital with Mayo, we got repeated visits from lactation consultants and the like. Now, I’m sure we could have found a way to prevent them from entering our room at all, but we were exhausted (we arrived at hospital at noon on Wednesday, he arrived at 4am Thursday) and Zazzy was on pain meds after needing some stitches.

      I won’t go so far as to say these folks intentionally prey on women/families in incredibly vulnerable states… but, well, okay… I will go that far: I think many of these folks intentionally prey on women in particular and their families when they are in incredibly vulnerable states. Entering a woman’s hospital room shortly after she has given birth and throwing around words like “poison” is more than a busybody one can ignore.


      • Sadly many of the “consultants” are true believers. My friends ex wife was part of the leche league, a believer and training to become a consultant.


      • Wow, that is… entirely unlike our only experience with a lactation consultant. I’m sorry you and Zazzy had to deal with that.

        In our case, the hospital had the kid on tube feeding, and refused to take her off until they could observe that she could nurse. This was to be determined by subtracting the dry weight of each diaper as it went on, plus the liquid weight of formula tube-fed, from the wet weight of each diaper as it came off, and looking for evidence of a full diet’s worth of breast milk – which would have to be consumed in addition to the full diet’s worth of formula they were already giving her. Of course, since she was on tube feeding, she was never hungry enough to nurse, and always fell asleep the moment she got a boob.

        A few nurses were offering Fledermaus unhelpful advice about how this or that thing was wrong with her nipples and she needed this or that device to ever be able to breastfeed the kid.

        An LC finally came by, and said, effectively “You guys. Guys. Nothing is wrong with this lady’s nipples. Nothing is wrong with this baby. The baby’s just full from the meals you’re giving it every hour. Let the kid get hungry, and it will nurse.”

        The LC was right. As a medical professional she was able to phrase this in terms that got listened to, and the kid was allowed to get hungry, whereupon she was able to nurse just fine, and that was that.


        • Our hospital was officially related “Baby Friendly“. Which was great in some way but not-so-great in other ways, though I’d probably call it a pretty big net positive overall.

          At one point, no fewer than 3 people were simultaneously grabbing at Zazzy’s breast in the midst of her having some very normal problems with the first day or two of breast feeding.


          • Something I found rather hilarious with my 5th baby was that my baby friendly hospital insisted vehemently on “kangaroo care”. This is a new idea where they want you to put the naked baby on your bare skin. It’s a fine idea but they were just sooo in my face about it…every time they walked into the room they wanted me to strip the baby down and plop her on my bare chest and scolded me for not doing it. Eventually I was like “you realize I’ve successfully kept 4 previous children alive without doing this constantly?”


        • Seconding this.

          At our hospital, they ask what you want to do. If breasfeeding, the nurse makes sure you get a minute-zero feed in and they ask you if you want a lactation consultant to come by. It’s a separate non-hospital service, so they wouldn’t bug you if you don’t (since then they couldn’t charge).

          The woman we got was simply there to offer practical latching/hold-position type help. And they were great later through some of Mrs. N’s challenges.


      • What strikes me about this vignette is the uncertainty and confusion that new parents feel. If this is your second or successive child, you have some idea of what’s ahead and what to do, but for the bulk of parents having their first child, it’s an overwhelming experience for which there’s no standardized instruction manual and no standardized class. Damn near every parent I’ve ever spoken to said that they immediately forgot all of the parenting class and parenting book advice the first time the actual child began actually crying in their arms.

        So you’re confused, you’re concerned for your child, and someone swoops in and tells you that This Is The Best And Only True Way and it’s easy to see buying into that. When, in fact, The Best And Only True Way is really just that person’s opinion. There is no one Best And Only True Way, there are only Ways That Work Better For You.


  5. I’m trying to think of anything more likely to result in neurotic wondering if one isn’t doing any/everything wrong than being a new mother. Somebody help me out, because I can’t think of anything.

    With that in mind, I’m thinking that going through something where you’re consistently and constantly second-guessing pretty much everything you’re doing and then, *FINALLY*, getting to the other side successfully is probably really validating on a personal level. “I was wondering if it worked and I was scared but, *YES*! I DID IT! I SUCCEEDED!”

    So now, when you see someone else going through the exact same thing, you’ve got tons of advice from when you were freaking out.

    The dynamic that I think adds to this is the whole “only child” thing. We’ve all seen the videos where moms talk about the difference between how careful they were with kiddo #1 versus kiddo #2 (and, if there’s a kiddo #3, that’s where the speech turns into “yeah, they’re eating the pizza they find under the carseat and you shrug… they’re probably healthier than the other two”). We, as a society, have more and more mothers who only went through the parent to the one child thing compared to the mothers who had 5 or 6 kids and so we have a lot more mothers who only went through the neurotic new mom thing once but never went through the fourth kid “eh, they’ll be fine” stages. Entire swaths of the society, with mothers who were mothers to only one child. The neurosis followed by the feeling of triumph for having succeeded despite all of the terror and doubt and what have you without the later stages given by kiddos #3, #4, and on.

    Of course it’s going to be a bloodsport.


    • We have been devoutly cultivating a more neurotic society in a number of ways for some time now.
      The good part is that our efforts have been largely successful.
      That’s also the bad part.


    • First kid: All food will be organic and we will measure every serving on this special scale prior to blending it in the special babyfood blender.

      Fourth kid: Technically, there’s a full glass of milk in every one of Kraft Singles.


      • I dunno. I was First Kid and I got bottles and baby food from jars (in its 1970s incarnation, probably lotsa salt and sugar). My brother got “people food” (what my parents were eating) ground up in a food mill.

        I think something changed between 1969 and 1974. Or my parents got some more crunchy-granola friends after they moved to Ohio.

        That said, given my terrible tooth issues these days? Sometimes I eye the little jars of mashed peas and the like and wonder if that’s a solution. Or maybe I’m just craving a return to the seeming safety of infancy.


      • Sorry, I can’t parse that — are you saying the people experiencing the “similar feelings” are the Jews or some other group of people re: the Jews?


    • The best part of Lean In was the part about how we spend WAY more time with our kids now than a generation ago, but ALSO feel way guiltier about how little time we spend with our kids.


    • Jaybird – yes that’s it exactly but now it’s like you can’t even do that any more. People jump to the conclusion that you’re a breastfeeding snob or a bully and so you end up sitting on info that could very easily help another person because you don’t want to give offense.

      It’s like taking a lot of experience and tossing it in the trash, which is unfortunate and feels like a big waste.


  6. When it comes to breastfeeding/parenting these days, I think part of the drama is created by the fact that more and more people rely on the internet for support and advice. They don’t seem to have the same “village” surrounding them that previous generations had. It is really easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole when you lack the grounding of real life friends and family who provide many different examples of how to do things, most of which have produced good, healthy kids.

    This can easily extrapolate out to cover all parts of the culture clashes in this country. We have stopped seeing the variety of life and lifestyles that is all around us, choosing instead to view our world through an artificial lens. I don’t necessarily see this as too recent a thing. I think back to how my grandparents, who lived through the depression and WWII, were far more blasé about culture war issues than one might have expected. They had to rely on lots of people during hard times and didn’t give two bits if they were on the “correct” side of the moral high ground.


    • In a way this is a good thing, too, though. A lot of my breastfeeding misinformation came from my “village” and it helped to have the experiences of others via books and articles to rely on.


  7. It never ends. Once they’re on solid food, you have to worry about whether they’re old enough for concealed carry.


  8. For a variety of reasons, I am uniquely positioned to observe the “Mommy wars” without feeling the need or being forced to participate in them. What I have seen saddens me, in large part because I don’t think there are any winners.

    For whatever reasons and through too many channels to count, our society seems oriented towards making women doubt themselves. American women are under what seem like inordinate amounts of pressure no matter what they do. No where is this more true than parenting. So every decision a mother makes becomes profound. Organic? Co-sleeping? Breastfeeding? The list goes on. Many of the moms I talk to are terrified that any decision they make that falls short of perfection will not only do great harm to the child they love so dearly, but will also confirm to themselves and the world that they are failed humans. They won’t necessarily articulate it in this manner, but it seems to lie just beneath the surface for so many of them.

    And often times this deep insecurity and fear of ruining something so impossibly important to them manifests as the exact opposite: steadfast insistence on the decisions they make being the one true way. It isn’t enough to buy organic because you think it is what you are supposed to do. You must also leave no path for any other choice. Because if buying non-organic is also a good choice… then maybe organic is somehow a less-good choice than you previously though. And there isn’t room for less-good choices. Only perfect choices. Only perfect moms making perfect choices for perfect children. So rather than take a, “Different strokes for different folks,” attitude, we create a weird system wherein one must virtuously defend whatever choice they’ve made by vilifying and demonizing all other choices and anyone making them.

    Of course, falling into this trap quickly gets one labeled a bitch. So, ya know, even when you win you lose.

    There are lots of ways to parents. Rather than pitting organic vs non-organic, how about we recognize that both parents are making intentional choices about the food they offer their children and recognize that is like, 90% of doing it right to begin with and that particular “battle” is much farther down the decision-making tree than we often think? We need to create a culture wherein parents can genuinely discuss the choices they make in a manner that is supportive and non-judgmental. Of course, that requires situating a culture wherein people — women in particular — are not constantly judged harshly and unfairly for damn near everything they do.


    • One of the most frustrating things about the Mommy Wars (the realization that I wish I could impart to all younger moms) is that it’s impossible to win them. Many, if not most of the dilemmas are mutually exclusive to each other – no matter what choice you make, it’s the wrong one to somebody. Regardless of what you do or how hard you try, you open yourself up for criticism from some gang or the other. And even just staying the course and holding your head high secure in what you’re doing – even if you don’t actively go after other people – yes you do quickly get labeled a bitch for your trouble. So you have to accept that going in, that no one will ever be happy with you and someone will always have something to say.


  9. My big issue is conservative and libertarian parents who let the baby suckle from the left breast. That’s going to train the baby to be a liberal progressive hipster instead of an independent self-actualized conservative.

    But sometimes I get vicious push back from conservatives who say that from the baby’s perspective, the left breast is on the right and the right breast is on the left.

    That is indeed perhaps a valid point, so to solve that dilemma, the breasts need to be cocked out to the side and the baby held under the armpit, head forward, so that left is left and right is right for both mother and baby. That lets the baby be properly fed on the right, while keeping the left armpit free for a semi-automatic in a shoulder holster.

    We need to make sure this is how all mothers breast feed.


  10. A great article, well done.
    I have a feeling, an inkling really, that this too shall pass. At the turn of the millennium the terror was scams. From Princes in Nigeria to spam to fake lottery winnings the zeitgeist was that this new email and internet phenomena was going to rip money off of every person on the planet. Somehow it never materialized. People became more cynical, less credulous and the herd adapted. I have a feeling that the ascending generations will develop a thicker internet skin and people in the future will become increasingly unmoved by kvetching on the internet. Oh and no one will pay attention to twitter.


  11. “As someone who has been actively nursing for over 25 years…”

    That’s how you know that you’ve really *committed* to attachment parenting. Although at some point the kid really *should* move out of the house…


  12. “Maybe, just maybe, I know best for me and you know best for you and there is no one right way.”

    See that’s the issue right there. Too many people thinking they know better than you how you should live your life, willing to support/pass laws to enforce their views, and punish you for going against them. The world could use a lot less of this.


    • Damon,
      The babies that died because of formula (and there were millions) were because of corporate greed, not because of laws.

      Really, get your facts right.


      • And that has nothing to do with my post. My post is about busybodies thinking that their way is the only way it should be and forcing that upon others who don’t share their views. It’s not about a company making products that poison folks.


  13. There are some days when I really just want to tell Americans to toughen the hell up.
    This is one of those days.

    Yes, formula has killed millions of babies. No, that doesn’t mean feeding your baby formula is likely to kill it.
    People who are upset that their 12 year old is getting a boner because of an adult women need to invest in more National Geographics.


  14. I think the problem is that for all that we’re surrounded by technological miracles, we live in a time as superstitious as any (and more so than most).

    Because we don’t know, really, how any of this works. What’s going on in a smartphone when it knows that my finger is on the screen? What did we do to make that happen? As far as most people know there could well be tiny demons inside the phone who yell when our fingers brush their horns. There could actually be mischievous fairies lurking in our food who ensorcell our children and leave them autistic. An evil wizard made it so that jet fuel can melt steel beams, sort of thing.

    There’s a gloss of Science over everything but it’s not actually “observe, hypothesize, test, conclude”; it’s more the same thing as Religion used to do. All hail the glory of Science, which we Fucking Love. Of course environmental stressors on a parent organism will induce changes in the descendant generations, how could that not happen, it’s Science! What are you, some kind of Denier?

    And this belief–that not only can the world be quantified and ordered and made sensible, but that it already has–informs people’s attitudes. We know better Because Science, here’s a bunch of numbers and papers with doctor names on them and that means that we don’t have have preferences but are following the actual truth, and if you don’t agree then you aren’t just choosing differently but you are in fact a secular sinner. And there’s one thing religious people know for sure: there’s no guilt in hating a sinner. Hate those people as much as you want.


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