If you’re a breastfeeding advocate/activist who is currently lactating, I’m going to preface this by giving you an assignment. I’m asking you all to go grab your sweet nurslings and get the oxytocin and prolactin flowing before you delve much further into this blog post. I need you to go to that place in your brain and heart where you have the capacity to see the good in all of humanity. I want you to nurse for a few minutes and to think about the fact that the very child that you’re nurturing will someday grow up to be a very different and separate person from you who will hold vastly different personal truths than you. Then, I’m going to ask you to listen to this:
Done? Very well, then. Carry on…
A very interesting article went viral and made it’s way to my corner of the internet last week. I’m sure that many of you read it and felt a wave of outrage wash over you in similar fashion to other people in my life. The article was a piece published by Press Citizen and written by Karla Erickson, an associate professor of sociology at Grinnell College. In it, Karla prefaces with research from the UK reported by Bahar Gholipour of LiveScience in June which suggests that children who are breastfed may be more likely to reach a higher social class than their parents. She resolves the article after voicing her opinion that breastfeeding is a burden and a power-trip by offering this pledge:
So in a pro-breastfeeding era, I say, “I’m out.” Not because I don’t benefit everyday from that “special connection” to my son, but because I do.
Her choice is based on a theory that she teaches in a Gender and Society course at Grinnell College which asserts that breastfeeding:
…sets up a gendered division of who does what early into parenting. It provides an infrastructure for an unequal distribution of the work (and rewards) of parenting.
As expected, a
debate full-scale personal attack on Karla and her husband ensued in the comments section of Karla’s article and in social media threads on Facebook and elsewhere. I don’t take issue with the critical and well-thought-out responses to Karla’s article, so don’t misunderstand where I’m coming from. I do, however, have a problem with some of the comments in the responses which are inflammatory personal attacks and/or outright hateful. Inasmuch as we claim that we are ‘educated’ women who would love nothing more than to bring the message of breastfeeding’s superiority to our world, our actions sometimes speak much louder. Many of these very public responses to Karla should embarrass us as breastfeeding advocates. Though I disagree with her, I don’t see anything in her article that could be construed as a personal attack on women who choose to breastfeed. Call me crazy, but something in me tells me that even though she’s been the subject of attack since her article was published, she still wouldn’t stoop to that. Conversely, it doesn’t take very much digging to find breastfeeding advocates making themselves look like members of some Militant Breastfeeding Nazi group set out to annihilate anybody who would dare put an artificial nipple in the mouth of an infant or pit themselves on the opposing team in the Mommy Olympics…because (didn’t you get the memo?) being a mother is a game and if you’re not on the winning team…
Well, I’ll just let our friendly neighborhood lactivists explain the rules to you. Here are some shiny, bright examples I pulled from a quick look at a few discussion threads I stumbled across:
So…let’s run through this real quickly from the perspective of us well-educated, lactivist types. Because Karla Erickson has drawn a different conclusion than us based on the very real issue (which deserves its due credence) that her baby nursed so much that her husband didn’t have much bonding time which was stressful for their family and she has a (probably misguided) theory about how to fix it which she has the audacity to share with other people, she deserves the full wrath of the entire worldwide lactivist community? According to us, she’s a piece of garbage, a moronic twit and a pompous idiotic ass(hat) caught up in her european BS thinking who shouldn’t be a mother and who is married to a detached, emotionally absent, and lazy man. She makes us sick to our stomachs and we’re appalled that Press Citizen has published her idiotic, selfish drivel because, after all, it’s just the self-obsessed musings of a wealthy, educated person. Does that about sum up which corner the lactivists are in regarding Karla Erickson?
Coincidentally, in the same week that Karla Erickson’s article was published, Improving Birth VP and blogger, Cristen Pascucci published a blog post that went viral as well. I rather prefer Cristen’s blog to some of the opinions of Karla Erickson which are being tossed about so I’m sharing it in the hopes that some of you will spend some time with it. The blog begins:
All my life, I’ve noticed a tendency among women to condemn each other rather than to reach out, and to criticize rather than support. There’s this territorialism that very effectively divides us. It exists among women as a whole (“Did she really wear that? She’s not 21 anymore.”), among women as mothers (“I can’t believe she didn’t even try to breastfeed! How selfish.”), and among groups of women who can’t work with other groups of women (“Remember when they didn’t invite us to that thing they had? Never again.”).
I have to say that I’m less focused on Ms. Erickson’s theory or her conclusions (which, coincidentally, there are plenty of people disputing) than I am on the reaction to her from within the natural parenting community. Much of the conversation surrounding this article has devolved into an “us against them” sort of mentality and that approach has been MAINLY at the hands of the natural parenting community…not at Karla Erickson’s hands. That is more damaging than anything she’s putting out there, in my always humble opinion. When applied on a grand scale, it has the potential to do much more harm than good where breastfeeding support is concerned and to create a much larger divide between “us” and “them” than the one that already exists and that is my issue. I think that our attitudes are more dangerous than her teaching is right now.
Of course, I also think she’s teaching a wrong conclusion and of course it scares me to think that there will be women who will read it and/or hear her teach it and buy into it. However…as she clearly states in the article, there is plenty of science to back up the benefits of breastfeeding. Amazing things are happening on a grand scale with breastfeeding support and that’s not going away anytime soon. In actuality, though, the premises she’s starting with are not, contrary to popular opinion, idiotic drivel. Breastfeeding does create a stronger bond between women and their babies and it does give us the advantage in many situations where our interactions with our children are concerned. I don’t like her conclusion or the course of actions she encourages as a result of her conclusion, but I can’t say I disagree with where she’s coming from. I happen to think that there’s a reason for the biological process that are wrapped up in breastfeeding. I believe that the hormonal processes that happen which result in a stronger initial bond being forged between a mother and her child than between a father and his child are purposeful. The fact that there are clear benefits to breastfeeding which are scientifically backed isn’t something she’s disputing. The evolutionary twist that resulted in the processes of lactation happened as a way to help ensure survival of our species and are one of many adaptive processes which contribute to the human race continuing to thrive, plain and simple. For her to ignore that would be foolish and she has not done that, but we can’t discount what she’s saying even if she makes a different choice and draws a different conclusion from the information than we do. The issue that she and her husband found to be a problem for their family is that men are at a disadvantage where bonding is concerned. As breastfeeding activists, our response should address that in a way that is helpful and positive. What she’s getting at with her conclusion is that there’s a gender disparity that exists and it does not diminish our position even slightly to acknowledge that truth in that. In fact, I think it’s the place where we have the opportunity to be on the same “team” as her and work towards real solutions for families who want and need them. Whether she’s taking it to the extreme or not with her conclusion isn’t where our focus should be if we want to affect real change with the women she’s reaching.
We start where we agree with her.
Breastfeeding is hard. It’s grueling at times. In the early days, there’s often not much a father can do to help even if he wants to. As much as my husband would have wanted to be the one to offer our babies comfort when they were newborns, the truth was that most of the time, he couldn’t. That was frustrating for both of us. Most of the time, our newborns ONLY wanted me. There were nights when I thought that my nurslings were surely sucking the lifeblood out of me and that neither of us would see the light of day the next morning because the darkness that was enveloping us was just going to make us disappear. BUT…we focus on why we still believe in it and not why she’s wrong or any of the number of insults and personal attacks that have made their way into our various cyberworld communities. We focus on constructive ways to think about our breastfeeding relationships and we focus on community-building. We love each other and we promote harmony. We encourage and we help each other push through it. She’s NOT working on the opposite team. She’s simply come to a different conclusion and a different solution. Maybe not breastfeeding is the best choice for her family. As much as I don’t want to admit this, the truth is that her child is likely to be fine as will the children be of the women who buy into what she’s offering them. Knowing that, we meet them at the place they’re at. Breastfeeding frustrated her and her husband. We address that. That is where we affect change if that’s what we really intend to do.
If change is not our goal, then we should feel free to sling insults at her and women like her because we’re not doing our cause any justice anyway. BUT, if we’re going to choose that, we should be honest about it and say that we’re more concerned with setting ourselves and our choices up on a pedestal than we are with helping more women and babies make breastfeeding work.
I don’t think that Karla Erickson has set out to be divisive and I don’t think we should respond to her as if she has. I hope that she stumbles across this blog post and that we find some common ground. If our worlds ever collided, I’d ask her if I could buy her a cup of coffee and pick her brain because I think she’s a valuable person. I think she is genuine and I honestly believe that she buys into what she’s saying. I propose that we should start the conversation with and about her from that place, not from a place that establishes her as the enemy from square one…because the ground that we have to cover to get back to neutral at that point is just too immense. These babies we’re nurturing (ours and Karla’s) deserve to grow up in a community where people who believe different things don’t feel it necessary to sling mud just because we’re different.
I think my favorite passage from the Improving Birth blog post I mentioned earlier is this one:
With other groups, “find your overlap” and formalize it. Where do you agree? Go there and stay there.
In a nutshell, THAT is what it’s about for me. What about you?
posted by Amy Jones
Whole Mothering Center Founding Mother
Birth & Postpartum Doula
Breastfeeding Peer Counselor, Beaumont Breastfeeding Coalition
Chairman of the Board, Beaumont Breastfeeding Coalition
Apprentice Midwife at Bay Area Birth Center