Is breastfeeding creepy? Don’t ask me. I nursed a two-year-old.

Breastfeeding has been in the news recently (isn’t it always?). This time it’s the British parenting magazine Mother & Baby stirring things up with their editor Kathryn Blundell’s editorial titled, “I formula fed. So what?” in which she hopes to empower formula moms by saying she feels nursing is “creepy.” Yeah, this is the kind of the stuff that will get you plenty of web traffic, so good on her, I suppose. What really struck me though, was not the article itself, which has been well discussed here and here.

What stuck me is her assertion that she is trying to give voice to this aggrieved group – formula-feeding moms. This especially got my attention because I recently had an interaction with an old high school friend on Facebook who had the same attitude. She had fed her kids formula and wanted to come out as a “proud formula-feeding mom” who was sick of being crapped on by “the man” about nursing. To do this, she posted a story about women breastfeeding in public and said she thought it was inappropriate.

I have to be honest. This totally confuses me. Let me say clearly and upfront: I don’t give a flying crap what anyone feeds their child. Not only do I not criticize formula-feeding moms, you won’t see me giving dirty looks to moms in the drive through at McDonald’s or Dairy Queen either. It’s none of my business what you feed your child and I’d like to keep it that way. I spend enough energy trying to feed my own.

But I am super confused by the victimhood stance of moms like my FB friend and Blundell. After all, do they not realize that they are in the vast, vast majority of moms? Let’s take a look at the stats, shall we?

Thirteen percent of woman breastfeed their child exclusively through 6 months. Thirteen. That means 87% of woman have fed their child formula by the time they are 6 months old. The CDC doesn’t even bother asking about a year. How is it that a group in such overwhelming majority feel shunned? All of our cultural bias and norms encourage formula feeding. Have you ever bought wrapping paper covered in pictures of boppies? No; that paper has bottles on it.  Doctors may tell new moms that it is a marginally better choice, and they may see a billboard from the health department encouraging it, but I just don’t buy that that is so oppressive that they need a spokesperson to stick up for their rights. If it’s so very difficult to defend oneself from all the pro-nursing in culture, how is it nearly everyone is able to do so?
I, as a mom who nursed a child to 30 months, on the other hand was subject to cultural depictions usually reserved for home birthers and serial killers. Most recently, I can think of Jennifer Lopez’s recent film “The Back Up Plan,” in which she encounters some man-hating, wicker-loving, homeopath moms in a single mom support group. Of course, one nurses a child old enough to talk, the ultimate movie signal that these are the “red shirts” of the parenting comedy genre. Their narrative purpose is to show you the icky, ickyness that motherhood might descend into. Luckily, Lopez is clearly too hot to do something as “creepy” as nurse an older baby. Despite the fact this is a movie that thinks you should be charmed by dog crap.

Yes, I nursed a child who could ask for it, but I’m also a fulltime working mom, and in many other respects on the opposite end of the parenting spectrum from the woman depicted in these movies. Personally, I probably would never have considered it if it weren’t for a friend, who had a child before me and who I saw nursing her older child. Seeing this example of someone I identified with in a number of other ways, and someone who was nothing like those cultural depictions of an extended nurser, really opened my mind. And I’m glad it did. Every moment of my nursing experience (beyond the first few months) was great for me. And not because it is some magical experience beyond poetry and unicorns, but because it made my kid be quiet, and still, and agreeable.

I honestly don’t know how the parents of 1-2 year olds who don’t nurse do it. This is such a frustrating time. Forget about the terrible twos; a two-year old can talk. My one year old was in constant muted frustration with his surroundings. He knew what he wanted, why didn’t any of us know? And nothing else, not a cup or a treat or a favorite toy did the darndest bit to make him feel better. To diffuse his tantrums so easily, with something cuddly that reminded me why I liked him, was my mommy shortcut key. I used to call it a toddler reboot. He’d emerge my sweet kiddo again.

For me, it was not only a highly effective parenting calm down tool, it gave me those tender, quiet, connective moments that I now know don’t end when babyhood does. And most of all, it felt natural for me. The more I am a parent, the more I realize I feel best when I stop listening to movies and parenting “experts” and just start doing what feels right for me.

It’s a pretty sad thing that women who are doing what nearly every American woman does somehow feel aggrieved. Obviously, this comes from somewhere. I wish we could all stop feeling that the only way to be okay with what we do as parents is to crap all over what other people do. To me, that’s the creepiest thing of all.

10 Responses to “Is breastfeeding creepy? Don’t ask me. I nursed a two-year-old.”
  1. Skinny Sushi says:

    This is a tough one for me, because I felt a TON of pressure to breastfeed, from friends, from the doctor’s office, from the general public… and when we had a horrible time with it and I was a blubbering mess, I felt really guilty about having to supplement with formula. Then I pumped and gave her breastmilk in a bottle for six months, and it was miserable. I hated the pump, I was always either producing barely enough or not enough, I had to cart the pump and ice with me everywhere and make sure I had extra bottles and a power source, I had to have tons of extra bottles, pump parts… It was awful, but I felt pressure to keep giving her breastmilk. Finally, once she was six months old, I switched to formula and it was SO much easier for me. I’ve already decided that if we have another I’ll try to breastfeed and then if it doesn’t work I’ll go straight to formula and skip the pumping nightmare.

    I don’t think it’s really necessary for formula moms to come out as the victims, but I do think there is a LARGE group of women (especially online) who feel very judged and are sometimes the victims of some pretty hurtful comments when they formula feed, regardless of the reason. I had people telling me (online, in public, everywhere) how I was selfish, how I just hadn’t tried hard enough, that she’d be “better” (she was crying) if she were breastfed… I even had someone online suggest that her pyloric stenosis wouldn’t have happened if she’d been breastfed… which, by the way, is medically impossible.

    In the end, your basic point is right on. It’s no one else’s business what we do to get our kids fed. We’re all allowed our opinions, but I wish we’d all learn to respect others right to do as they please when it comes to breastfeeding, formula, McDonalds, and organic foods. There is FAR too much judgment, and I don’t see how that benefits anyone.

    • H says:

      I’m really sorry that folks harassed you. There’s no excuse for that. I guess where I get confused is just in the numbers. In all likelihood, some of the people bothering you did the same thing themselves. How does that make sense?

  2. Paul Williams says:

    Can I point out something from a man’s point of view?

    I have two daughters, one of 17 months and one who is nearly 7 years old. Neither were breast fed as this was their mother’s choice and I didn’t have a problem with that and in fact I strangely enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night to make a bottle and feed them when they were babies.

    Equally, I don’t have a problem with breast feeding. When my first daughter was born, I developed a fascination with babies that wasn’t there previously. To be honest, kids annoyed me but when my eldest was born that changed.

    As a result, I wanted to see my daughter grow and develop and took her to mother and baby groups (yes, I was the only bloke there and often made to feel somewhat unwelcome). I wanted to see how my little would learn to interact with other babies etc.

    Anyhow, coming back to the breast feeding thing, as you can imagine there were several nursing mothers at these groups. I wasn’t interested when they fed their babies but I did note that if I didn’t look then I was teased for being shy and if I did look I was referred to as a pervert!

    Couldn’t win on that one!

    • Skinny Sushi says:

      Paul, thanks for a male perspective on this! Maybe no one wins when it comes to feeding the kids! Someone’s always going to be judging how you do things. And interestingly, my husband had the same issue sometimes when we were all together in the family restrooms at the mall. Women were often in there breastfeeding on the couch (though there were special nursing rooms) and they would look at us both strangely if he was careful to avert his gaze (one woman even went so far as to tell us she was offended by his careful ignoring of her because it was perpetuating the myth that breastfeeding is uncomfortable or unnatural) but given furious looks if he happened to turn in their direction…

  3. Courtney says:

    I wanted to address some of the big questions raised here (“How is it that a group in such overwhelming majority feel shunned?”) and some of the at-cross-purposes urges suggested there and the comments. Mostly, I think every mother likely feels persecuted and isolated for a number of reasons—and breast- and formula-feeding certainly are a lightening rod.

    Mothers who breastfeed often feel judged because they are, as this post points out, a small minority of women in the US, often relegated to literal isolation (sometimes a well-appointed nursing room, often a closet or bathroom) or social isolation for exposing their breast (though exposure isn’t usually the issue; there’s a ton of ultra-discreet nursing clothing, blankets, and hiders of various sorts. As the article points out, the “creepiness” is in the presence and idea of breast-usage for non-sexual purposes, rather than nipples exposed willy-nilly at meal time. I also think that the weirdness—as mentioned in the original article—comes from the realization not that breast are sexual objects for lovers, but that lovers risk seeming infantilized by breasts unless the motherhood aspect is completely removed from the cultural imagination).

    Mothers who formula feed catch blow-back from the “breast is best” rhetoric and evangelical-minded “lactivists” who, perhaps, lack the social skills that would allow them to make allies of the majority (who might do things differently with a second child if they had real support) or at least defuse some of the tension.

    Yet the real problem, I think, is the false choice mothers face when trying to create any kind of dialog. Blundell’s defense of her article is basically “ease-up—I was just trying to lighten the tone.” But the one suggested in the original post and SS’s reply is it’s kissing-opposite, “It’s none of my business—you do it your way and I’ll do it mine.” When it gets uncomfortable, it seems that these are safe grounds on which to retreat—I was kidding or I’ll leave you alone. So folks can raise a topic briefly but then mostly need to fall back into camps where everyone agrees—to nurse the wounds of being persecuted by the other side—or to disengage with conversation just when it gets risky.

    To tilt my hand a bit—I nursed my son until he was 3.5 years. That’s enough to secret-hand-shake my way into the deep inner circle of La Leche League (I think the deepest circles are for those who nursed after a multiple birth). But I feel fantastically sympathetic to those women who tried it and couldn’t make it work. My son and I nearly missed the opportunity (jaundice, a ped who insisted on supplementation and so on). I had read the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and attended two LLL meetings prior to his birth. And I was totally unprepared for the crushing difficulty of initiating nursing. No level of planning or anticipation could have prepared me for the hurricane of frustration and disappointment that attended our first days, weeks, and even months of nursing. The only thing that solved the problem was having a lactation consultant come to my house and handle my boobs with attendant nipple shields, formula, pumps, and whatnots. I get a bit of credit for asking for help and being stubborn, but mostly it was the help of another sympathetic and knowledgeable person who made it possible—and luck. And anyone who, like SS, attempts to pump-and-bottle feed only for any amount of time deserves a parade. Because pumps are no-joke misery (and that includes the most expensive ones out there).

    A minority of women are physically unable to breastfeed—previous health conditions and medication necessities, etc. It is not their fault.

    But I’m also not quite willing to blame the majority of moms who don’t get the support they needed to breastfeed. It may be trouble at the time of nursing– those who were willing but couldn’t get it to work and needed more help. Maybe it’s the fiscal considerations of nursing (for poorer women, employers are less flexible, pumps a luxury, and so on). For those women, it isn’t their fault. And I’m even willing to consider giving a pass to folks like Blundell, who can’t get out from under the cultural baggage that piles up long before nursing, which makes nursing seem gross, unnatural, not-sexy. There’s a good deal of anti-woman, anti-mother build-up many new moms walk into unexpectedly when they start on the road to parenthood.

    But there has to be some blame, right? For the majority of US women who don’t nurse, I view it as a fantastic failure of folks not to be involved in people’s business. I wish the debate could shift from the “what mom does is right or wrong” to “what do moms need to be supported?” I think the failure belongs not to the mom, but the hospital that doesn’t just “push” breastfeeding (because they do a great job of talking the guilt-inducing-talk and still fail to support mothers adequately). Hospitals should make lactation consultants present at the moment of birth-and-first-effort or subsequent attempts to initiate. Heck, I want the government involved—make at-home visitations by lactation consultants tax-deductible. Legislate that businesses of X size having nursing stations. Require employers to give mom the time and space to pump. Be careful, because I can get on a roll with my wholesale interventions. And the health benefits to the nation easily out-weigh the costs.

    But what I mean to focus on is the importance of getting the guilt off the backs of moms who are struggling mightily under a host of difficulties and focus it on the institutions that just say, “You got yourself into this motherhood. Now buy our products in a (frustrating) attempt to find your way out.” I also think the pro-nursing moms should be more supportive of other moms and more critical of the institutional contexts that surround nursing.

    Finally (because I’m really indulging in length here), I applaud forums like this blog that allow women who have had different experiences to share them—and share them within a forum that takes as its ground rules a requirement for mutual respect.

    And, a PS because I can’t help it, here’s a nice little clip on campaigns of Breast Is Best (which often appear on formula packaging, “Breast is best, but when you can’t nurse…”). It addresses part of the guilt-without-support faced by women who formula feed:

    • Skinny Sushi says:

      You may be surprised that I totally agree with you here. My daughter was the first child I was able to birth successfully, and the hospital didn’t even try to have her nurse until she was nearly twelve hours old. I suppose they just assumed I would try it on my own, but I was so phased from the birth experience and somehow it totally left my head… so it was MANY hours before I even tried to do it, and was met with a frustrated baby who refused to latch. When the nurses (not a consultant) came to “help” they terrified me with their rough handling of her head, hurt me with their rough handling of my breast, and did nothing to help things along. When I tried to recreate their “help” at home, I got no results. We did look into seeing a lactation consultant, but we couldn’t afford to pay for it… so I was left to my own devices and lots of internet searching, which gave me no answers. And you’re so right, the pump is a torture device.

    • H says:

      Well first, everyone, this is the friend I mentioned who is the reason why I nursed so long, and possibly why I made it through the first difficult weeks, so, you can see why, right? She’s awesome. But you know, one thing I’ve really come to questions is whether breastfeeding actually has the health benefits that the public health claims behind it claim. I’ve started to read a lot of the literature, and I’ve become less convinced, not more, that it has a really important effect on infant and mother health. That makes me want to back off a little the idea that it’s important to change everyone’s mind about breastfeeding.

      But overall, I do agree with nearly everything you say. I totally agree that the answer for parenting questions should not always be, “you do what you want and I’ll do what I want,” because sometimes there really is a right choice and a wrong choice. I guess I’m just less sure now that this is one of those times.

      That being said, I hope to be the kind of example for others that you were for me, because BFing paid me dividends I couldn’t even imagine, whether they made my kiddo healthier or not.

  4. Ruth says:

    I have recently become accainted with your blog and love it. All of you have brought up many ideas that are topics in our household.

    I was lucky enough to be able to BF my son until he was 8m old. Once I started back to work and tried to pump…my body said “hahahahaha…I know that is not our son….boooooo no milk for you.” This lead to the very hard decision to have him take formula. It broke my heart and I felt like I had failed my son somehow.

    Then I remembered my sister very much wanted to breastfeed her daughter. Her daughter wanted nothing to do with it & my sister couldn’t produce enough milk. She also went through a period of guilt, feeling as if she had failed. The lactation consultants & nurses had made her feel that BF was “The Only Way”. She finally empowered herself and said “I”m not happy, my daughter isn’t happy & she’s hungry, BF is not an option for us and I am ok with that.” I have another friend that said she would never BF, her breasts are a sexual part of her and it wouldn’t feel right for her to BF.

    I hate that there is such conflict about such a personal choice. I had a beautiful exeprience with BF and plan on BF with any furture children as well. I hope each family has a beautiful experience with their baby no matter what they feed them

  5. From my own personal experience, the guilt of choosing not to breastfeed was a result of the opinions at the health department where I went for W.I.C. They gave me pamphlets and the nurses, staff both strongly encouraged breastfeeding because of the benefits from it. I chose not to because I knew I would be returning to work 3 weeks after giving birth and my mother (my only support system) would be keeping my son. She wanted a chance to bond with him also during feeding time, thus the bottle. I guess I could have pumped but it would have been a stressful time constraint for me. Instead of spending time pumping, I spent it working and being a mother.

    The W.I.C. program’s strategy was to basically shame me for not choosing the “best” thing for my child. However, if I had chosen breast feeding, it would have saved W.I.C. the cost of formula. Are these connected? Perhaps. Just my opinion.

    Thanks for the wonderful post! I agree that it is a personal decision and no one else’s business.

    • H says:

      Again, I find the irony that many of the WIC workers likely did not breastfeed themselves, since a very small minority does. I do think that your response and others are helping me to understand why moms are feeling pressured about nursing. It sounds like a lot of it is from the medical community. It sounds likes the way they are attempting to encourage it is pretty guilt laden, which if you think about it, reflects the medical community’s unfortunate and unsuccessful method for influencing a lot of public health problems. If the world really wants you to breastfeed, we’d give you 6 months of paid maternity leave, right? In any case, I’m sorry you got that reaction.

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