Hang around parents for any length of time and you’ll hear a breast versus bottle debate. Things get heated, to put it gently. It’s tempting to write this off: Oh, those mommies who have nothing better to do than argue; just another continuation of the Mommy Wars; does it really matter how you feed your baby, since your baby’s just a baby for a year or two? If you write it off, though, you’re ignoring the fact that whatever method by which a baby is fed, this is obviously an issue that raises hackles, gets under our skin, and even ruins relationships. It sounds to me, then, that it’s an issue that matters.
Like birth, breastfeeding is not something contained neatly in the time period during which it occurs. Women share their birth stories, whether they’ve given birth in their living room or surrounded by lights and action in an operating room, throughout their lives, and they share their breastfeeding experiences, as well. Almost any pregnant woman can tell you that her pregnancy brings forth stories—good and bad—from nearly every woman (and sometimes the men) around her. These stories would not be shared if they didn’t matter.
The idea that “all that matters is you have a healthy baby” stalks breastfeeding discussions just as it does birth discussions. Sometimes this phrase is meant in a comforting manner, but, mostly, it is used to say, “Whether your baby is healthy or not is the only metric by which we should making a judgment about the outcome of this situation.” The message is that we should all be grateful that we have a healthy (read: living) baby, no matter what happened to bring that baby into the world and no matter the struggles that came before, during, and after. This message tells us that anything less than gratitude—that is, any hint that we were not happy with pregnancy, labor, birth, feeding, or parenting—is a slap in the face to anyone who doesn’t have a babe in arms, and the mark of a mother who cares more about her experiences than her baby.
We can move beyond that. We’re modern folks; let’s acknowledge that women are more than wombs meant to deliver progeny upon the Earth. We have feelings; we matter.
Each of us has something that is important to us that may not be important to everyone else, and sometimes those other people think we’re outright crazy for having the attachments we do. You bet it hurts when someone dismisses your interests as unimportant; why should it be any different with breastfeeding? We’re talking about parents with new little lives on their hands; sometimes every choice we make feels like the most important choice possible. Most parents feel adamantly protective of their children, no matter what decisions they’re making about feeding or parenting. Is it any wonder why the debate gets heated?
Whether you’re exclusively breastfeeding, wanted to but couldn’t for whatever reason, or committed to using formula, you probably have strong feelings on this topic. (The people who are ambivalent about it, probably not so much, by definition.) One thing we can do for each other, one form of support, would be to respect that other people may feel differently than you do. Dismissing someone’s feelings about birth or breastfeeding—saying that all that matters is a healthy baby—does not build them up and support them. A healthy baby is not all that matters; mothers do, too.
(The comeback to saying that mothers matter is usually that there are some parents out there who will put their children in danger for the sake of principle. Yes, but that’s not commonplace, and doesn’t represent anywhere close to the normal population of breastfeeding mothers any more than the population of parents who will give their babies Coca-Cola at 3 months represents bottlefeeding parents.)
Remember that respecting moms goes both ways. The idea that mothers matter applies, too, to those who genuinely feel that breastfeeding is a detriment to their health (physical or mental) or their ability to bond with or care for their babies. A healthy, breastfed baby is not all that matters, either, and when breastfeeding ceases, whether by choice or circumstance, there is still a need for support. If we close these gaps where support is lacking (such as when someone who wishes to breastfeed cannot, and is mourning the loss of that relationship), everyone benefits, and we can move closer to a place where families have what they need to thrive.