Marjorie Ingall wrote an article in Tablet Magazine called Bottled Guilt, where she argues that Jewish women are set up to feel guilty when breastfeeding doesn’t work out. The desire to raise intelligent and healthy children is entrenched in our genes, and for most of us successful breastfeeding is our first parenting goal. The only Jewish women I have met who (admitted that they) did not intend to breastfeed either had medical contraindications or were traumatized by their first experience.
I think another reason modern Jewish women are predisposed to breastfeed is that Jews in the Diaspora are used to going against the grain of popular culture.
I completely agree with Ingall’s point that mothers aren’t usually at fault when breastfeeding fails. She writes, “. . . it’s unfortunate that women are guilted for not nursing when a big chunk of blame should fall on our culture.” She blames limited maternity leave, but that is only one factor. Often it is the mother who is trying the hardest and wants it most, but she gets insufficient support from the hospital, pediatrician, and family.
Ingall devotes a long paragraph to unhelpful remarks made to struggling mothers:
My sister-in-law, struggling to nurse twins, called the La Leche League, an international breastfeeding support group, for help. The woman on the phone told her, “Breast milk is like a blood transfusion for a baby. Formula is like a hot dog and fries.”
La Leche League Leaders are trained not to speak disparagingly about formula. It’s counter-productive, and Ingall is right to call out that Leader. I hope Ingall’s example won’t stop anyone from approaching LLL’s volunteers for free, high-level help.
A good friend of mine was told in disbelief by another mom, “Your kids seem healthy and smart, and they weren’t breastfed!” (My friend pointed out that actually, two of her four children had nursed a bit. The woman smiled and said, “Oh, but you cheated with formula, right?”)
Who cares? People say all kinds of stupid things.
Another friend called a lactation consultant, sobbing, worried that her newborn daughter (who was born with a pinched nerve in her neck, leaving her unable to nurse) was starving on the meager amounts of breast milk she was able to pump and feed through a tube. The lactation consultant urged my friend not to give her hungry baby formula. “It’s like feeding her poison,” the consultant said in a hushed voice. “It will damage her kidneys and take three months to get out of her system.” My friend worked herself into a frenzy, pumping every two hours, waking the baby constantly to get her to eat, crying regularly.
As I said above, breastfeeding helpers shouldn’t bash formula which is a necessity for some babies. If Ingall is reporting accurately and the baby was only receiving “meager” amounts of milk, the lactation consultant is negligent or worse. Rule #1 is “Feed the baby.” Ingall is right to call out this one too.
Still, I object to Ingall’s implication that formula isn’t so bad and that people make too big a deal out of it (“recent research showing that formula isn’t poison”). She is making a judgment just like the breastfeeding helpers she quoted, but with less authority. And it’s one-sided to give examples of unprofessional advice by breastfeeding advocates while ignoring misinformation and advice by pediatricians and hospital staff, whose voice carries more weight. Moms I talk to are regularly told that there is no such thing as thrush, they should give a bottle to tide the baby over till the milk comes in, they need to wean for breast infections or jaundice, their baby is too old to nurse, and that it’s fine for a breastfeeding newborn to have a bowel movement once every few days (it’s not).
Ingall quotes LLL Leader and expert on insufficient milk supply Lisa Marasco, who describes some medical conditions related to low milk supply. This is valuable information. Then Ingall adds her own examples:
Postpartum depression or stress can certainly be factors too, and nagging doesn’t help. We’ve all had friends who tried to nurse exclusively, but wound up in a sobbing heap on the bedroom floor at 5 a.m., sending their partners out for formula. Finally, if a baby latches improperly, over the long term he or she may not get enough milk and nursing will hurt the mother like a mofo. Lactation consultants may be able to help. Or not.
I guess Ingall is trying to comfort mothers who feel bad because breastfeeding didn’t work out, and perhaps this will work. But her cutesy remarks won’t help future mothers.
I wish mothers didn’t retain guilt feelings about past weaning. I advise mothers who regret having weaned to talk it out, forgive themselves, resolve to learn more for next time, and move on. Guilt interferes with effective parenting.
The bottom line is that mothers make the best decisions they can based on the resources available to them at a stressful time. We should avoid judging mothers. Instead, we should work to make sure that all parents receive objective, accurate information and as much support as they need. Let’s empower parents to make decisions that are right for their families.
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