Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Breastfeeding is Not Awesome

Lately, I've been trying to call things what they are. This is partly because a few of my children take things very literally and that can lead to some embarrassing or frustrating moments. (I've learned never to ask a little boy to "hold it" because we are "just around the corner" from the bathroom, for instance.)
But I've also been learning that sometimes too much use can cause a word to lose its power, like too much kneading can cause bread dough to fall flat just when you need it to rise to the occasion.

(Don't let that sentence mislead you into believing that I bake. I don't, at least not on days like today, when the Las Vegas weather report claimed it would be a mere 112 degrees, but my friends with dashboard thermometers report that it was actually 126.) ANYway...
Words just don't mean what they used to.  "Extreme" doesn't mean intense, severe, or radical anymore; it just means that the snack food in the shiny bag has slightly more cheese flavor than it used to. For a fun exercise (AFTER you have read this to the end, of course), try looking up the original meanings of the words dork, dude, or gentleman. I am ashamed to admit that these words occur with regularity in my vocabulary, despite the unsettling knowledge I have gained from brief Google searches.

When it comes to motherhood, specifically the seasons of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, it is easy latch on to words that don't describe things as accurately as they should. In our enthusiasm to promote breastfeeding, we overuse the wrong words and underuse the wrong ones. We lactivists do this without realizing it.

("Lactivist" is not a real word.  It's okay. Just keep reading.)
Like most mothers who have discovered the joys of natural mothering, I feel a strong urge to share the good news with the world! All too frequently, this means succumbing to exaggeration.
"Breastfeeding is awesome!" I have been known to say. "It has so many advantages.  I know bottle feeding is normal these days, but did you know that breastfed babies score an average of ten points higher on IQ tests and are sick less often than normal?"
My La Leche League Leader pointed out the fallacy of this logic to me. She taught me the difference between "normal" and "common."  She encouraged me to think about words like "advantage" and "alternative."

Imagine a society that has forgotten how to breathe. Let's say a well-meaning group of physicians and researchers came up with a wonderful new device for people with lung problems. It is cleverly named the Aspiration Invention Regenerator. At first, it seems crazy. You've only seen one or two people use the AIR; just the sick or elderly.
Then, it is advertised to the general public, and soon it is so popular that you cannot walk down the street without seeing them strapped to the backs of half a dozen people.  Not sick people, not people with lung problems, but otherwise healthy people who used it once or twice when they had a cold, or were out of breath from too much exertion, and decided that the convenience of machine-breathing suited them. It allows for faster conversation without the annoying need to pause to inhale, and eliminates yawning altogether. (Who wants to be seen yawning in public?! How embarrassing!) Everyone knows the risks of dependency, but there aren't really any terribly bothersome side-effects.

"Natural breathing is best," coos the TV advertisement, "but when it's not possible, AIR is THERE!"
Of course, most of the people who use the AIR are quick to tell you that they think natural breathing is great for those who can do it, but that they truly need the AIR.
"My doctor says I have to use it," repines a reluctant user. "I had bronchitis last fall, and when I went in to get my oxygen levels tested, they were really low. So he put me on the AIR. My oxygen levels are just low, that's just the way I am.  He told me to stay on the AIR, or I could get really sick."
A few decades pass, some studies are done, and a few fringe radical doctors begin to question the safety of the widespread use of the AIR.  Nay-sayers become louder and more organized,  and before long, a movement begins to emerge; the Natural Breathers. Oprah invites some hippy Natural Breathers on her show. They gush about the advantages of Natural Breathing; how it lowers a person's chances of needing a back brace, how studies have shown that Natural Breathers get sick less often, can run further and faster, and even sleep for longer periods of time!

This sounds ridiculous to us.  Most of us have been breathing happily all our lives without much effort or thought.  We wouldn't think of dependency on a device to breathe as "normal."
If everyone breathed artificially, it still wouldn't be normal.  It would just be common.

This subtle misuse of words has changed the conversation about how we feed our babies, too.  Is it really awesome that my breastfed baby is sick less often than an artificially fed baby, and that when he is, he recovers more quickly? Or is the artificially-fed baby getting sick more often than is normal and taking longer to recover than should be expected?

Is it really an advantage that my breastfed baby will probably score higher on an IQ test than an artificially-fed baby? Or is my sweet angel not a genius, but normal, and that other poor child is actually scoring ten points below what he could if he had enjoyed a normal diet of breast milk?
Is it a benefit to me that I don't have to cart around a bag full of bottles and formula everywhere I go or wash an extra sink full of dishes? Or is it just a major pain to the mother who feeds her baby artificially?
Does breastfeeding really promote my own health, reducing my chances of developing any type of female cancer, osteoporosis, or postpartum depression?  Or is the mother who chooses not to breast feed, in reality, placing herself at a much higher risk for all of these diseases?



Many people feel that taking too honest of an approach may alienate those who find it absolutely necessary to artificially feed their babies. Of course, I hope I will always be sensitive to the needs of those who experience this great misfortune, just as I hope I would respect the needs of someone who had lung problems necessitating the use of a breathing device.  But does it really do any good to refer to this misfortune as anything but unfortunate? Am I really doing this mother a service by assuring her that feeding her baby artificial food is normal?
We live in a society that prides itself on having achieved a high level of tolerance.  Afraid to hurt a pregnant mother's feelings, we don't dare tell her that the formula she is considering giving to her baby as a replacement for real food is risky and has been proven to be harmful.  Instead, we aim to spotlight the "benefits" of breastfeeding to make it look too good to pass up.
If I really want to help this woman in her mothering difficulties, maybe I could offer to wash her dishes for her.  If I want to "normalize" breastfeeding for this society that claims tolerance but demands that women cover up or hide in bathrooms to nurse, perhaps we should stop singing its praises and just nurse. Everywhere.  All the time. It's just normal.





Isn't normal awesome?

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