There's a lot of guilt involved in mothering - not least when it comes to how and what we feed our babies. A constant tension among breastfeeding advocates is ensuring that mothers are getting the information they need to make the right decision for their babies, while respecting their authority as parents and not devaluing their experience. It's heavy emotional stuff - and never straightforward.
For some out there, enough has been said about breastfeeding - anything further is meant to guilt and shame mothers into making the consensus choice. I have trouble with this on a number of fronts.
First, the notion that every new parent knows about breastfeeding and the risks of formula is absurd to anyone who spends any time discussing these issues with mothers. Front-line contacts from obstetricians to nurses to family doctors and pharmacists ought to be the foundations for good decisions, but too often they provide information that is out of date, coloured by their own professional bias or simply incorrect. Mothers need accurate information about the importance of breastfeeding and how to maximize chances of success: somewhat by definition, this means being clear about the consequences of not breastfeeding.
Second, while I believe strongly that a woman must determine the use of her own body, the 'personal choice' argument isn't quite so strong to me when it comes to breastfeeding. A mother who has chosen to birth and raise her child takes with that joy a burden of care - a child isn't owned, she is entrusted. Every baby deserves to be breastfed - as parents, we do countless things that are hard, uncomfortable and intrusive to care for our babies and children. Breastfeeding through challenges is no different than enduring the aches, pains and indignities that pregnancy brings - except that the pay-off is immediate.
Third, because breastfeeding is the biological norm, practices that encourage breastfeeding are good for babies and mothers whether they are ultimately successful at breastfeeding or not. Birth practices that empower women to remain in control of their bodies and their babies, engaging experienced empathetic attendants and post-partum care that recognizes the unique mother-baby dyad are the first steps to avoid many of the problems that lead to frustration and failure of breastfeeding relationships. But they are also the first steps to nuturing the mother so that she can in turn nuture her baby and feel confidence in her competence in that new role.
Advocates for breastfeeding whether health care professionals, volunteers or simply interested parents end up taking a lot of flack that's largely undeserved. We don't get any kind of bonus for helping a mother to breastfeed, spending hours encouraging her or researching a particularly thorny issue. Nor, to my knowledge, are there any posses hunting down formula-feeding mothers in public places to shame them or door-to-door solicitors trying to recruit pregnant women. There are many more mothers needing help and support than public health departments, clinics and La Leche League volunteers can help - they don't need to hunt them down.
Why don't we focus our collective energies on supporting mothers so that their pain and guilt can be avoided entirely?