Guilt-edged advocacy

In follow-on from the discussion about the NYT article on breastfeeding, Jamie Selkie has been discussing guilt.  Why, she asks, is the guilt card a conversation stopper in discussions about breastfeeding and breastfeeding advocacy?  Is it possible to avoid making anyone feel guilty about this topic?  Should we even be trying to do so?

The short answer to that is: Of course not.  You are not going to be able to please all of the people all of the time.  The G Word should not be an automatic veto of a subject, because that would leave us unable to talk about anything more contentious than the weather.  There is simply no way to discuss hot-button topics, even in the mildest and most unjudgemental of terms, without leaving somebody somewhere feeling guilty.  (Jamie’s story about the LLL leader she knows reminded me of my days as a vegetarian – on a number of occasions, I would mention to someone that I was vegetarian and be met with a hasty "Well, I don’t eat meat often!  Really!  And when I do it’s mostly chicken, and not beef or…". The mere fact that I had decided to avoid meat myself apparently caused some people to mistake me for someone who gave a damn what anybody else did or didn’t decide on this particular issue.)

The problem isn’t with the existence of guilt in this discussion.  It’s with the way it’s used.  Although a number of breastfeeding advocates don’t seem to make any distinctions here ("What?  You mean we can’t nag women about how stupid and dangerous formula-feeding is?  Dammit, we’re just not allowed to say anything about breastfeeding these days!"), there’s actually a crucial difference between seeing guilt as an occasional unavoidable evil, and seeing it as a deliberate strategy.  Yes, the former should be accepted.  But, as I’ve already written, I think there are very good reasons to try to avoid the latter; and we should recognise the difference.

(And this is before we even get onto the subject of a particularly unpleasant habit of some of the more militant wing of breastfeeding advocates – using guilt as revenge.  That, I have realised, requires an entire separate post in itself.)

When we raise the subject of breastfeeding, some women, somewhere, are going to feel a pang of guilt about the subject.  As good as it would be to be able to avoid that entirely, the cost of doing so would be to deprive other women of the information and support that they need in order to make fully informed choices.  We should be willing to raise the subject of breastfeeding with mothers-to-be and new mothers, to check that their reasons for choosing not to breastfeed or to supplement aren’t based on misinformation, to make sure they know where to get more information if they want it.  But that doesn’t mean we have to be critical or tactless or bossy or bitchy about doing so. 

The question we should be asking ourselves about our attempts at promoting breastfeeding is not "Will this make any women feel guilty?", but "Is this
constructive rather than destructive?  Is it, overall, likely to be
helpful?"

To be continued…

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3 Comments

Filed under Deep Thought, Milky milky

3 responses to “Guilt-edged advocacy

  1. I agree. It is hard to discuss something as emotive as breastfeeding without triggering guilt for many women for a variety of reasons (those who didn’t do it, those medically unable, those who tried and couldn’t and those who had to stop when they didn’t want to). But these things need to be discussed regardless.
    I think what I’ve been trying to get across is that promoting breastfeeding is great. The benefits are great. What’s not great are shock tactics (too short lived and community dividing) and the lack of support for those trying to breastfeed and those who have to stop.
    To me it seems useless to promote something without providing support, particularly when you are talking about child nutrition. But information isn’t enough. Rates are not high enough and we need to understand why. It’s not just that people aren’t getting enough information. It’s more that they aren’t getting enough support.
    While many women have argued on blogs with me that they didn’t have support and they managed it and I should just move on, they have to understand that moving on would be denying future mums support. It’s important that real experiences, both good and bad, are shared. This way we can evaluate what needs to be changed. I don’t see why we should accept the status quo, when it obviously isn’t good enough.
    From what I can see its not just educating new mothers, it’s about educating those in charge of budgets so more money is released to provide specialists to help mothers. There’s no point telling us not enough mums are breastfeeding when I know that it is practical help and one-to-one support that people like me need, not statistics about human milk v formula.
    As for the guilt, maybe it is the level of pressure about breastfeeding. It is almost hysteria. As Dr Crippen said, parenting is like fashion and comes in cycles. In the 70s it was acceptable to bottlefeed, today it seems like you are deliberating harming your child if you don’t.
    How you feed your baby seems to have become the most public issue and many people don’t think twice before asking you why you are breastfeeding. I think the bullyboy tactics will just lead to mothers isolating themselves from communities if they bottlefeed or even lying about what is in the bottle to stop people from arguing about it.
    Today I found out a very close friend of mine graduates from her La Leche breastfeeding counselling course in July and is offering me her one-to-one support as soon as I give birth with my second child. She’s been there and done is successfully. Suddenly I feel relaxed because I know she is going to be there, providing advice and practical support with no time pressures.
    I am one of the lucky ones. Every mother needs access to this support.

  2. If you get a chance, I would love to see your response to the stats.org article on why breastfeeding is overrated!

  3. alison bartlett

    I totally agree. I think there should be more emphasis on pleasure, desire and contradiction in breastfeeding advocacy, rather than guilt, duty, and paranoia. I’ve just had a rave published on it if you’re interested – it’s called Breastwork: Rethinking Breastfeeding
    http://www.unswpress.com.au/isbn/0868409693.htm
    here’s my fave review http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=265
    love to know what you think of it,
    alison

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