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
To be continued…