How Not To Be A Successful Lactivist

This is another comment-turned-post from the debate over at Fearless Formula Feeder's blog, once again in reply to Alan.  This time, it's in reply to the second part of this comment.

A quick bit of background: One of the features on FFF's blog is a weekly slot where women who've used formula can post their stories – their reasons for doing so and the emotional struggles that so often went into the decision.  It's a great slot not only for allowing people to vent, but also for dispelling the myth that formula is just for women who are too lazy to breastfeed and those formula-feeding mothers could have breastfed if they'd just cared more/tried harder/done a more efficient job of being Supermum.  Unfortunately, it does have one big drawback – reading so many stories of breastfeeding-gone-wrong, all collected in one place, might potentially be offputting to mothers-to-be who are considering breastfeeding but wavering about the possibility.  When FFF mentioned this concern, Alan agreed with it, and stated:

This is precisely the reason I offered a
counter-anecdote about the experience my children's mothers had (no need
even of lactation consultants, never any thrush, mastitis, etc.). At
least one person complained that posting this anecdote was insensitive
to all the readers of the blog who have had trouble; but it was
precisely for those newer readers you mention,–who have yet to attempt
breastfeeding and might start to wonder if they could ever possibly
accomplish such a seemingly Herculean task–that I wanted to provide a
competing narrative, one which happens to be just as true and accurate
as the others.

And I think that's actually a good idea – if properly and sensitively done.
Unfortunately, this is how Alan actually did it. Alan, what I want to explain here is why the way you went about it didn't work, why it annoyed people, and why it is, in fact, practically a case study in how not to do it. 

The first thing you said in that comment, after the
basic information about number and ages of your children, is that
none of them ever had/is planned to have 'a drop' of formula.
Subtext (whether intentional or not): You disapprove of formula to
the extent that you think it worth avoiding even in the smallest
quantities, and speak approvingly of the fact that you have managed
to do so. Problem with this: It potentially alienates any woman
who's already used formula (with either their current baby or a
previous one). They may become concerned about the possibility of
you criticising them for their formula use, and this may put them off
speaking to you for any help or advice that they might have felt able to seek from you had you
handled the conversation differently. (And, unfortunately, this may extend to making them that bit less likely to seek advice from pro-breastfeeders in general, for fear of criticism.  I think the effect of that one line would be a small one, but, when that's within the context of a very anti-formula-feeding society, these effects can add up.)

Following a quick detour onto the topic
of your ex-wife's horrible labours (ooops! just lost anyone who wants
to steer clear of labour scare stories), you make the point you were
trying to make in the first place about how easily breastfeeding all went, and
then promptly move on to boasting about how long your two older
children breastfed for. Now, look at that for a moment through the
eyes of a mother-to-be who's wavering badly on the issue of whether
to breastfeed at all and who isn't too keen on the idea because she
thinks it's sort of icky. How do you think she's going to feel on
hearing about breastfeeding for two or three years? Yes, it might be
inspiring – or it might be daunting to the
point of putting her still further off the whole idea.  (And let's face it, the women who'd find that story inspiring are the ones who are pretty keen on the idea of breastfeeding anyway.  With a comment like that, you're likely to end up preaching to the choir and putting off the very women you actually most want to preach to.)

That gets
even worse when you write about the child who wouldn't take anything
*but* breastmilk for an entire year. The reason many women give for not wanting to breastfeed is that they want somebody else
to be able to feed the baby now and again.  For women who feel this way, you've just confirmed their
worst fears about breastfeeding.

Your comment then hits its nadir in the next paragraph, where, in a moment of truly staggering
tactlessness, you let us all know that you don't believe your
children's IQs would have been as high had they been formula fed, despite the fact that this was in response to a post in which a
woman had been talking about how guilty and distressed she felt about
having to feed her baby formula. 
Without, apparently, the least thought about how that might make the original poster, and the many other blog readers in the same situation as her, feel.  Does that answer your question about who you attacked?

all fairness, as Alan has pointed out to me in comments, he has since
stated his regret for choosing that particular post to comment on

Following that, there were three
more paragraphs of fairly random points related to general themes of
breastfeeding, formula feeding, and lactivism, by which time I think everybody was at a bit of a loss as to
where you were trying to go with this and
the point you'd originally been trying to make was pretty much lost
in the general rambling.

Alan, you asked why anecdotes of problem-free breastfeeding wouldn't be welcome on the blog.  Well, I don't think your anecdote of problem-free breastfeeding was actually the part of your comment that wasn't welcome.  I think that if you'd just sympathised with
the OP, made your point, and shut up (“I'm so sorry to hear things
went so badly for you. Sounds like you were really unlucky – that
sort of problem really is unusual. I know my wife and my ex-wife
both managed to breastfeed easily, and really enjoyed it. What you
went through must have been awful.”), nobody would have minded.  Instead, you had to not only make it into Random Ramblings Of A Lactivist, but do this so tactlessly that it was completely counterproductive to your cause.  And, if you want to be a successful breastfeeding advocate, you just can't get away with that kind of clumsiness.  You stated in another thread that it would all be worthwhile if your comment could convince even one person to breastfeed.  What you've failed to take into account with that argument is the very real risk that going about it so badly will put off rather more than one person in the process.



Filed under Grr, argh, Milky milky

14 responses to “How Not To Be A Successful Lactivist

  1. Dr. Sarah, you are fabulous.
    My number one pet peeve is the people, like Alan, who say they are breastfeeding advocates but hurt the cause with their insensitive and militant perspectives. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I believe that how people advocate has a huge impact on success. And I as I tried to say to Alan numerous times, instead of communicating in a way that gets formula feeders and breast feeders on the same side- pushing for better support for all women together- he continues to say inflammatory things and alienate women on all sides of the issue. Fear, judgment, condescension and self-righteousness are the biggest detriments to the breastfeeding advocacy movement out there. Period.

  2. I agree that there has to be a way to go about promoting breastfeeding without fear mongering. I also think that people need to agree that there are confounding factors that can never be controlled. It is so difficult for me to go on a blog where someone states the “obvious and numerous benefits of breastfeeding” (usually without ever actually saying what those are). There may very well be benefits, but I think they are small benefits in the long run and certainly not worthy of the anti-formula backlash from the Sanctimommies.
    With that said, the comment I still have the most trouble with is that it’s sad that anyone wouldn’t want a full year’s maternity leave.

  3. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this assessment of the situation on my blog – sometimes its difficult for me to keep my emotions in check, which makes writing a coherent response to something like Alan’s discourse darn near impossible. I love how you broke it all down, and I couldn’t agree more. One of my biggest frustrations is that I believe that strong breastfeeding advocacy is necessary and beneficial, but I feel so many are going the wrong way. Even if the intentions are good, the end result is not. But I think you outlined this problems very clearly. Great post, as always.

  4. Alan

    Dr. Sarah,
    A little Facebook birdie told me about this post, but I was travelling and only just now got a chance to comment.
    I get the feeling you’ve only been intermittently reading my comments at FFF. Either that, or you just disingenuously chose to dig into the very beginning of my posting activity there, without providing the context that I later recognised that my approach was not without flaws, that I could have picked a better thread to enter (though I will still comment on the FFF Friday posts if, as recently happened, the comments turn into inaccurate bashfests against Dr. Sears or similar).
    While there are certainly choices I can make and will make differently in terms of what points to highlight and which ones to downplay, some of your suggestions appear to me to cross a line into delivering a false narrative (fiction, in the service of propaganda) to best promote my cause. I don’t feel comfortable with that. If I’m harder to relate with because my kids breastfed for so long, or didn’t ever get supplemented with formula, so be it. I’m not going to start pretending to have a different story to tell, after it is focus grouped to have the maximum impact or whatever.
    And @Brooke: I still absolutely stand by the comment you say you have the most trouble with. I do think it’s sad that there are some mothers who are so antsy to get back to the office, and/or so annoyed with mothering an infant, that they wouldn’t take a full year’s maternity leave even if it were available. I know there are people like that (just like there are all kinds of people with various types of unpleasant personalities), but I wish there weren’t. In any event, though, those kinds of women are about as lactivist-proof as it gets, so I don’t really give a hoot whether I offend them or not. ::shrug::

  5. Thank you so much for your comments, everyone!
    I’m glad you saw the post and responded, Alan, as I didn’t know whether you were following the thread any more. I’ve also replied to your comment on my post about sleep training, as you may or may not have seen.
    I have indeed been following the various tangled threads of the debate subsequent to that early comment. I did see your follow-up comment in which you acknowledged that your choice of post on which to make that comment was a bad one, and have since amended the post to say so – you’re right that, in all fairness, that point should be included, and I apologise for not doing so. However, I do have to say that that comment didn’t really leave me feeling that convinced that you understood in much detail *how* that comment had offended formula feeders, and this feeling was only amplified by the comment which triggered my post here, in which you defended your original comment against accusations of insensitivity. Granted, you were defending the fact that you chose to post that anecdote rather than the way in which you went about it – but, still, I was left feeling you hadn’t learned that much from the debate so far.
    I’m not sure why you feel that refraining from approving statements about how your children never had a drop of formula or breastfed for X number of years, within the specific context of trying to provide reluctant breastfeeders with a story of breastfeeding going well, is ‘delivering a false narrative’. Leaving out those statements would not have detracted from the point you wanted to make – that, for the two women whose experiences you knew best, breastfeeding had gone easily and without problems – and would have avoided the risk of alienating others or putting them off. I’m not saying that you should lie about those points if the subject comes up or even that you should avoid ever mentioning them; on the contrary, there would be debates and conversations within which they would be entirely appropriate. I’m trying to explain to you why, in this particular situation, they were counter-productive.
    As for your comment to Brooke – well, mark me down as one of the mothers you consider sad, since I was happy to go back to my job after four months of maternity leave with each child (it was a financial necessity since I’m the wage-earner in the family, but I also found it a relief both times). So, fire ahead in telling me exactly why you think it’s sad that I love my job and was pleased to get back to it or that the infancy stage isn’t really the most madly interesting part of parenthood to me; but, first, drop your stereotypes, because I was probably as lactivist-gullible as it gets. I swallowed absolutely unquestioningly all the propaganda like Ann Calandro’s (see my next post) and the claims that I should nurse for two years because the WHO said so. I calmed down a lot before my second baby, but I do remain strongly in favour of breastfeeding and fed her for fourteen months (it would have been a little longer, but she was very clearly ready to wean by that stage). So don’t make assumptions about what people are going to think or believe.

  6. Alan

    Dr. Sarah,
    I know there are (at the risk of making a broad generalisation) “Type A” women who become mothers and do all kinds of stuff (including breastfeeding) with a relentlessly efficient (if seemingly cold-blooded) approach. But those aren’t the kinds of people I admire or aspire to be like or be friends with. (Just to be absolutely clear: it’s not a gender thing at all–I don’t normally dig Type A dudes either).
    My wife btw will be at work (student teaching, full time) when our baby is ten months old, and I’ll be the SAHD. But this is financial necessity on our part; if she could wait the full year I know she wouldn’t hesitate.

  7. Alan, you’re still stereotyping. Well, either that or you genuinely don’t understand what the term ‘Type A’ means. Type A refers to a particular set of attitudes towards life – hostility and aggressiveness, impatience, competitiveness, a strong desire to get ahead. Just as you find it sad that not every woman wants to stay home full-time for an entire year during the infant stage, I find it sad that someone would have so little concept of what it means to love spending time at your job that the only way you can imagine such a thing is by imagining someone who’s also hostile and competitive about it. Speaking for myself, I’m not competitive, I’m very happy right where I am in my job and not looking to move up any kind of ladder or get ahead of anyone, and you can decide for yourself whether or not you think I’m hostile or aggressive, but I wouldn’t say that either of those is correct. So could you please try to drop your stereotypes? Loving your job enough that you don’t want to take a break of a year or more in one go doesn’t automatically equate to being Type A.
    As for going about breastfeeding with a relentlessly efficient if cold-blooded approach – yes, I’ll plead guilty to that. The first time around, anyway. You can thank lactivist propaganda for that, I’m afraid. The sites I was reading drummed it very thoroughly into me that I could anticipate potentially dire consequences if my son’s precious insides were sullied by even a small amount of formula (see my next post, about Ann Calandro’s article), and that the only way to be sure breastfeeding would work was for me to make sure I fed my son as often as he wanted and for as long as he wanted each time. The result was that I ended up focusing on exclusive breastfeeding as A Project, with little room left around the stress of it all for just relaxing and enjoying it. By the second time around, I’d figured out that propagandists tend to exaggerate these things and that it probably wouldn’t be that bad if my daughter got a bottle of formula once in a blue moon. The result was that I was far more relaxed and actually enjoyed the whole experience. And, as it happened, almost never did give her any formula until she was almost six months. (She got a couple of bottles when she was three months old and we were desperate to persuade her to take a bottle before I went back to work and figured it was worth seeing whether she might like formula better than pumped milk. That was it until she was over five months and started solids.) It wasn’t that I particularly needed to feed her formula the majority of the time, just that it was such a relief not to have to worry so much about the prospect.

  8. Alan

    Dr. Sarah,
    I do understand what being Type A entails; and yes, I’m stereotyping a bit (I did after all say “at the risk of making a broad generalisation”, jeez). I’m sure not every such woman (who, just to refresh, wants so badly to get back to her job that she would pass up part or all of a year’s paid maternity leave) is type A. Just the vast majority.
    And type A or not, it’s certainly still “sad” to me, that anyone of any personality type can’t spare those extra few months to be with their baby. Whatever type it is, it’s not one I would find appealing (you might in fact say that such a person is “not my type”, heh). In fact, I’d go further and say that if it is such a bother to stay home with your baby enjoying paid leave (and yes, this goes for men as well!) then perhaps we’d all be better off if you’d just go the “childfree” route and be done with it.

  9. Alan: If you genuinely mean that and it isn’t just hyperbole, then what you’re effectively saying here is that you believe that if a parent doesn’t want to spend virtually all day and every day in the company of their baby for the entire first year then this must indicate that he or she is such a bad parent that his/her children will be likely to turn out to a) be a menace to society, and b) be so miserable in their lives that they’d be better off never having existed.
    If that really is what you meant, then I think we’re just too far apart on this issue for further discussion to get us anywhere. I’ll leave it to my children to have the final word, in a couple of decades’ time, as to whether or not my husband and I turned out to be such poor parents that they’d prefer never to have been born.

  10. Alan

    No, Sarah, it is your comment that is hyperbole. People are resilient and can bounce back from all kinds of things. But I remain puzzled as to how someone can want to be a parent but be unwilling to take a FULLY PAID year of maternity leave. The vast majority of people would not pass this up, making those who would oddballs by any definition. It’s not always a bad thing to have an unusual proclivity or belief (my atheism is just one example for me personally); but this is one oddity that I’m glad is rare.

  11. Alan, your specific words about people who wouldn’t choose a year’s maternity leave over spending some of that time in their job were that ‘perhaps we’d all be better off if you’d just go the “childfree” route and be done with it’. The only way that ‘we all’ would be better off if a given group of people refrained from having children would be if those children were harmful to ‘we all’ in some way, and thus the only possible way I can see of interpreting that comment (other than the possibility that it may have been carelessly-thought-out hyperbole that you didn’t really mean) is that you think that parents who feel that way stand a high chance of producing children who have negative effects on society. Since children are part of ‘we all’, it would also have to mean that the non-existence of those children would be a matter of insignificance, and, since I’m assuming you wouldn’t so blithely wish a happy and satisfied life out of existence for the benefit of everyone else, the only interpretation I can see there is that you feel those children would be likely to be so miserable in their lives that it really wouldn’t be a huge loss for them if they had never existed. I cannot see any other way of interpreting the literal meaning of your comment. Either that is what you meant, or you didn’t think it through properly and came out with a hyperbolic comment on the matter that you didn’t really mean. If there’s a third option there in terms of how your comment should be interpreted, by all means clarify it – I’d be delighted to read it.
    Most people would take a year of paid leave from their job regardless of the reason why, because most people don’t like their job that much. That’s less a comment on how much people love to be with their babies than it is a comment on how little people dislike their jobs, and I do find it sad that the vast majority of people see their jobs as a boring chore that they’d rather not be doing than doing. However, for people who do love their jobs and/or don’t find the baby stage to be that interesting compared to other parts of parenthood, the choice about maternity leave comes down to a choice to give up something else important in their lives for a prolonged period in order to spend almost all day and every day in the company of their baby, or to spend time in their lives doing both those things, in such a way that they still get substantial time in the company of their babies but also get to spend time doing something different that they love. Sorry, but I just don’t see that it’s automatically a personality or parenting defect on somebody’s part to opt for the latter.

  12. Dr. Sarah, I’ll cop to a little bit of hyperbole there. But you got plenty hyperbolic yourself, when you wrote:
    “[S]ince I’m assuming you wouldn’t so blithely wish a happy and satisfied life out of existence for the benefit of everyone else, the only interpretation I can see there is that you feel those children would be likely to be so miserable in their lives that it really wouldn’t be a huge loss for them if they had never existed.”
    What if someone posted that they thought we as a society would be better off if high school girls who have sex used condoms (a pretty reasonable, moderate position, I’d say), and someone responded “If I had used them when I was in high school, my daughter would never have been born–are you saying her existence is so miserable or such a detriment to all of us that you wish she had never existed?” C’mon.

  13. Alan (nice to see the new blog, by the way):
    If high school girls, or any other sexually active group, increased their use of condoms, the effect would be a decrease in both sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. I do agree that both of those outcomes would be beneficial for society. That’s rather different from making a blanket statement that we’d all be better off if high school girls didn’t have babies. The latter statement is unpleasant stereotyping to a degree that I absolutely would not support.

  14. Phew, what a relief to be conversing about something other than infant feeding. 😉
    Dr. Sarah, I got an email from a friend of someone who left the blog over the posts you were initially discussing, who felt that FFF had turned too “anti-SAHM”. I felt terrible about it, on a multitude of levels. But I also thought it was perfectly rational for women to get up and arms over the(what I consider sexist)concept that a woman who didn’t want to take a year’s maternity leave was somehow unnatural or not worth her salt as a mom.
    Confession time – I had a few moments of feeling that way, prior to having my son. I had been really career-driven (I was an actress) for the first 30 years of my life; then I had 2 miscarriages, and it changed me. I started thinking I’d never get the chance to have a baby, so once I was pregnant, I made all sorts of deals with fate/god/aphrodite whatever (I’m agnostic) that if I could just have a healthy baby, I’d sacrifice anything for it – my body, my ambition, etc.
    Now, to be honest, I was starting to hate my job. I’d been eeking out a living for some years, but the business of acting is really depressing, and I’d lost the joy in it. So I think part of this was an excuse to “opt out”, to start a new career, as a mom (which, for the record, I DO think is a career, and a tough, challenging, incredibly important one). But it does speak to your point about most people hating their jobs – I would agree with this, and now that I have one I love, I see how depressing this state of affairs really is.
    Anyway, long story short, after the first 3 months, I was itching to go back to work. For a myriad of reasons. But mostly because I found my time writing to be so cathartic, and rewarding, at a time when the motherhood thing was nothing but stressful, sad, and hard. If I’d had a full-time job that I liked and was able to go back to, I would’ve jumped at the chance. Luckily, I am able to work part time and still do what I love; doing so made me a better mom, since my son benefits from an inspired, energetic, excited mother who values her time with him and is able to exercise other parts of her self in the realm of work.
    So I no longer judge women who choose to work, even if I’m at a point in motherhood where I love being home part-time. And on a related note, I always say it would be WAY cooler to offer people a year of leave, period – a year you could take whenever. For childless workers, that could mean a year to use taking care of an elderly or sick relative. And for parents, well, I personally think it would be pretty sweet to take the second year of a child’s life off – toddlerhood is where the real magic happens, you know? 🙂

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