Thursday, October 14, 2010

What sisterhood?

Something about parenthood brings out an unattractive self righteousness in a significant minority of the new mommy and daddy population. I might chalk the phenomenon up to dramatic postpartum hormonal changes, if so many new fathers weren't afflicted.

Whereas many women find that other moms provide a useful support network and a welcome sense of sisterhood, many are disappointed by the judgmental nature of the other moms they encounter. Unfortunately, we've all met these women I like to call Martyr Moms: they're the ones who haven't processed the memo that there is no prize at the end of motherhood for accepting the least help or enduring the most discomfort or suffering.

And nowhere does the (monumentally stupid) Martyr Mommy syndrome rage more furiously than in the feeding debate. The sisterhood, it seems, crumbles when talk turns to boobs and bottles.

Today's first example comes from the Gardenmoms message board, a popular forum here in Boston, with an estimated subscription list of about 10,000 individuals. Let me say first: I like Gardenmoms a lot. I found my perfect, amazing regular babysitter there. I've bought Sox tickets there. I've picked up nuggets of information about schools to stick in my back pocket for later.

But sometimes you get a a post almost evangelical in tone. It's most striking when, as yesterday, someone starts a thread this way (i.e. it's not merely a preachy response to someone else's question). Yesterday's poster shared a piece from the website of a gentleman called Dr. Mercola, a self-styled health guru who has no M.D., in which he argued that soy formula is processed poison. The poster shared this notice to emphasize her view that breast feeding is pretty much the only way to raise a healthy child.

Why would someone do this? Ostensibly to educate her fellow Gardenmoms. But here's the thing: if your pediatrician or GI recommends a certain diet for your child, you shouldn't have to justify that to other mommies. Particularly ones combing the internet for pseudo-science.

On Dr. Mercola's credentials page, he makes an argument that as an osteopath, he is pretty much the same thing as a medical doctor. I'm not suggesting that osteopathy has no place in the health world. However, the training isn't nearly as rigorous as that undertaken by students, interns and residents at major medical schools. He says he can perform surgery. I think this means he can freeze off warts. Show of hands: anyone want to to let someone without an M.D. crack their kid's chest, skull, knee cap, etc.?

Furthermore, Dr. Mercola presumes all lactating mom will follow an ideal diet. That's not true in many cases, especially at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. It seems obvious that garbage in means garbage out. If a woman subsists on fast food, processed frozen meals and transfat laden, high sodium snacks, her baby might be better off - in terms of vitamin and mineral intake - on formula.

But let's go back to the original poster. Consider: The vast majority of new moms don't set out to feed a diet of soy formula. It does contain fillers and additives. But thank God soy, like traditional milk formula, exists. Some babies have serious allergies. Some mothers cannot breast feed. Others have other pressures in their lives that make formula feeding more practical. Some unfortunate folks have a combination of issues and that make life stressful enough without having to fend off judgement from other moms.

Or how about Gisele Bunchen? She possesses a rare quintessential grace to match her beauty, and she seemed like a perfectly nice person the handful of times she appeared at the local playground. But recently she made a statement that breast-feeding ought to be mandatory for the first six months. Easy to say when you can afford 24/7 child care, house keeping, cooking, and whatever other help you might require. I think she should go back to smiling quietly and modeling clothes.

Why are her remarks so offensive? Because she's going out of her way to make women less fortunate than she feel badly about the choices they make for themselves and their families. Breast feeding is impossible for many women who need to go back to work with a newborn. Or for those with significant health issues. And more than that, it's plain impractical for some. Breast feeding means that the burden of multiple midnight wake ups falls nearly exclusively to the mommy. It's also the one thing that women who go back to work can easily remove from their plates. All those pump-from-work advocates really ought to consider: pumping takes time out of the workday which must be made up, resulting in a longer workday, which means more time away from the newborn. Is that really the lesser evil? Not in my mind.

Consider also: formula babies generally sleep for longer stretches during the early months. You should not feel guilty about giving a formula bottle at bedtime to buy a few hours of sleep. Sleep isn't an indulgence; it's a necessity.

Luckily Gisele's proposed legislation has a snowball's chance in hell of introduction, though I can think of more than a few new dads who might jump on her bandwagon. An acquaintance recently delivered a preemie by emergency c-section after a medically complicated pregnancy. Her body was exhausted and in shock, using its calories to heal, so her milk wasn't coming in. Yet her husband still pressured her to breast feed by making her feel guilty about the baby's health. On top of this, this woman's own mom is hospitalized in critical condition; she might die soon. Any lactation nurse will agree that stress does nothing good for milk production, but her twit of a spouse is still hellbent on making his wife feel like a failure. If we were more than casual acquaintances, I'd tell him where to stick his breast pump.

For many healthy women who have the ability and desire to stay home with their newborns, breast feeding is an excellent choice. Moms with nutritious diets produce nutritious milk, certain antibodies pass from mother to child, many women like the convenience of a built-in food supply, and many also enjoy the unique bonding that nursing provides. That's fantastic. But it's also their choice. If they're confident with their choice, they shouldn't need to preach their Gospel to others for self-righteous reasons. Because, really, there's something to be said for minding one's own business, especially when you're more likely to wound feelings than change someone else's choices.

Similarly, bottle feeding moms need to realize they have nothing to feel badly about. Pediatricians believe that formula is a healthy and valid alternative that will not harm your child in any way. Don't believe me? Ask next time you're at the doctor's office.

Most of my contemporaries were bottle fed. They're now healthy, intelligent, successful adults. And if they suffer from mommy issues, I'm pretty sure the cause goes beyond the chosen method of early feeding. So let's try to end the boob-driven catty chatter, support each other's choices and score one for the sisterhood.


  1. you are right. i had to supplement my son because my husband left for iraq. i felt like i had disappointed myself, but I decided to supplement him. it was kind of like mommy instinct. i eventually exclusively breastfed my son, but it was MY decision to keep working at it. i didn't need anyone bullying me to do what I wanted.

    i do not ostracize my friends for choosing their own parenting decisions because i know that their child will grow up healthy and smart too.

  2. Thanks for reading. You should not have felt disappointed in yourself.
    Good for you, for trusting your instincts over the supposed experts. In my humble opinion, having a self confident mom like you will do more good for your son in the long term than the precise ratio of breast milk to formula he ingested as a newborn.

  3. Very well said. I had a similar experience (extreme pressure to BF in a very negative circumstance).
    Breastfeeding gets plenty of support but breastfeeding mothers... not so much.