I remember the first time I saw it. It was about five years ago and it was printed on a bumper sticker proudly displayed on the minivan in front of me. “I make milk. What’s your super power?” I had to resist my initial urge to pull up beside the driver, roll down my window and yell, “I grow hair! Any other traits of being mammals we’d like to claim as our super powers today?” I was so irritated. Of course, my irritation stemmed mainly from the fact that I really would have liked to be able to make milk. Maybe not at that exact moment, but as an adoptive mother I was well aware of the high cost of formula and the health benefits of “nature’s perfect food”. I was also well aware of the many ways in which my body had failed me over the years- in the areas of reproduction and even milk-making I felt like less than a woman. This bumper sticker wasn’t helping. Yes- you women who can breastfeed, you aren’t just functional, YOU are SUPER! Why couldn’t being able to successfully breastfeed be its own reward without having to shout from the rooftops how incredible you are? It’s a lesson I’m still trying to understand. (And don’t get me started on the Fertile Myrtle domestic goddesses who feel compelled to claim, “I’m so crafty I make people”.)
I ran into those feelings again when a friend posted an article on Facebook about how bottle-fed babies are more likely to become smokers than breastfed babies. For the life of me I can’t figure out how in a person’s lifetime of experience it is possible to narrow down their risk factors to just whether or not they were breastfed. And I said as much in a comment along with how irritated I was that apparently all my love, instruction and modeling were going to be wasted since my child was now obviously going to become a degenerate because he wasn’t breastfed. My friend said something very insightful in return. She said, “I think we breastfeeding moms post this kind of stuff because we’re trying to convince ourselves all the hard work and self-sacrifice are worth it.” That I understand.
I know we moms give up a lot to do what’s best for our kids. Whether that means financial sacrifices, sacrifices of our time, even our very bodies. We need reassurance that what we’re doing is worth it. Sometimes we turn simple choices of personal preference or what we feel is best for our families into our identities in a an effort to convince ourselves it’s making a difference. Breastfeeding can be tough and requires a huge commitment. It is so helpful to have a supportive community around you that understands the sacrifice. What we don’t often consider is how that need to band together and be proud about our awesomeness comes across to those around us. For every woman who feels reaffirmed in her great decision to breastfeed by seeing the “What’s your super power” bumper sticker, there are women like me who feel demeaned. Sure there are women who choose not to breastfeed out of convenience but then there are the women who are raising babies who can’t nurse because of a medical issue, or moms who are taking a medication that can be passed through their breast milk, or moms who have adopted, or moms who in spite of their best efforts are not able to produce enough milk. We have positioned ourselves on one side of this mommy debate and left them standing on the other. Is that really what we want to do? Is our identity as milk-makers really that important?
I went to a popular breastfeeding support website for tips on traveling with a breastfeeding child while we were preparing for our vacation last summer. I was irritated to find the first paragraph of their article was not devoted to actual helpful ideas, but instead it told me how much of a hassle it is to travel with a bottle-fed child. Oh, the cans of formula to pack! The washing out of bottles in gas station bathrooms! I know exactly how irritating those things are because I’d done them with three previous children, but why on a breastfeeding website do we need to start our information out with what a bunch of dummies those bottlefeeders are? I don’t like it. I literally had to stop reading a commonly recommended book about breastfeeding multiple times (while preparing for the birth of our biological baby) to storm around the house because I was so irritated with the implications they were making about bottle-fed children- how could they possibly be bonded or healthy without the magic of breast milk? Why do we have to resort to some kind of motherhood scare tactics to talk people into our way of thinking?
Of course we don’t want to run around being hypersensitive to any way anybody could possibly ever take offense, but I think it’s okay to open our eyes to the ways we could be hurting those we want to support. Women agonize over these decisions. We desperately want to do what’s best for our kids and feel the judgement of the world weighing down on us when we don’t feel like we’re able to do what’s expected. When we make breastfeeding an idol and an identity, we hurt those who can’t do what we can.
Is breastfeeding a good thing to do? Yes! Do I need to make it my identity? No. Let’s be real- you know who else breastfeeds? Cows. The backyard cat. A large percentage of the animals in the local zoo. Is this really a special skill I need to brag about? The real difference between what I do and what the cow does is I do it in the privacy of my home instead of sitting out in a field watching the cars drive by me on the interstate. There’s a reason for that. I have a sense of privacy about something special happening between my baby and me. Because I feel protective of that experience, I don’t feel compelled to participate in “nurse-ins” or post pictures of myself breastfeeding or put on a t-shirt or bumpersticker how awesome I am because I make milk. I had a woman tell me she wouldn’t consider foster parenting because she couldn’t breastfeed that child and she wasn’t sure she could love a child she didn’t breastfeed. Really? Is breastfeeding about meeting the mother’s needs or the child’s? Is it so much of an identity issue that we can’t even fathom how we could care for a child (a child in NEED, no less) that didn’t meet our expectations in that way?
Moms, let’s put breastfeeding in its rightful place in our lives. It’s a special gift we can give to our kids. It isn’t the end-all, be-all of motherhood. It doesn’t define us. It doesn’t define our children. It is a stage that lasts a brief moment and needs to be treasured in our hearts. If it separates us from the other loving, invested, precious moms around us who happen to be formula feeding, we just might be doing it wrong.