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In the Guardian today, Jessica Valenti wrote an excellent piece about breastfeeding, bottlefeeding and judgement.  It was a lovely article, making making points well.  But it’s central point – namely that all parents are making the best choices for their families – is flawed.  Hang on, before you grit your teeth to prepare to read a bottle-feeding smear article, hear me out.

Choice in infant feeding is a myth

Valenti asks why we clamour to celebrate breastfeeding and why we don’t show the same adoration for bottle feeding.  The fact is, breastfeeding is still the underdog.  If you doubt that, simply look at the numbers – in Canada only one quarter of infants are exclusively breastfed for the recommended six months.  In the United States that number is below one in five.  Feeding artificial milk is thus the normalized, if simultaneously derided, ‘choice’ simply by virtue of the numbers.

The real question though, is whether or not bottle-feeding is a choice.  Do we think that nearly 70 percent of the mothers who first ‘chose’ breastfeeding simply switch their choice to artificial milk a few weeks later?

In her article, Valenti gives us this beautifully personal and detailed account of how her feeding decisions were made”

In my case, when my daughter Layla was born, nearly three months early and weighing just 2lbs, breastfeeding wasn’t on the table. Instead, she was first fed intravenously and then later by feeding tube with milk I had religiously pumped. But the stress of having a very sick child does not do wonders for milk production and, by the time she came home two months later, I had to supplement breastfeeding with formula to make sure Layla got all the nutrition she needed. I felt like a failure and a terrible mother.

I enlisted the help of a lactation consultant and started pumping 15 minutes every hour (six hours a day!). Even as I cried in pain and was thrown into a horrible depression, I kept it up because I fully believed not only that “breast was best” but that formula was ruinous. It was only when I stopped – in part, because of the legitimate concerns raised by, among others, my extremely worried husband – that I truly bonded with my daughter. I had to give myself permission to be okay with bottle-feeding for nutrition and still breastfed Layla for comfort, for both our sakes.

Valenti sandwiches her story in sentences about her supposed choices, but her words make it incredibly clear that although she certainly made decisions, the circumstances were entirely too constrained to call those decisions choices.  When your traumatic premature birth leaves you unable to produce enough food for your baby, you are not ‘choosing’ artificial milk, it’s simply the only feasible option available to you.

A friend and I once co-wrote a blog post about our nearly identical early feeding journeys and their very different ends.  Ultimately we both made different feeding decisions, she bottle-fed her beautiful daughter and I’ve gone on to breastfeed both of my children.  Did either of us ‘choose’ the diverging routes we took?  No.  I got adequate professional support for my challenges and Kelly did not, that’s it.  In the early days of parenthood, when our bodies are recovering from the intense, and often traumatic, exertion of birth; when we are on a hormonal roller-coaster; when we’re abruptly left without a primary health care provider for either us or our babies; when the care providers we do seek out dole out bad advice on a topic they have absolutely no training in, are we really at liberty to make choices?

Going forward, our feeding decisions continue to face constraint.  In Canada, if we are conventionally employed, we enjoy 50 weeks of paid parental leave.  But in the US, the number is as low as six weeks and without any financial support.  I am as determined a breastfeeder as anyone, but I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t have spent two weeks struggling to get breastfeeding to work if I knew that it would probably go out the window four weeks later anyway.  I would have bottle fed and enjoyed my meagre time at home, then left for work free of the stress of finding the time, physical space and bodily ability to eject milk into a whirring machine.  It would have been my reality, but certainly not my choice.

Then there is the social treatment of the two feeding methods.  It sickens me to hear of bottle-feeding mothers being scorned.  It shouldn’t happen, yet we live in a world where we think we can know a person, their history and thoughts from 140 characters or a sepia-toned snapshot.  We’re ready to not only form an opinion in an Instagram, but are desperate to voice it.  But here again, breastfeeding women are still at a disadvantage.  Not only is their feeding method critiqued, those critiques are often encased in an additional and disgusting layer of sexualized commentary.  Anywhere from comments about the size, shape or desirability of the breasts, to accusing the woman of an act akin to public masturbation.  I have often heard women name anxiety about such harassment among their reasons for bottle feeding and if their inner sphere of family and friends isn’t supportive enough to counter this, it becomes a serious factor.  If fear of sex-based harassment is a motivator for a decision, that decision cannot truly be called a choice.

The myth of choice leaves us with no one to blame but each other

The crux of Valenti’s article is to beg us all to accept each other and the choices we make.  Her final sentence is one of support for parents “making the choices that are right for them and their children”.  I fully support the sentiment, but I firmly believe that the real solution is in repositioning the discussion.  We do need to fully support every parent for the decisions that are necessary for them and their children, but we need to stop masking the external influences on those decisions under the guise of choice.  Those of us who ‘succeed’ at breastfeeding need to admit that it was help and luck more than choice that created that success.  Those who wanted to breastfeed but switched to bottlefeeding need to feel able to say that it was not their choice, it was the necessary route and that sometimes we do what we must instead of what we wish.

It’s complicated and messy to say in the same breath that artificial milk is not optimal but that it’s certainly preferable to starving and that using it gratefully doesn’t preclude us from using it with a degree of sorrow.  It’s hard to say that babies who are fed formula are going to be OK but we need to fight for good and accessible breastfeeding supports so that fewer of them need to be given formula.  It’s a lot easier to say “This was my choice so back off!”.  But that conversation keeps the focus on our internal debate about who is a better mother, and stops us from working together for the things that all mothers need.  After all who wants to talk honestly about the risks inherent in using artificial milk if we’re asserting that those who use it are doing so by choice?  The theme of choice is what leads us to deny the fact that affiliations between healthcare providers and formula manufacturers creates an obscene conflict of interest that lowers breastfeeding rates.

If we don’t start having the messy complicated discussion, then we’ll keep writing articles asking why Olivia Wilde gets more praise than a bottle feeding mother, when we should be asking why some women get paid to breastfeed their babies in couture when other women are too busy worrying about how they’ll stretch their minimum wage to pay back the exorbitant hospital bill from the birth, especially after missing six weeks of pay, to have much time or energy left for worrying about making the feeding ‘choices’ that are right for them.  If we don’t start having that discussion and writing those articles, then we’ll keep having this blame war instead of lining up collectively to make a better reality for us and our babies.  And choice will continue to be a myth, rather than becoming a reality.

 

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It has been more than two years since I wrote my less-than-glowing critique of Tizzie Hall’s baby programming method.  Obviously it struck a nerve as it’s still the most widely viewed post on the blog.  I’ve long been uncomfortable letting it dangle there with its unalloyed intensity.  Parenting at night stinks.  If it didn’t, baby programming literature like Tizzie’s wouldn’t be so popular, and movies about sleepless newborn nights wouldn’t make us giggle-cringe so fiercely.  We’re allowed to protect ourselves from loss of sanity by trying to make changes to the way our nights go, but our babies deserve respect and compassion in every scenario.  Here are a few thoughts on what respectful night-time treatment should include and what it might look like.

1. Use what your baby is already giving you.

When I’m talking to expectant parents something I really stress is that their when new parents are fatigued it’s rarely because their baby isn’t sleeping enough.  It’s because the baby and parent aren’t sleeping at the same time. The clinical definition of sleeping through the night for a baby is SIX hours.  So if your baby goes to sleep at 7pm and sleeps until 1 am, then your baby has done exactly what he or she ‘should’ do.  Your baby does not have a sleep problem and does not need to be ‘trained’ to sleep longer.  But if YOU chose to stay awake until, say, 11 pm and are therefore tired for the 1 am wakeup, then that’s YOUR problem. Every parent, myself included, struggles with this.  Isn’t it important to have some grown up time to yourself while baby is sleeping?  Yes, it is, but it’s not a baby’s responsibility to meet the parent’s needs.  Your baby should not be expected to modify her behaviour if you haven’t modified your own first.

2. Make your job as easy as possible.

If you’re getting as much sleep as possible but you’re still feeling like a zombie during the wakeup the next thing you could do is see if your job can be made any easier during the wakeups.  This is the primary reason why I love co-sleeping.  By the time my kids were a couple of months old, night feedings basically consisted of baby wiggling silently, mom pointing chest at baby’s face, baby self-latching, zzzzzzz. But not everyone is as comfortable co-sleeping as we are and that’s fine.  So how about keeping baby next to your bed and feeding in bed even if baby doesn’t stay there?  If you go downstairs to the couch for each feeding, of course you’ll be tired in the morning.  Not to mention, if you’re so tired that you doze off during the feeding, then you’re unwittingly practising incredibly unsafe cosleeping anyway and it would be safer to feed on your flat mattress.

3. Understand the difference between needs and wants – for yourself.

Baby training manuals are all about delineating the baby’s needs from his wants.  He needs sleep and he only wants to be rocked or held.  Well, what if we applied the same thinking to our needs and wants as parents?  Yes we need sleep, but we don’t need it to be 7pm-7am every day of the week, we only want that. As adults we can be a lot more flexible about how and when our needs are met than a baby can.  Maybe we need a couple of solid naps every week.  Maybe we need to be able to hit the sack a bit earlier than baby or get up a bit later.  When we consider what our true needs are, we realize we probably don’t need to make such a drastic change in our baby’s behaviour in order to meet those needs.

4. “Help train” an adult.  

Following from number 3, meeting our own needs might mean help training another adult.  I’m specifically looking at you, partners!  One thing Mr. Fair did when Little Man was little was let me have Saturday mornings in bed.  As soon as the baby started fidgeting, Mr. Fair would whisk him away downstairs and entertain him while I slept (or at least just relaxed.)  Little Man would be brought up when he needed a feed and then whisked away again.  I got caught up enough on those mornings to get me a good half way through the week before feeling super tired again. I recently read a blog post about a woman who was discussing her serious fatigue with another new-mom friend who, needless to say was in the same boat.  So they both decided to pay a sleep Doula to teach them to let their babies cry.  I left a comment asking why they didn’t choose instead to team up and trade off naps?  It seems much more fair to me to seek assistance from another grown up before forcing assistance from a baby.

5. Make changes with respect.

Sometimes, once you’ve fulfilled all of your obligations as an adult, you might still need to exercise your right as the parent to guide how things go in your family.  That’s fine!!! And guess what, even I’ve done it – gasp!!

Picture me pregnant, hit by the Mack truck that is postpartum/prenatal depression, working from home all day and nursing Little Man every 1-2 hours all night.  I needed to night-wean.  It was hard, and there was crying.  Yes, you read that right.  Crying.

But here are some things to take into account when deciding how to proceed:

Calories – if baby is waking less at night, then baby is eating less at night.  There are all kinds of thoughts as to how long babies can safely go without eating at any age.  A decent guide is to use your baby’s self-directed longest interval.  If once in a while your babe will sleep for a long stretch of his own accord, then the length of that stretch is probably a safe and reasonable length to aim for.

It’s important to remember to allow for those calories to be made up.  If you’re breastfeeding, make sure that you feed on cue during the day.  If you’re bottle-feeding, then the bottles that would have been consumed at night need to be offered during the day.

Object Permanence – is a developmental milestone that babies achieve somewhere between 8 and 9 months that allows them to understand that an object (which includes a person) still exists – i.e. is permanent – when it is out of sight.  Until baby reaches this milestone they are cognitively unable to understand that you exist when they can’t see you.  In other words, if a baby is being left alone to cry before this age, he or she is completely unable to deduce that Mom and Dad are just in the next room.  In fact, as far as they are able to know, they are literally the only person left in the universe.  Actual horror movies have been made about being the only person left in the universe.  After this age they’ll at least know you’re out in the hall, even if they still don’t really understand why.  That distinction gets totally glossed over in baby programming literature but it is the difference between a baby who cries to sleep peeved at Mom and a baby who cries to sleep terrified.  If you can hold out for upset over terrified, it’s worth it.

Language – then once you know your baby can understand a good chunk of what you’re saying (for my kids that was about 15 months) then they can understand when you explain to them (simply) why it’s not time to eat or play.  They’ve also known you long enough to trust you.  By this point, a baby has virtually every skill necessary to understand what is happening, to specify his or her needs and to participate in meeting those needs.  That gives parents a lot of leeway to interject our needs back into the relationship.  A year, or maybe eighteen months is really not an outrageous amount of time when you think about it.

 

What approaches have you used to get a bit more rest while still treating your baby’s needs with respect?

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With the exception of my year of paid maternity leave with my first son I have never actually been not working and/or studying since I’ve had kids and yet most people see me as just a housewife**.  And you can call me overly sensitive or insecure or whatever you want, but I know it affects the way people – even people who care about me – interact with me.

Because I’m a girl I’m better at shopping than math.

There’s a room in our home (where I’m typing right now) that is set up as an office.  It’s a generalized office, not really ‘belonging’ to either of us specifically.  But, I run my Doula business from home (from this room, in fact) and I’ve been a part-time student for the last year so I do homework at home.  Whenever visitors to our home have reason to reference this room, guess what they call it?  “Mr. Fair’s office.”  Why?  Oh, you know, because he leaves the house every day to earn money and I’m just a housewife, so he must be the only one with important things to do in that room, not me.

We have a special holiday tradition in our family too.  It’s called “Who’s going to hang up the phone on us this time?”  Here’s how it goes: my Mother-in-law asks everyone when they are available to get together for the holiday.  Everyone replies with their work schedules.  My work schedule always comes in the form of “My client’s baby is estimated for X date.  If it’s born then I can make the 2-hour drive out of town, if not I can’t because that’s my job.”  A date is picked to meet everyone else’s work needs – in fact usually the date revolved around my (former) sister-in-law’s cashier job because she’s not a housewife, so her job mattered.  The holiday approaches and we repeat the caveat that I can’t come if I’m working and each and every holiday someone in Mr. Fair’s family slams the phone down on us.  Why?  Oh, you know, because my job doesn’t take me out of the house, so it’s not a real job.  I’m really just a housewife with a hobby.

For me, these things are irritating, but they’re not a substantial hardship in my life.  I’m well educated and confident in my abilities and intellect.  I have a partner who fell in love with me in part because of how smart I am.  I had a decent repertoire of smart, confident role models and I’ve always been surrounded by smart and accomplished female peers.  In fact, I’m the only one from my group of undergrad roommates who doesn’t go by the title “Dr.”

But gender stereotypes shape people’s lives.  My mother’s rural highschool offered girls a 4-year secretarial track or a 5-year nursing track.  My mom grew up with the understanding that university was an option for her brothers (one they both exercised) but not for her.  It’s entirely possible that such a limitation was not in fact in place but whether de jure, de facto or imaginary her perception of that barrier determined what she aspired to and how she progressed through her education.  And she has lived with the consequences of that barrier ever since.

We know from countless studies in countless fields that people, by and large, live up to (or down to) their role models.  It’s in part why poverty and domestic violence are cyclical.  And we know that it specifically applies to girls’ performance and confidence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects.

When girls see opportunities for themselves in science, technology, engineering and math, they’re more likely to take higher math in high school and more likely to pursue those careers

So if you don’t think that the Children’s Place T-shirt matters, ask yourself this: what kind of role models is a girl seeing if she lives in a house where the parents think that such a message is funny or appropriate to plaster on her?  Do you think the girl whose parents put that T-shirt on her is going to see opportunities for herself in STEM careers?  Will she end up like me or like my mom?

I have a daughter and a son and it’s hard not to raise them with restrictive gender stereotypes.  But giving her options in her life is important and speaking out about these things is the only way to open new opportunities for our daughters.  All of our daughters.

Unfortunately, as Annie from PhD in Parenting has discovered more than once, people don’t seem to want new opportunities for their daughters.  In fact they think it’s so important that no one tries to change things for their daughters that they tell people who do to get lost.

How about you get off twitter and do some algebra?  And if you’re no good at algebra then ask yourself if you think that’s because of your inferior gender.

**N.B. There’s nothing wrong with being a SAHM, I’m using the term ‘just a housewife’ to convey how little value society puts on the role of women in the home, not how much value I put on it.  I think SAHM’s rock 🙂

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Ok, so when we’re talking about Todd Akin’s disgusting comments that frankly, go beyond rape-apology, everything is wrong.  But there’s something about the reaction to his comments that’s also disturbing me.

Huffington Post did this great little slide show about (mostly) GOP reactions to his statement.  At first glance it’s great.  Lots of his fellow republicans publicly denouncing him.  But if you look closely, you’ll see that something is amiss in their priorities.

The best example is probably the statement by Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.  If that name sounds familiar, it should.  He garnered similar media attention for agreeing to pass a law that mandated that women seeking abortion must first be raped by a physician or technician with an ultrasound wand, although the law was amended to require only non-consensual abdominal probing, not vaginal probing, before it arrived on his desk.

He’s got to seriously decide what’s in the best interest of the party, what’s in the best interest of the state of Missouri, and frankly, at this point, given that flat wrong statement…

… are you expecting an end to that sentence that would denote some, even very small, amount of consideration for the rape victims who have been traumatized by Mr Akin’s comments?  Well don’t.

The grande finale on McDonnell’s list of priorities is this:

…whether he can win

He continues with this (emphasis mine):

To say things that seemed to be so flat wrong and out of touch with both science and the people, I think it makes it very difficult at this point for him to win.

and this (emphasis still mine):

But on the surface, these statements are so bad and so inflammatory and so inaccurate when it comes to science that it certainly calls into question his ability to win.

So to recap here, they’re upset that he’s probably going to lose.

There was no mention in there of Akin’s comments being offensive, immoral, atrocious or pernicious.  Inflammatory, yes, but that has more to do with the undesirable backlash than the substance of his words.  No, as far as his philosophy goes, the reprimand they’re giving him is for being ‘inaccurate when it comes to science.’

Guess what, saying that a tomato is a vegetable instead of a fruit is also ‘inaccurate when it comes to science’, but it’s not exactly the same fucking thing as saying that an imaginary intrauterine spermicidal forcefield determines the ‘legitimacy’ of a rape now is it?

And that seems to be a common theme with these Republican ‘denouncers’.  Why?  Because they don’t actually disagree with him.  As a matter of fact their national convention voted just days after those comments to make the crux of his beliefs their official party policy.  Maybe some of them got out of home school long enough to know there’s no Yoda in my womb waiting to light-saber the first rape-begotten embryo he sees, but they (almost) all firmly believe there’s a ‘legitimate’ kind of rape and an ‘illegitimate’ kind.  And they all firmly believe the victims of that rape should have no control over their bodies or lives after it takes place, just as they had no control over their bodies as it was being brutalized.

So let’s see these comments for what they are – nothing more than disappointment over a lost campaign –  and realize that this Akin guy is in no way an outlier.  He is the real deal: the legitimate GOP.

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UPDATE: The Own Nestle Project has officially been launched.  Check it out here : www.ownnestle.org

I would definitely NOT buy a K car.  I would probably build that tree fort though and as it happens, in the 20-odd years since the Barenaked Ladies wrote that song they have in fact developed pre-wrapped bacon.  But I wouldn’t buy that either…

I digress.

A very nice-looking couple in Britain has just won the British pound equivalent of $200 million Canadian dollars in a lottery.  Holy moly is all I can say to that.  One of my absolute favourite pastimes is to play the what-would-I-do-if-I-won-the-lottery game.  Renting out Richard Branson’s Necker Island has always factored quite highly on my post-jackpot to-do list.  But there’s something else I would do that may surprise the heck out of you.

I would buy as many shares of Nestle stock as legally possible.

You’re probably as confused as heck right now since I’m all up in the breastfeeding (or, if you didn’t know that, check here, here and here), so let me explain: I would buy as many shares of Nestle as I could and use my voting power to run those suckers into the ground!

At today’s share price, $200 Million could technically get me 3,278,000 shares which, according to Nestle investor relations would amount to a whopping 0.1% of the company.  It wouldn’t get me control, but it certainly would get me a voice.  I could advocate for a corporate policy of following the WHO Code.  I could sabotage their sabotaging of infant health.

And guess what else I could do with my shares?  I could give the $6.2 million in dividends I’d get every year to IBFAN or some other breastfeeding protection organization.  That’s 6 million bucks worth of mama-milk marketing, 6 million bucks of lobbying, 6 million bucks of hardballs to throw back at Nestle each and every year.  And every penny of it they would cough up themselves.  And that’s just this year.  Over the last decade, Nestle has increased it’s dividend 600%*.  So today’s $6 million could be $36 million in another decade.  Of course, as a shareholder I’d get to vote for dividend changes, so I’d vote for the highest dividend possible.

But, I’m not the one who won the $200 million lottery, so I can’t do that, exactly.  But what if I bought a couple of shares?  And what if you bought a couple of shares?  In fact, what if we set up a non-profit specifically designed to Own Nestle shares and put those dividends to work?

Lots of us in the breastfeeding community are already familiar with or even participate in the NoNestle boycott, but frankly, that’s been going on for decades and Nestle’s artificial baby milk sales are still growing.  I think it’s time for a different kind of direct action.  It’s time to not just cut off their profits, but to actually take their profits.  It’s time to OWN NESTLE.

What do you think, who wants to OWN NESTLE with me??

*My numbers are in US dollars, so some of that increase is actually due to currency conversion

 

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