Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Normalizing Breastfeeding (and Fatherhood, while we're at it)

There are many slogans and descriptive words we hear regarding breastfeeding: "Breast is best." "Breastmilk provides superior nutrition." "Babies who are breastfed are healthier." "Breastfeeding is a special relationship."

What would you think if I said those slogans are wrong? Well, they are. And here's the reason: these kind of phrases idealize breastfeeding, which takes it further away from being the standard norm. Take these phrases which make breastfeeding out to be some fancy "extra" along with the images of bottles that surround us, and you can see how breastfeeding is not seen as the cultural norm for feeding a baby in these parts.

Take the first one, "Breast is best." Best. That means that something else is good enough, something else is mediocre, and something else is worst. Feeding your baby sewage might be worst. Feeding your baby formula? Hmm, maybe that would be "good enough," since breastfeeding is "best." So here's what would make better sense as a slogan: "Breast is normal." Because it is... it is the biological norm for feeding babies. It is the standard, built-in way we have for nourishing and nurturing. Better than what? Not better, just normal. And doing things normally often results in achieving normal, healthy outcomes. Just look at the birth control pill and its link to health problems... do something abnormal, and you may not achieve optimal health. Breastfeeding works the same way: deviate from the norm, and abnormal things may occur to both mothers and babies.

How about using the words "superior nutrition" to describe breastmilk? Again, it is just normal. Breastmilk provides a baby with normal nutrition. Sometimes people see "superior" and they think, "Ah, it is magic! Breastmilk has super powers! Supermoms give their babies that... but I can't always be a Supermom, so why strive for the 'extra' of breastfeeding? I can be 'Good Enough Mom' and use formula." But what if these moms had the understanding that breastfeeding was normal? Wouldn't they then feel more determination to give their baby what is normal for a human infant, perhaps? Particularly so if there were pediatricians, hospital staff, breastfeeding support groups who were all saying, "Yes, breastfeeding is normal, we will help you," instead of saying, "Well, formula is almost as good... and some people just can't breastfeed. Just give up - you're going above and beyond to try to make nursing work." So, breastmilk provides normal nutrition, meaning anything else provides abnormal nutrition.

"Breastfed babies are healthier." Hmm, well, that is true, you might be thinking. On the surface, yes, it is. But how about saying that breastfeeding provides a baby with normal health - maybe even saying "optimal health." By breastfeeding, a baby can achieve the normal health which he was intended to have. It is not normal for babies to have GI diseases, a large number of ear infections, constant viral infections... So, phrasing that indicates the health risks of feeding formula would be more appropriate. Breastmilk doesn't give the baby some magic powers to have super health - it lets his body do what it was designed to normally do, which is to build his immune system. Breastmilk building immunity isn't magic - just normal.

And then this one: "Breastfeeding is a special relationship." Special... ooooh. I bet most of us who breastfeed have used that word ourselves to describe our own breastfeeding relationships with our children! But looking at the meaning of the word only... what does it imply? It implies that breastfeeding is, again, not just what we do, but something "extra." It also can be seen as something that is private - the word "special" is often used by those who are opposed to mothers nursing their babies in public, because " that's something special between just the two of you, so you should do it in private." So, what to say instead... Breastfeeding is an intimate relationship? Some people see that as having a sexual connotation. A nursing mother and baby are supposed to have a close bond: that's just the normal way it is supposed to be. Breastfeeding is a normal relationship between the mother and baby... there's that word again, normal. That is the key word in all this: NORMAL.

I had the opportunity to attend a few talks given by a woman who is pioneering this change in our language with regard to breastfeeding. Diane Weissinger has several articles on her website, www.normalfed.com, explaining the need to normalize the language we use regarding breastfeeding. This, coupled with more exposure (no pun intended) to nursing moms and their children every day, in normal daily situations, is what will normalize breastfeeding so that no mom has to worry about being harassed for nursing in public. No moms will have to feel the need to go hide to nurse their babies. Moms won't resort to supplementing with formula when they are having no physical problems simply because they feel like they have to use bottles when around other people. This will take several generations to come about, but if children went into the grocery store and saw two or three babies nursing EACH TIME they were there, wouldn't they just grow up thinking that it was NORMAL?

So, what's that in the parenthesis about fatherhood, you may be wondering... well, for all the normalizing of breastfeeding that we'd like to see, fatherhood is something that is being pushed away from being normal in an effort to be "politically correct" and "inclusive." This is also the same reason we heard for many years about how formula was "just as good" or "nearly as good" as breastmilk... it was an effort to make abnormal things seem normal so as not to offend people. With the language changing regarding breastfeeding, I hate to see the language changing the other way regarding fathers.

The latest edition of the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, La Leche League's big book of breastfeeding info for nursing moms, came out last year. I noticed that it never once used the word "father." When I checked back in the previous edition, "father" actually appeared enough times that it was listed in the book's index. But in the recent edition? Not one mention, it seems.

So, I asked Diane Weissinger about this, because she was one of the people who worked on this current revision of the book. She seemed to agree that fatherhood was normal and natural, that children raised by both mother and father are the biological norm and that children having fathers is important to their overall development, but she said the decision was made to use the word "partner" in order to cover everything, because this is a breastfeeding book which is about mothers nursing their babies, and they decided to focus just on breastfeeding and reaching as many people as possible.

Unfortunately, the phrasing used in the book turned me off to the point that I haven't even read the rest of it. I can overlook the word "partner," because that could include a husband, and I understand that there are women whose husbands have run out on them and they are single moms - I do understand the need to not offend and assume that every nursing mom has a husband. But it is the norm that every baby has a father - it is biologically NORMAL that a baby has a female mother and a male father - otherwise, there is no baby, biologically speaking. Anyway, the sentence that had me so turned off in the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was this: "Most new mothers have a life partner: a husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other, or whatever name you give your relationship." Most new mothers do not have a "wife" or "girlfriend," because most new, nursing mothers conceived their baby in the normal biological way: by having sex with a MAN. This is normal. It is not normal for two people of the same gender to create a baby - in fact, it is pretty much impossible!

It seems to be a well-established fact that, statistically, a child will fare much better in life if raised in a home with both a mother (female) and a father (male!). Children who are raised by a single parent or with the absence of one of the two gender roles are more likely to get involved in trouble, such as drugs, premarital sex, crime... not that all of these children will, but studies have affirmed the importance of the male role model in a child's life in avoiding these types of issues. It is normal for children to have a father figure, so children being raised by a mother with a "wife" would therefore be in an abnormal situation. That's not an offensive statement, just as it is not offensive to say that formula feeding is abnormal - it is the biological truth.

If the book had just said, "Most mothers have a life partner," and then moved on without listing the possible combinations, then I likely would have just rolled my eyes at the funny-sounding term in its attempt to be inclusive and then moved on. But since it actually excluded the word "father," and it openly stated an abnormal parenting situation alongside what is the norm for most mothers, it could be taken as an attempt to elevate having two mothers as "normal," as if it is just as common as a child having one male and one female parent. The vast majority of breastfeeding mothers do not relate to this situation, though! I actually ordered the book when it was brand-new and had it shipped straight to a family member as a baby shower gift, because older versions of this book have not had anything of this sort in them, so the thought never crossed my mind that this edition would. Now that I know what it says, I am hesitant to buy copies for other expecting mothers I know (even though it is one of the best sources of breastfeeding info out there), because I don't want them to assume that I must think same-sex parenting is normal. And the deletion of the word "father" is problematic. Most babies do have a father, biological or not, present in the home or not. By taking away "father" in an effort to include same-sex parents, the much larger audience of male fathers has been excluded - and these men are the biological norm!

Some might think that this must mean I am "against" any type of parenting other than the biological mother and father, and I want to clarify that this is not the case. It is certainly a fact that the biological norm is for the biological mother and father to raise the child, but of course there are situations in which this is not possible. Adoption is a beautiful thing, and parents who adopt a baby are as much parents as the biological ones are (Did you know there are actually people out there who are opposed to adoption?? I am serious, you can Google it!!!). If one parent abandons the family, then a single parent is certainly not to blame, and I know those who are excellent, wonderful parents despite having the abnormal situation of being the only parent. Often times, those parents have relatives of the opposite sex who can be a positive role model in their children's lives, like a substitute father or mother. So while these situations may not be "normal," they can and often do mimic a normal parenting experience, and they are not done in a purposeful attempt to exclude a male parent from the child's life.

The way this relates to breastfeeding is that, while nursing is normal, there are times when people must deviate from the norm and do something abnormal, such as using formula. There are times when this is necessary: if the mother dies, if the mother cannot produce enough milk (perhaps she had breast reduction surgery), if the baby is born with a rare condition in which he cannot metabolize galactose (which requires a prescription meat-based formula)... of course, it is far better to feed these babies some type of formula than to do nothing! Sometimes what is normal does not work, but it cannot be denied that it is still the norm. In the same way, it cannot be denied that children raised with no father are not in a biologically normal situation. But of course it is better they are raised by a single mother than if they were not raised at all! And it is better for a child to be raised by a same-sex couple than by nobody at all, yes, but it is not normal. There are sets of mothers and fathers out there who would love to adopt a child, and do I think they should be given preference over same-sex couples and single people wanting to adopt? Yes, I do, in the same way I think that if a baby cannot be fed his own mother's milk, then it is better to give him donor breastmilk than formula if possible, because it is closer to the biological norm. If there were a child who nobody would adopt other than a same-sex couple, then sure, that is the best option and God bless them for adopting the child rather than leaving him on the streets! But there are countless numbers of heterosexual couples waiting to adopt and few babies waiting for them (thanks in part to abortion).

The bottom line is that we were biologically designed to be parented by both a father and a mother, and children tend to do best when they have both a mother and a father. Fathers are normal. It is tragic when they aren't in their children's lives, but worse so when they are intentionally excluded. Mothers cannot make babies without men (as much as some feminists might want to do! ;). Fathers count - they have a purpose. They should not be seen as "optional," a "nice extra," but something that mothers want to have if possible when having and raising children. For the fathers out there who read these kinds of statements (which appear more and more today) and feel replaceable and like they are a non-essential piece to reproducing and bringing up the next generation, you have my sympathy. I am not sure what to do about it, though. The more technology takes over natural biological processes and roles, the farther we drift from these kinds of norms remaining normal.

So, does anyone have any tips on how to keep fathering as a norm?


sandra said...

decades ago the equal rights amendment passed which was basically that men and women should be paid the same for the same job because women were being paid less, and that's not wrong. i think much has stemmed from that, including what you're saying erin, that men/fathers/husbands are expendable and no longer a key player in family or society. you'll notice that most any movie comedy these days that star white men show him as a fool. "i am woman hear me roar" has gone far off the deep end.

sandra said...

addendum - i realize, of course, that the era didn't really do much for women's earnings since women are still paid less. however, i think it was a catalyst for much of the mess today thinking men are expendable.

Anonymous said...


ERA was not ratified. (Perhaps you mean Equal Pay Act or Ledbetter Fair Pay Act?)

More info:

ERA was hoping to change thinking to reflect that all women have value.

Erin said...

Anonymous, I usually don't publish anonymous comments that look like they might be trying to start a debate... since it may be you are just asking for clarification, I have let the comment post. Just an FYI that I would prefer comments left by people with their names displayed, particularly if those people are trying to discuss something with others. Please leave your name if you get a response and wish to comment further.

Erin said...

I thought I should come back and say that I don't mean for that to come across wrong, either... it is just that the majority of the few anonymous comments I have gotten have been inflammatory. So I don't mean to sound defensive, and if I did, I apologize, and it is due to a few past anonymous comments.