I woke up this morning to a pro-woman’s choice post from a FB friend, supporting a woman’s right to choose how she feeds her baby, and if she chooses to breastfeed, how long she does so, stating that this is a question of bodily integrity and sovereignty.
I absolutely agree.
But what I see, and what so many of us who have supported new mothers through pregnancy, birth and early parenthood can see, is that this ‘choice’ comes at the cross-roads of conflicting and contested lines of power: power over women at a juncture where power is very much at issue, power over babies and a primary care-giver’s connection to them.
Motherhood is one of the places where our female bodies are most subject to outside control – whether this is through the direct policing of the medical establishment, the seductive images of the advertising industry, or the cohersion to comply with the choices that are socially acceptable as ‘right’ and ‘safe’.
The default for women in pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood is NOT one of sovereignty but one of deep control exerted over us, our bodies, and our choices…one that is so engrained in us we for the most part don’t even notice it. Too many of us fall into motherhood unsuspecting and unprepared for what awaits us.
This is evident nowhere more than in the phrase ‘fed is best’.
“Fed is best.” On the surface of it, who can argue with that? Of course, ‘fed is best’ – our babies rely on us to feed them, they need to be fed to survive. No guilt, mamas! Get the job done! So how is it possible that ‘fed is best’ is swiftly becoming the anti-breastfeeding slogan that no one can argue with? Breastfeeding is after all the biological and physiological norm for humans, but ‘fed is best’ – it’s just about ditching the guilt, right?
“Best” is a slogan that touches the cords of guilt and shame and powerlessness that run deep through women’s experiences of motherhood. It shouts, “you’re not enough (and you never will be), because you are far too imperfectly human.”
Fed is not ‘best’. Fed is what we do to keep our babies alive.
All babies must be fed in order to survive, there is no ‘best’ about it. Babies not being fed adquately – babies suffering from hunger and dehydration – these are serious points of shame and trauma to us all and flat out should not be happening in wealthy western countries, let alone the rest of the world. “Fed is best”, the heart-rending stories and thin, malnourished babies, shows us this is happening, now, today. We cannot look away from that. We must not look away.
We need to know that skilled infant feeding support will never involve shaming or pressuring mothers, forcing babies to feed in a particular way, waiting until baby is hungry enough to be ‘broken’, or any other such harmful and cohersive nonsense. Skilled infant feeding support involves: listening, assessing the real needs of mother and baby, responding with gentleness, compassion and skill to the situation at hand.
How we feed our babies will come at the cross-roads of many factors: our own family histories, our experience of pregnancy and birth, what happens in the early hours and days after birth, our expectations of motherhood, who we have around us in the early hours, days and weeks of motherhood, our personal resources, the pressures of our lives, and how we personally respond to these.
“Fed is best” is a phrase I’ve seen used in a few specific situations:
*To reassure a breastfeeding mother who’s baby genuinely needs supplementation that it is okay to offer this supplement (whether this comes in the form of the mother’s own expressed milk, donor milk, or infant formula) either short-term or longer-term for the health and well-being of mother and/or baby.
*To pressure a mother who wants to breastfeed into supplementing regardless of whether this was a genuine need for the baby, but because the medical professional was under-informed about breastfeeding science, normal infant patterns and growth, or to conform with the protocol and/or expectations of a specific individual (not the mother) or institutional environment.
*To express deep anger, disappointment and trauma around the mismanaged pressure to breastfeed at all costs combined with inadequate or non-existent support, where mother and baby are both traumatised (and their health, safety, and lives put at risk) due to the lack of information, experience and skill of those ‘supporting’ them. Often this is seen as breastfeeding advocates putting lives at risk over an ideal. The guilt / blame / shame that is heaped on women who bear this trauma turns (rightfully) to anger and the ‘fed is best’ movement takes form.
But ‘fed is best’ isn’t sovereignty and it isn’t powerful. It’s a band-aid covering over the very real traumas of mothers and babies. The wound beneath remains. As long was we hold up that slogan as a shield we’re missing the point.
We need to reclaim ‘best’ when it comes to motherhood. Best is:
*Best is respect for women’s intelligence, resources, capacity to choose.
*Best is listening first as helpers (and honouring our own experiences as mothers by speaking the truth of these to those helping us).
*Best is asking what a mother needs right now, what her struggles are, and her goals and wishes over the longer term – and considering how the ways we respond to her will impact all of these things.
*Best is providing every mother and baby with the optimal choices and support for pregnancy and childbirth (suited to her circumstances), knowing that how we give birth impacts our experience of infant feeding and parenthood.
*Best is making sure that all health care professionals have adequate training in breastfeeding establishment and support, in both normal and more challenging situations – and where they do not have this, ensuring mothers and babies can a) know the limits of those supporting them, b) access other knowledgeable support.
*Best is communicating with mothers that formula is not the only alternative to breastfeeding, and that there is a spectrum of infant feeding choices and practices available to them – that what they choose or need to access can change over time.
*Best is offering women accurate and up to date information about the full range of choice and the impact of each choice in the shorter and longer term for herself and her child, without pressuring her into a particular course
*Best is listening to what a woman herself is saying about her personal needs, wishes, and experience and responding to these with compassion and respect.
*Best is respecting mother’s and babies needs and wishes, even when they deviate from our own choices or from what we think is ‘best’.
The anger we need to be feeling is not at breastfeeding endangering our children. The anger we need to be feeling is about the ways that women are pressured and let down by those we most trust at the time of our deepest vulnerability, and how our babies are being harmed every day by these betrayals.
Because to my mind, this isn’t really about feeding – it’s about control, guilt, shame, and the damage that’s still being done to women (women’s sovereignty, women’s capacity to choose) in birth and early motherhood. After many years of mothering and working with mothers and babies, I am convinced that the ONLY was through to change is through mothers taking back our own power and choices. It requires stark truth telling. It requires tears and rage against what is being taken from us so that we can claim back what is rightfully ours – sovereignty and power in motherhood.
And this means for those of us who have been there and passed through, owning full spectrum of our experiences, including the wounds and the pain of of these: seeing these things for what they actually are, accepting the choices we have made, where we bear responsibility for these choices and where we have hit up against forces that have taken away our capacity to choose. We don’t have to be ‘best’. We have to be real. We have to tell the truth about what’s happening out there and inside ourselves.
When we do so, we can use our experiences as a bridge to greater compassion and greater capacity for connection with and in support for those who are struggling. We can share the truths that are the ground for genuine choice. We can share the acceptance – that motherhood is hard, and the odds are stacked against us, but even so, we are doing it, and doing it better with the support of other mothers.
“Fed is best” as an inadequate cover for women’s very real pain and struggle. It’s time to pull the plaster off, and tend to the wound. Motherhood isn’t about breast or bottle, it’s about human love and connection.