On Judgment and Breastfeeding

If you know me at all, even a little bit, then you know that I am a person who loves breastfeeding. I think breastfeeding is great, and will talk about it until you are super bored and/or uncomfortable. Half of the population of Toronto has probably seen my breasts by now, and not just because of my preference for low-cut tops. Most of the time I’m pretty sure my kid loves me, but there are days when I wonder if he loves my boobs more. If you ask me for breastfeeding advice, I will inundate you with more facts than you could ever possibly need. In short, I breastfeed, I’m proud of it, and I am a huge advocate for breastfeeding.

I think that one of the reasons I’m so into breastfeeding is that Theo and I struggled with it at first. He had a bad latch, jaundice made him too sleepy to stay awake for an entire feeding, and I just plain had no idea what I was doing. In retrospect, I know I got off pretty easy as far as breastfeeding issues go, but at the time it seemed like the end of the world. My son was only 5 lbs 4 oz at birth, and by the time we came home from the hospital he was only 4 lbs 12 oz. Every nursing session was a fight, and I started to dread feeding time. I also dreaded weighing him, because I was terrified of seeing the needle dip even lower on the scale. Here I was, blessed with an abundant supply of milk, and I couldn’t even manage do that simplest, most basic thing: feed my child.

I worked hard to be able to breastfeed Theo. While I was still in the hospital, I attended daily breastfeeding classes and would would call the nurses to come help me get Theo latched on every time he woke up. After we went home, I schlepped Theo back and forth to our family doctor and the hospital lactation clinic on a near-daily basis.  In those cold, sterile offices I would watch as other people weighed him, then I would let strangers manhandle my boobs and stare intently at my chest as I tried again and again to feed my son.

I pumped. I did “suck training” with a tiny tube attached to my finger. I cup-fed him. I bottle-fed him. Finally, I tried a nipple shield, which (hallelujah!) worked. With the nipple shield, Theo was at last able to fill his tiny belly with my milk and start gaining the weight he needed so badly. My kid has been a boob-addict ever since.

Now, the thing is, I know that a lot of my successful breastfeeding relationship is due to good old-fashioned hard work. I wanted to breastfeed, and I fought for it and, in the end, I succeeded. It was really hard at times, like, total-meltdown-cry-until-I-made-myself-sick hard, but even though I sometimes felt like giving up, I didn’t. And I’m proud that I didn’t quit, and I also have to give myself credit for sticking with it even when things felt impossible.

But you know what? Hard work only gets you so far, and I know that I wouldn’t still be breastfeeding today if I hadn’t had an amazing support system. I was lucky that my hospital offered such great resources to breastfeeding moms, I was lucky that our family doctor had breastfed both her children and knew what she was talking about, I was lucky to have a mother-in-law who was a former La Leche League leader (and a sister-in-law who knew a whole heck of a lot about breastfeeding), and I was lucky to have a family who gave me nothing but encouragement and love. If I hadn’t had these things, there’s a good chance that Theo would have been formula-fed, and I know that. So yeah, while hard work has played a big part in our success, I also realize that I’ve been able to breastfeed because I was just plain lucky.

Knowing that I was lucky to have such great support means that I want to offer that kind of support to other people. I cheer people on when they’re struggling to breastfeed, and I offer advice (usually only when asked) to new moms. I upload a ton of pictures of me nursing Theo to my Facebook page, partly because I just think they’re really nice pictures, but also because I think posting breastfeeding pictures publicly help normalize breastfeeding. Basically, if you want to breastfeed, I want to do whatever I can to help you! If you don’t want to breastfeed, though, that’s cool too.

Sadly, a lot of the breastfeeding community doesn’t feel the same way I do. I belong to a few online groups, and while a lot of the posts are asking for advice, or sharing cute, funny stories about breastfeeding, there’s an awful lot of judgment going on against women who don’t breastfeed. Mostly I’m used to it and I just kind of shut it out, because I still see a lot of benefit and good in the lactivist movement. Today, though, really took the cake. Today I couldn’t ignore this judgmental crap anymore.

See, there’s a story that’s been in the news lately about an Alberta mother who can’t afford the prescription formula that her infant son needs to live. Her son, Isaac, was born prematurely and subsequently developed necrotizing entercolitis (NEC), an intestinal disease that means that he has an inability to digest many foods, including dairy products, and can lead to internal bleeding. At four months old Isaac has already had two week-long stretches in the hospital, and continues to be at risk for bleeding and other problems.

Isaac’s mother, Lisa Caskenette, initially tried to breastfeed her son. Unfortunately, he had severe reactions to her milk, and, given the scope of his allergies (dairy products, whey, soy and whey protein, to name a few), she wasn’t sure that she could find an elimination diet that would work for her. As well, during Isaac’s two hospital stays he was allowed nothing by mouth, and although Caskenette pumped during that time, her supply dwindled. After consulting over a dozen experts, Caskenette decided to give her son Neocate, an amino acid-based, hypoallergenic formula which costs her id="mce_marker",200 a month. id="mce_marker",200 a month that Caskenette’s family cannot afford.

You’d think that this would be the kind of story that breastfeeding advocates would rally around, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, what I witnessed today on a Facebook breastfeeding group was the opposite of that. Here’s a small sample of the comments people made after the group’s moderator posted a link to a story about Caskenette and her son:

She should breastfeed. That’s free and better.

She should be breastfeeding! That won’t cost a dime,the Insurance wont need to pay a dime and the baby would be a lot healthier!!!

Yes, she should be breastfeeding…formula use has been shown to increase the chance of NEC [this from the page's owner/moderator]

Sometimes I wonder if people just don’t feel like sacrificing their own diet to make it acceptable for an allergic baby.

I think the cost is outrageous and I certainly would not be able to afford that, however I breastfed my kids. Or donor breast milk, we have 3 Milk Banks in Canada which you need a prescription for and she would have no problem getting a script for it. I would have pumped and pumped. However, she may not may not have tried that. I feel for the family, but she never mentioned anything about trying to nurse, pump or re-lactate. I do think the cost should be shared though. We have a public health care system and we pay for it by way of taxes etc and if her baby needs it then it shouldn’t have to cost id="mce_marker"200 a month, but I wish someone in her circle would mention she could try to breastfeed if she hasn’t. Her baby would be eating for free.

For the government to start subsidizing an industry that harms the health of its citizens is not the best idea. They should offer to fund the baby’s use of breastmilk from a milk bank if the mom is unable to breastfeed.

I looked up this condition and one of the reasons it occurs is improper mixing of formula, yet another reason breast would been best!

I find it hard to believe with all the support in Canada that NO-One would have given her the information she needed to do best for her baby! And yes the only thing that would stop me from giving my baby breastmilk is death!

Can’t breastfeed…not really. You could do an elimination of your diet. You could breastfeed. You opted not to. You don’t want judgment. You just want everyone to agree with you. Should the formula me covered? I actually think yes but the rest is just crap.

I wonder if she ever saw/spoke with an IBCLC to get support to breast feed? This baby needs human milk not formula to heal his gut. Perhaps she should look into eats on feets or similar organization to find mothers willing to donate their extra breastmilk. So sad that all this baby needs is breastmilk ;(

There are a few comments supporting and sympathizing with Caskenette, but most of them are just repeating over and over, ad nauseam, that she should give him breast milk. Most of the commenters agree that she should either relactate (which is a long and difficult process, and also doesn’t solve the issues she was having with the elimination diet), or else she should get donor milk (which wouldn’t work at all, because she has no way of knowing the diet of the women who donated the milk). Most of the comments were judgmental and hurtful; nearly every single one of the commenters felt that Caskenette was a selfish mother who just couldn’t be bothered to do what was best for her son.

Here is the one thing that I really want all of you to know: when you comment on something like this on a public page, you are writing actual words that will be read by actual people that can cause actual hurt. Is it really so difficult to try to be a kind, empathetic human being? Like, really? Can everyone just stop being dicks for like FIVE MINUTES?

It's kind of true, though

It’s kind of true, though

The other thing is that stuff like this does a total disservice to the breastfeeding advocacy movement. When you make comments like this, you’re making us all look like the crazy, narrow-minded, intolerant people all the stereotypes make us out to be. Comments like these are the reason people end up switching to formula, because they’re afraid of the judgment that will be thrown at them if they ask for help. You are not forwarding your cause, you’re hindering it. I don’t understand how you can’t see that.

I mean, in a perfect world, do I think that every biological mother would breastfeed? Hell yeah, I do! In a world where babies don’t get life-threatening illnesses, and women don’t go back to work after 6 weeks, and sexual assault victims don’t find nursing to be triggering, and no mothers need to take any medication that is contraindicated for breastfeeding, and there aren’t fucking booby traps everywhere you turn, and all healthcare professionals are well-educated about breastfeeding, and no mother had supply issues, and shitty formula marketing schemes don’t exist I think everyone could breastfeed. But I don’t live in that world and neither do you.

If you want to be a good breastfeeding advocate, here’s what you need to do: support and listen. Support the person wherever they are in their breastfeeding journey (even if they’re formula feeding), and listen to what they have to say. Maybe they won’t breastfeed this particular child, but maybe your love, support and advice will make them more willing to try to breastfeed the next one. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s fine too. All you can do is offer your help; you can’t make people take it. And what’s the sense in getting riled up over the fact that someone doesn’t breastfeed? Is that worth ending a friendship or hurting someone over?

If you want to help out Lisa Caskenette and her family, there are a number of ways that you can do that. First of all, you can find her on Facebook, and she does accept private donations to help her family with the cost of the formula. You can also advocate for her by writing to the Alberta Blue Cross (which should be covering the cost of the formula), or to Alison Redford, the current Alberta premier. Or you can just send Caskenette positive messages on Facebook, letting her know that you’re thinking about her and her family.

Anything, really, other than telling her that she’s a bad mother.

Baby Isaac

Baby Isaac

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