Photo by: Cary Lynn Davis

I Support You: Bottle vs. Breast

by Suzanne Barston
Photo by: Cary Lynn Davis

Back in drama school, we used to play this game called “Yes, And”. Basically, one person would start an improvisational scene by saying something wacky, and her partner would need to accept the challenge by acknowledging the setup and running with it.

“This meatball is causing a traffic jam.”

“Yes, and… I wish we hadn’t decided to take a left turn and run smack into the middle of the annual Butcher’s Parade. Next time, listen to the darn GPS, will you?”

Ok, so I kind of sucked at that game, which is why I never pursued improv as a career. But I always thought that the concept was one that should be applied to debates. Instead of immediately challenging someone’s point of view, what if people listened, accepted the challenge by acknowledging the perspective, and ran with it?

“Breastfeeding needs to be promoted and supported.”

“Yes, and… there needs to be a way to do it without limiting a woman’s autonomy, ignoring social and cultural barriers, and marginalizing those who end up formula feeding.”

This, to me, is what breastfeeding advocacy should be about. Offering the yes, and proposing the and. Telling the powers that be, and each other, that what’s currently happening in the world of infant feeding isn’t good enough; that we can’t support some women while penalizing the rest.

Yet, in the past few weeks, I’ve witnessed memes popping up like snarling Jack-in-the-Boxes, taunting those who formula fed with images of baby bottles lying in caskets, misquoted statistics, careless messages that divided moms into categories of “good” and “less-than”; “us” and “them”. Women I greatly respected began resorting to schoolyard taunts, when a few weeks prior they had been able to discuss the same issues respectfully and calmly. This happens every year. Breastfeeding Week (typically the first week in August) brings out the best and the worst of breastfeeding advocacy, and thus the best and the worst in the women that this advocacy has failed.

No matter how much we support breastfeeding, the current atmosphere in the media and the blogosphere infects our wounds, whether fresh or scabbed over, and immediately puts us on the defensive.

Some of us would love to go to one of the incredible “Latch On” events happening in our towns, but worry that by showing up with bottles full of formula we’d be viewed as unwelcome intruders. It’s hard to imagine we wouldn’t be, when so much of what we see online is about how our method of feeding our children is dangerous and a direct threat to the efforts of breastfeeding moms. We want to share “Happy World Breastfeeding Week” messages, but worry that posting something like this is an invitation to be tortured by comments about how sub-par the food we feed our babies is.

I wanted to find a way to celebrate the efforts of our breastfeeding sisters, and to show that we support them – that we aren’t the enemy, not by a long shot. My friends Jamie (a breastfeeding mom who appeared on the cover of Time last year, nursing her son) and Kim (a writer who’d shared her journey from disappointed formula feeder to successful second-time-around breastfeeder) felt the same way, from their respective sides of this perceived mommy war. So, we asked women to share photos and messages of support, whatever that meant to them. The response was incredible; far more than we ever expected. We realized we needed to take this positive energy a step further, and decided to start the I Support You movement- a social media campaign which we hope will inspire women to reach out across the battle lines of the breast/bottle divide, and find the beauty in our differences, and the comfort in our similarities.

We’ve also received criticism, though, about the fact that we launched this project during World Breastfeeding Week. We understand where this is coming from; we’re not trying to steal the thunder of those advocating for more awareness for breastfeeding throughout the world. But we also feel that the best way to support breastfeeding is to ensure that every woman feels empowered and equipped to feed her baby in the best way possible. That may not always mean breastfeeding; this doesn’t mean that we are ignoring the science, but rather performing our own risk/benefit assessment and making a highly personalized decision.

This may not be your choice, and it may not be the best choice on paper, but parenting is not a standardized test. It’s more like an open-ended essay question.

By listening to each other’s stories, as long-winded, convoluted, and complex as they so often are, we can start fresh. This can wash away the negativity, judgment and defensiveness, so that we can more adequately address the real reasons women are not meeting breastfeeding recommendations. And we can do all of this without ruining a mother’s sense of self or well-being. I think that’s a pretty clear win-win.

The I Support You movement is a launching pad for us to start fresh – to teach the next generation of moms that to be a breastfeeding advocate does not necessarily mean you have to vilify formula; that there’s a way to be positive and empowering in your advocacy. And, for formula feeding moms, I Support You challenges us to stand up for breastfeeding rights; to understand that nurse-ins are not about formula hate, but rather a protest against misogyny and conflicting messages ("breastfeed or else, but not for too long or in front of me”).

It may seem overly simplistic to think that we can hold up a bunch of signs, snap a few photos, and change the world. But since we launched I Support You, we’ve witnessed how many people are hurting, and how many people are in dire need of support.

This doesn’t negate the need for breastfeeding advocacy; if anything, we need it more than ever. But we also need to find a way to reframe this ridiculous battle between breast and bottle. And that isn’t the responsibility of breastfeeding advocates; it’s the responsibility of the rest of us, the moms who have the power to reach out to another mom and let her know you’ve got her back. We can start in our own social circles, and create an atmosphere that counteracts whatever muddled messages society may throw at us. This is a way of saying yes to the positive actions breastfeeding advocates are taking to help mothers reach their breastfeeding goals. But let’s not forget the and.

So, yes. And… I support you.

Interested in joining the I Support You movement? Find us on Twitter using the hashtag #ISupportYou, or learn more here.

Suzanne Barston is the author of Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t and the creator of the Fearless Formula Feeder website and community. You can find her on Twitter or Facebook.

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