Obiter Dictum

I started receiving comments and (unsolicited) advice from a few specific people about how long we would or should breastfeed starting about the first week after our son was born. Breastfeeding is not the only topic subjected to their advising, but it’s the one of relevance here.

If there’s one thing to know about me, I do not like being told what to do. I am open to other opinions and viewpoints, and I also am okay with agreeing to disagree. I will not make decisions solely based on other’s opinions to make them comfortable if their advice is not right for me. People take this independence with varying degrees of grace.

At the same time, I also don’t think it’s my place to tell others what to do. I admit that I falter here and there, especially when I feel passionate about the topic. I try to share my opinion when asked, but I don’t want anyone in my life to feel pressured into a decision that’s not right for them to appease me. We all need to make informed decisions based on what’s best for us and that looks different for everyone.

Among my group of friends, and some family for that matter, there’s a wide variety of choices with respect to breastfeeding. A few chose not to breastfeed at all. Some breastfed for a few days, others breastfed for a few months, and others a few years. One friend breastfed and supplemented with formula, and another breastfed and supplemented with both formula and donated breast milk. Some breastfed only, some breastfed and pumped, and one other exclusively pumped. Some openly breastfed and a few others did it privately once their children got a little older because of unwanted comments and lack of support.

Interestingly, among the friends I’ve talked to on the topic, none who formula fed felt external pressure from friends or family to take a different approach. A couple said they put pressure on themselves because of the decision and one struggled with guilt because of a physical condition that prevented her from exclusively breastfeeding. On the other hand, several of my friends who breastfed said they did feel devalued in their decision to breastfeed or pressured to stop by people in their lives.

I know my friends and I represent a mere microcosm, but perhaps some of the pressure stems from the fact that older generations had a lower rate of breastfeeding. The rate of exclusive breastfeeding, and awareness of the health benefits to baby and mom, have steadily increased over the past several decades. That doesn’t mean people’s preconceived notions on the topic evolve as well. And despite the progress, women who decide to exclusively breastfeed fall within the minority sometime around three months of breastfeeding based on the national average.

I’ve seen several posts on Instagram regarding breastfeeding where the public comments shock me. Some of the posts that receive the comments come from women who place themselves in the public eye to raise awareness on breastfeeding or support a specific platform like breastfeeding in public. I anticipate that they enjoy healthy commentary and try to tune out the bullying and personal attacks. People behind a computer screen can exhibit some of the most unsavory human characteristics. Sometimes we come face to face with those people in our personal lives too.

Other social media posts seem innocuous to me absent the person’s public persona. Most recently in the news Jessica Simpson was criticized for posting about her pumping and commenting on her deemed success. As a lousy responder to pumping, I was impressed. Many people, however, commented on her insensitivity towards other mothers.

I saw another post on Instagram of a picture of a mother breastfeeding her baby. The mother was sharing her journey as a new mom in a very candid fashion. She mentioned struggles with breastfeeding and exhaustion, but went on to say that recently things were going better for them. Support abound, but more than a handful of comments shamed her for “mom shaming” (ironic, no?) because she was “pushing” her lifestyle. A few said she should support the mantra “Fed is Best” instead of trying to make women feel less than adequate by not breastfeeding. Still others made disgusting and nasty comments about her and her baby.

I admit that none of this commentary came to my mind for either post. I saw moms who wanted to share their journeys with their followers – just like they do on many other topics. They were not making political statements. But then again, recent history continues to prove that we love to politicize women’s bodies especially when coupled with a multi billion dollar formula industry (and upcoming toddler formula industry).

The mother who made the Instagram post received so many comments that she ultimately made another post explaining that she supported others in whatever decisions they make – and that she does indeed feel that fed is indeed best. I appreciate her awareness of her influence, but I wish she did not feel the need to qualify her experience. It did allow me reflect on the situation. The fact that she made a decision based on what’s best for her and her baby does not mean she judges – or is even commenting on – another’s decisions that look different.

I am surrounded by some wonderful and smart women who I hold in high esteem. We make decisions based on what we believe is best for our child, ourselves, and our families. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum – because that’s just not real life. Variables run the gamut including physical and mental health struggles, and family and work commitments.

How can I judge them? Or, perhaps, why would I want to judge them? I respect the fact that we’re all unique and make different decisions. I anticipate the same respect in return. Sometimes we all are forced to accept outcomes based on factors outside our control. We all experienced different upbringings, made different (or the same) career choices, drive different cars, have different support structures, struggle with different health issues… What’s right for me may not be right for someone else and vice versa. Despite the differences, we all want our children, our families, and ourselves to thrive.

Because we decided to breastfeed our son, does that mean we don’t love and support our friends who decided to or had to formula feed or whose breastfeeding journey looks different than ours? Absolutely not. That’s a ridiculous equation – and in my book, that’s not real friendship based on mutual respect. I will advocate for breastfeeding and still support those who make different decisions.

From here, I will remain a stalwart advocate of breastfeeding despite any criticism or bullying from a few. My husband and I will do our best to let go of the unwanted advice and establish healthy boundaries with those individuals. At the same time, we’ll continue to nurture our relationships with those who support us and offer the same in return.

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” – Maya Angelou

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