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Back when I was a newly minted breastfeeding advocate,
one of my personal missions was to convince as many women as possible to choose
to breastfeed their babies. I touted all the research, made all the arguments and
shared all the stories that promoted breastfeeding over formula-feeding.
Like many breastfeeding advocates, choice was at the
center of my advocacy.
Over the years, however, I've come to redefine my
mission as an advocate. Now, I think that the support new moms receive is far more important than the baby-feeding choices they make. And that's why I'm placing support—not choice—at
the center of my breastfeeding advocacy.
When we emphasize choice, we risk seeing
breastfeeding advocacy as a "one-size-fits-all" practice intended to promote
the choice to breastfeed.
But when we emphasize support,
we can see this advocacy as a way to meet moms where they are, regardless of
whether they want to breastfeed for three weeks, three months, three years or
not at all.
When we focus on choice, we risk prioritizing the act
of breastfeeding over the people who might breastfeed. We risk minimizing the
persons behind every breast and bottle, behind every baby-feeding choice.
But when we focus on support, we can make sure that
new moms aren't reduced to their body parts or bodily functions. We can see
them as agents who think, feel, decide and, when it works for them and their
babies, breastfeed. Our goal should be to support them, whatever their informed choice
When we emphasize choice, we risk framing unmet
breastfeeding goals as personal failures or poor choices.
When we emphasize choice, we risk missing just how complex each person's situation is.
But when we emphasize support, we can see these
failures as institutional shortcomings, indicative of a medical system that is
disjointed, incomplete and unable to properly help new mothers meet their
When we focus on choice, we risk reading every new
study through the lens of our own values. We risk a heightened level of
confirmation bias—desire to seek out only the science that confirms our
already-held beliefs and choice preferences.
But when we focus on support, we can read research
with a more critical eye. We can be open to good evidence that challenges our
beliefs. And instead of being consumed with finding studies that support the choice
we would like everyone else to make, we can be more concerned with supporting
new parents with accurate, transparent and nuanced information.
When we emphasize choice, we risk missing just how
complex each person's situation is. We risk allowing the choice we want people to make to overshadow their specific needs and circumstances.
But when we emphasize support, we can see more clearly
that behind every breast or bottle is a person with radically unique
circumstances. They have their own personal histories, values, preferences,
traumas, and social and embodied realities.
When we focus on choice, we can risk being quick to
judge, shame or pity a person for not choosing to breastfeed.
'The only time you should look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look into your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them.'
But when we focus on support, we can see the myriad
reasons why the choice not to breastfeed deserves our support. We never
know all the reasons why a person might make this choice. They might want to
avoid triggers of past sexual abuse. They might be trying to preserve their
mental health. They might have a discomfort with, or inability to, afford donor breastmilk.
Or they might just have the plain and simple desire to choose formula-feeding
Whatever their reasons, any time a new parent can make
the right choice for themselves and their babies in the context of their particular circumstances, they deserve our support.
This support/choice distinction reminds of one of my
favorite scenes from Louis CK's show, "Louie." Louis CK tells
his fictional daughter, "The only time you should look in your neighbor's bowl
is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look into your neighbor's bowl
to see if you have as much as them."
This scene has nothing to do with breastfeeding or
formula-feeding. Nonetheless, I think that it's relevant to the way that we
talk about the baby-feeding decisions that families make. It's relevant to
support, choice and breastfeeding advocacy.
It's relevant to why I now centralize support instead of choice in my own advocacy efforts.
As a breastfeeding advocate, you shouldn't look into a new parent's business to see
if they're making the baby-feeding choice that you want them to make. The only
time you should look into their business is to see if they have enough support.