There is a lot of unnecessary drama surrounding the topic of breastfeeding. Instigating and encouraging this drama are two opposing groups. The first group insists that how you feed your baby is simply a personal choice and never anybody’s business. And the second declares, breast is best! Always. No excuses.
Who is right? Well, both are extreme positions and both are flawed, and I would argue that they are so for the same reason. They depend on the same root fallacy. And neither promote the good and health of women, children, and society at large.
Let me begin with the first position. The mere phrase “personal choice,” is problematic as it refuses to engage in any further discussion. It states the obvious, that is, my choices are mine, but then implies that therefore, no one and nothing can ever challenge me. This is absurd. There are plenty of scenarios where the feeding of children evoke moral and societal concern. If it was breast milk vs. gasoline I don’t think any of us would insist, but it’s a personal choice! She should be able to feed her baby however she wants! Now I am not saying formula is equivalent to gasoline. My baby almost exclusively drank formula during his first year. But I knew the truth. Breast milk was healthier. It would have been naive, foolish, and wrong to disregard that truth. Formula over breast milk was not a choice lightly taken for my family, and it is not for many families. It was not a “personal preference.” Nor was it a choice where both options were equal. Formula does not even come close to breast milk in so many ways. Breast milk is made for babies and it is better for babies. When we chalk breastfeeding up to a mere personal choice, when we avoid admitting the truth, we are not helping mothers, babies, and families. I know. I was a formula feeder. I really tried to make breastfeeding work. And when it didn’t, I spent countless hours researching the best alternatives. The “personal choice” stance was patronizing. I didn’t need to hear the lie that any generic formula would do. That lie insulted my intelligence and my efforts.
And thankfully, nowadays there are plenty of people promoting the truth. Instead of a strange, backwards practice, breastfeeding is now seen (in most circles) as the default. Sure, there are still people who get squeamish about it. There are difficult questions to be answered about how much exposure is okay in public and how long one should breastfeed for, but in general, there is a strong public stance for the truth that, in a given circumstance, breastfeeding is best.
It’s the “always” that throws this side of the argument off.
Rewind a year.
I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. My baby was sitting in my lap cooing at me and I was laughing at him. An older woman across the room asked, how old is he? I smiled at the opportunity to share my baby with somebody, three months. She scowled, he’s a big baby. Confused by her tone, I laughed, assuming she meant big in a cute way— besides, my baby wasn’t even that big. But she clarified without me needing to ask for clarification, is he formula fed? I replied that he was. Well you know soy really messes up little boys.
I took a deep breath. I wanted to recount to her all the emotional pain this whole thing had already caused me. I wanted to defend myself— tell her how breastfeeding was always excruciating and complicated by my health issues, and how difficult the decision was to stop. But I replied simply, all the cheer from my voice, well, his formula is actually soy free.
And that was only one of many encounters. The questions came from men, women, doctors, strangers at the checkout counter. Nobody ever asked if my baby’s Daddy was around or if we properly used a carseat (I’m not at all saying that strangers ought to ask these questions!) but they were sure to check up on whether or not I was breastfeeding.
And I know I’m not the only one who has been berated about my infant’s eating habits. On the other side of things there are the women who get criticized for breastfeeding. They breastfeed “too long.” Or “too often.” They’re accused of “spoiling” their children. It makes me wonder, who decided it was okay to say these things? We can’t talk about religion or politics with friends but it’s okay to interrogate, without any decorum or delicacy, about breastfeeding?!
But I think that right there is the key to the problem.
You see, we are a culture that denies the existence of objective ideals. We don’t like the idea of virtues or truth. We don’t like the idea of objective right and wrong. But even in a culture without a clear moral system, for whatever reason, we are still pretty moral beings. We desire to know that we are good but we don’t really question what good means. So we take one of two approaches: we assume we are good no matter what we do, or we take something we do well and we glorify it as the very essence of goodness. That is what we have done with breastfeeding. It is either breastfeeding doesn’t matter at all or breastfeeding is everything. It is no ideal, or it is the ideal above all ideals. Whatever assures us that we are good.
And so, breastfeeding becomes like a religion. Its adherents (and its opponents) become fanatical. And, as plenty of history has taught us, when you are fanatical you can’t think clearly. You try to convert everybody at all costs, no matter how ineffective (and even hurtful and harmful) you may actually be.
In the end, a worldview that accepts truth in objective ideals is one that also must accept the concept of mercy. Once you realize that there are all sorts of things you have to be striving for and all sorts of things you are going to fail at— you understand the need for mercy. You understand that you cannot be perfect and that’s okay. You understand that it’s the striving that counts. And so a worldview which accepts objective ideals understands that breastfeeding is merely one of many ideals. It recognizes that many other ideals may conflict with it. It recognizes that one of the highest ideals of all is the virtue of prudence— the ability to weigh good options and to make the ideal decision. In this case prudence says, breastfeeding is the best way to feed your baby. But if breastfeeding your baby hinders you from other good things you must give your baby, then find the next best thing and get over it.
But we will continue clinging to our fanatical fixations. Tomorrow it might not be breastfeeding. Perhaps it will be private schooling. Or eco-friendly cars. As long as we continue to deny objective ideals as a whole, out of moral starvation we will continue to obsess over a few. And our obsession will lead us to unreasonable behavior. We will begin to see only failures and accomplishments— graces and sins— breastfeeders and formula feeders— we will see one of many aspects of a person, of ourselves, rather than the whole humanity— struggling, fighting, trying humanity. As long as we don’t know what it means to be a good parent or a good person we will continue to cling desperately to the trappings of one. In a world where it is considered taboo to consider and discuss the immortal soul, it paradoxically becomes appropriate for people to treat something like breastfeeding as if it is the very thing upon which that immortal soul hangs.