Through her eye-opening book Lactivism (2015), Courtney Jung, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, shares frustrations with the all-or-nothing mentality that too often governs the lactation space. In between interviewing candidates for our new positions, physicians and moms about their experiences, and mammary epithelial cells about how they thrive best, our team deepened our understanding of the complexities of infant feeding through Jung’s book.
Let’s be clear: neither Jung nor BIOMILQ is against breastfeeding. Rather, Jung is against lactivism and how it perpetuates the guilt, fear, and shame associated with oh-so-common breastfeeding challenges.
“Breastfeeding, it turns out, is never just breastfeeding” (69).
Jung explores the ways different personas (read: identities) perceive breastfeeding, pointing out that breastfeeding is “an issue that unites people who otherwise disagree about pretty much everything else” (8). The hipsters see it as ethical food consumption, fundamentalists see it as a womanly submission to god’s will and “evidence of intelligent design” (66), yuppies see it as a natural extension of their already luxurious lifestyle, second wave feminists see it as a deviant expression of female pride, La Leche Leaguers sees it as a rejection of so-called scientific mothering and a way of returning “mothering to mothers” (30), and athletes see it as a new kind of superfood.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these associations with breastfeeding, they become problematic when proper lactation becomes a way of distinguishing the good moms from the bad.
Your moral worth cannot not be determined by how you feed your baby.
‘Latch On’ Campaign, New York City
The #BreastisBest movement, while well-intentioned, seems to offer the right to criticize and question a total stranger’s way of feeding their infant. The book’s most striking example of this moral crusade is in Chapter 4 (“The End of Choice”), when Jung describes how Maya, a new mom commuting on the NYC subway to her son’s daycare, was chastised by complete strangers for bottle-feeding her son. After coincidentally sitting directly under a state-sponsored poster advertising the benefits of breastmilk (which Jung debunks as over exaggerated in Chapter 3), Maya was asked by a fellow commuter if she could read and told by another that “people like you shouldn’t have kids” (97). The New Yorkers exited the subway feeling proud to be upstanding citizens by advocating for a stranger’s baby’s right to breastmilk. Maya exited the subway confused, frustrated, and attacked. While it still would have been inappropriate to ask, a simple conversation would have revealed that Maya’s baby was drinking his mom’s freshly expressed breastmilk, on-the-go.
Maya’s experience was anything but anecdotal. While attending a dinner party when she was five months pregnant, Courtney Jung was approached by a woman who, at first glance, seemed to want to take her under her maternal wing. But, the woman quickly revealed that she was on a mission to ensure that Courtney’s unborn child would be breastfed. Courtney remembers this encounter as an ‘awkward tango’ that left her dumbstruck:
“I couldn’t fathom why she cares so passionately about how I fed MY baby” (18).
Like the NYC subway riders, Courtney’s tango partner was a classic lactivist: “a person who firmly believed breastfeeding was the best choice for everyone” (37). Fueled by valid concern for public health, a sense of moral urgency, and perhaps a few too many cosmopolitans, she perpetuated the notion that lactation defines good mothering.
Instead of rejecting parents who don’t exclusively breastfeed, let’s reject paternalistic healthcare, ‘mommy shaming,’ and the notion that breastmilk acts as a magic bullet. Let’s reframe our understanding of the capacities of breastmilk. Jung is right: “‘we shouldn’t expect that you’re going to be producing Mozarts or Einsteins just because you’re breastfeeding” (91). While the BIOMILQ team will forever be in awe of the magical properties of breastmilk, we know that an infant’s diet is only one component among countless others that supports their capacity to thrive.