How do you support a woman's efforts to breastfeed without making her feel pressured?
That's the question I've been asking myself for the past few days, as I've been contemplating the outspoken comments Adele made recently about "nursing mummies."
"All those people who put pressure on us, you can go f*ck yourselves, alright?" she said to the crowd at a concert, when asked about the topic. "Because it's hard. Some of us can't do it...Breastfeed if you can, but don't worry, [formula brand] Aptamil's just as good." She then went on to scold midwives and the guilt she says they inflicted on friends of hers who did not nurse.
Adele makes a completely valid point, of course. No mother needlessly should be made to feel that she is letting down her baby, especially in those first months after giving birth, when her hormones have gone haywire and the mere act of putting on pants is a major accomplishment. Breastfeeding is not easy for any mother, and for some, it is impossible. And even if it isn't, if a woman decides not to breastfeed, who cares as long as her baby is thriving on formula? They're her breasts, and it's her choice. Being told how "easy" and "convenient" it is (cough, Jamie Oliver, cough) helps no one.
Still, I'm also irked by Adele's tirade. Because while unwanted breastfeeding pressure is unequivocally bad, breastfeeding support is unequivocally good. And in my experience, the difference between the two can be extremely subtle—sometimes even indistinguishable.
Think of a post-natal nurse offering to help you with your latch, or a friend texting to ask if you want to borrow her nursing tops. Or look at the new guidelines on breastfeeding support released earlier this week by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In my opinion, whether you see these gestures as helpful or judgmental depends a great deal on how you've fared personally with nursing.
So when Adele says "go f*ck yourself," I think she is doing more than shaming overt breastfeeding pushers. She is also scaring breastfeeding supporters into silence. And why is that a problem? Because some research shows that women who stop breastfeeding due to lack of support are significantly more likely to develop symptoms of postpartum depression than women who reach their goal or who switch to formula voluntarily (like Adele says she did). What's more, as a working mom who breast-fed her son for 16 months, I can say with 100 percent assurance that you cannot succeed without some cheerleaders in your corner. I had a few close friends and family members, as well as doctors and lactation consultants, who provided that for me. And yet there were still times when their voices were nearly drowned out by other friends, ones who listened to me talk about my struggles—bleeding nipples, extreme pain, a bad latch, three bouts of mastitis, countless clogged ducts, a full-time job with inadequate pumping accommodations, and a major family crisis—and responded with, "You know, there's nothing wrong with formula." "Why don't you just give up?" and "Please tell me you've weaned by now."
To these friends, I so badly wanted to say: "Would you tell a friend who was training for a marathon to quit because her legs are sore? Or she sprained her ankle? Or she's exhausted waking up at 5 am everyday? This is important to me—this is my marathon. Please don't encourage me to quit."
Instead I usually said nothing—afraid they'd see me as "a breastfeeding pusher," as yet another woman unfairly judging them for using formula. And despite my goals, despite the calm and closeness I felt with my son when he was at my breast, despite the fact that I was able to soothe my son instantaneously in just about every public place imaginable, despite the fact that he was thriving on my breast milk, their words affected me. I often felt like I was silly, like I'd never make it to a year—that I'd have no choice but to give up.
Telling breastfeeding pushers to go "f*ck themselves" may be entertaining, but it isn't an answer. We need to foster a culture where women and health care providers can support one another's efforts to breastfeed, or use formula, or do both, without fear of being lambasted. Until we get there, the least we can do is lay off the expletives.
Julia Edelstein is the senior health editor at Parents magazine, and a mom to one recently-weaned toddler.