What You're Really Doing When You Ask A New Mom If She's Breastfeeding
You’re minding your own business and holding your brand-new baby, when someone comes up to you and starts a conversation. Maybe you’re taking to a friend. Maybe you’re talking to some random lady in Target. Maybe you haven’t even made it out of the hospital yet, and the horrible question comes from a nurse. But it comes regardless, totally blindsiding you. “So are you breastfeeding?” they ask.
You're un-showered and sleep-deprived and dressed in some spit-up-stained yoga pants. Answering this question is the last thing you want to do, especially because it's not a question at all — it's a statement, or a one-sentence lecture. This person isn't actually asking if you’re breastfeeding. They’re telling you that you should be breastfeeding.
Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for you, what you do with your boobs is totally irrelevant. They have absolutely no business projecting their views on infant feeding onto another person. It’s unfair. It’s intrusive. And it is just rude.
I’m a proud, self-identified lactivist. I extended breastfed three kids past the age of 3. I was a member of La Leche League, but I quit when my toddler nursing began to scare off the new mamas. I believe breast milk is the ideal food for babies, but that formula is an acceptable substitute when mama milk isn’t an option for whatever reason. When I talk to a new mom, I don’t say, “So, are you breastfeeding?” If I talk about it at all, I say, “So how did you decide to feed your baby?," because that question doesn’t presume one option is better than the other. But for the most part, I avoid the question entirely. Because honestly? How someone feeds their baby is none of my freaking business.
We make formula for a reason, and guess what? It’s not to poison children.
Breastfeeding is not for every mother and every baby. Sometimes, for whatever reason you can imagine — and there are so many, from latch issues to mama's inflexible work schedule to low supply to a traumatic history of sexual abuse — nursing just isn’t a good choice for everyone. And that’s OK. It's more than OK — it’s just how life works. We make formula for a reason, and guess what? It’s not to poison children.
Imagine you did decide to breastfeed. It worked out well for mama and baby, and everyone is enjoying the experience. That is awesome. Breastfeeding can be tough, and you should be incredibly proud of yourself. So you say, "Yes, I am nursing my baby." You'll inevitably get treated to a lecture about what a good choice you made because formula is poison and breast is best and blah blah blah. What are they going to do — give you a medal? A tiara? A slap on the back and a Starbucks gift card?
Now, imagine you decided not to breastfeed. You made this choice after long, agonizing attempts to do so, which failed for whatever reason; then you tried pumping, but the strict, every-two-hours schedule caused severe sleep deprivation, which exacerbated your postpartum depression. The first time you mixed that bottle of formula, you felt so much guilt and shame and anger: anger at your body, anger at a medical establishment that failed you, anger at circumstances that just didn’t work out. You've started to make peace with the decision to use formula — it is, after all, keeping your baby alive — but you feel vulnerable nonetheless.
“Did you try this?” they’ll ask. “What about that? Was the real issue this, rather than what your doctors said?” They will do everything but ask you to open your shirt and show them your breasts.
Suddenly, someone asks you if you're breastfeeding. There's an edge to their voice, indicating that it's less of a question than an assertion. When you answer, you feel you have to explain yourself, as if you’re guilty of something. You feel you have to repeat the long, tortured explanation of why you’re not nursing, forcing you to relieve the experience all over again. What if you’re not nursing because you were depressed? What if you're not nursing because you were sexually assaulted? You shouldn’t have to look anyone in the eye and feel pressure to explain that. Not ever.
In some cases, the person asking this question will offer not sympathy, but advice and suggestions. “Did you try this?” they’ll ask. “What about that? Was the real issue this, rather than what your doctors said?” They will do everything but ask you to open your shirt and show them your breasts. This is not healthy. This is not productive. This is not fair or kind or nice. It’s bullying.
As a new mom, it’s upsetting to have to answer the "are you breastfeeding?" question over and over again, regardless of what the answer is. You’re probably unsure of yourself. You’re probably questioning whatever feeding decision you’ve made, because how to feed your baby is a personal and often deeply fraught decision. No one has any right to project their feelings about it onto you. No one. They don’t know your story. They don’t know what you’ve been through or what you’ve tried or what factors went into your feeding decision.
And really, it’s not their business.