Friday, September 11, 2009

When did lactivists get a bad name?

I was reading Parents at the gym today, and there's a cute little story by a woman (Nicole Caccavo Kear) who went on vacay with her hubs while she was breastfeeding her baby and came home with 50 ounces of frozen breastmilk. She talked about lugging her pump through security, pumping in the airplane bathroom, and going to great lengths to make sure she could store her milk at the proper temperature throughout her vacation.

Cool, right?

Then she said something that raised my hackles. She said as an aside on p.84 "Now I'm not a lactivist or anything (my daughter is well acquainted with the taste of formula), but..."

What's so bad about being a lactivist? Isn't raising the consciousness of fellow passengers badgering her to hurry up in the bathroom a kind of lactivism? Isn't going to such lengths to preserve her milk supply and to integrate nursing into her life while carving out some adult time lactivism? Isn't a commitment to breastfeeding even when it's not convenient lactivism? And if not, can we redefine the term?

And please, I am no stranger to Internet message boards. I understand the vernacular politics of infant feeding, and I am reacting against them.

I'd like "lactivist" to have a positive connotation, and I'd love it if breastfeeding moms would embrace the label and do things like Kear did to make the world easier for moms who want to feed their kids.

Why is this kind of social activism undesirable? And, no, I don't blame the internet crazies who give breastfeeders a bad name. I am always reluctant to blame individual women for social trends (and I think Kear's article is very nice-- she's not the bad guy here at all-- not sure there is a bad guy apart from a culture that supports breastfeeding sort of, in name, if it's governed by creepy Victorian ideas of discretion and keeps the "right" women at home with their kids)

This shrugging off of the lactivist label just reminded me too much of people who say "I'm not a feminist, but" and then go on to fill the "but" with a nicely articulated feminist argument.

I am especially sad that there exists a pressure to discount our commitment to breastfeeding by "admitting" to being a formula feeder. Why does it have to be an all or nothing proposition-- especially in a culture that only grudgingly pretends to support breastfeeding?

Kear's story of pumping under mild adversity is a kind of lactivism-- and the kind of social activism any mom-- or dad, or, um, anyone, really -- could support. Consciousness raising is an important step in any social movement, I think (because, really, I loved the second wavers the best).

Ultimately, the kind of reforms lactivism could make-- better maternity leave, better places for women to pump at work, relaxed social standards about breastfeeding in public, better onsite daycare centers that would let working moms feed their babies, a social re-imagining of the ideal worker as someone intimately connected to the family, someone with a body, someone whose corporeality would also be part of our public consciousness-- would make the world better for everyone, not just moms, dads, and babies, not just breastfeeders, either.
Edited to Add: If all of these reforms happened, I'm not saying that only breastfeeding moms could take timeout of the day to see their kids. Dads could, too, and bottle feeders. The world of work, the public sphere, it would take into account our "private" interest, is all I'm saying.


  1. I think it's creepy to pump in an airplane bathroom. In fact, I think it's creepy to PEE in an airplane bathroom. Just sayin'

  2. Totally creepy-- I also hate the airplane bathroom. BUT on a plane there's not a lot of choice. Which is why we need lactivism-- no one should have to nurse or pump in a bathroom. Ever.

  3. I think it's the same thing with, "I'm not a feminist..." preambles. I think people are afraid to be seen as "extreme."

    I'm glad that there are people who aren't afraid of that! Go lactivists!

  4. TopHat-- I agree. But I also don't think advocating for human rights should be seen as extreme. Go lactivists!

  5. You know how many times I have gone away from the kids while BF? Too many to count. I have pumped in the airplane seat, in the airport bathroom, in hotel rooms, in a casino bathroom, in a taxi and in COUNTLESS yucky restaurant bathrooms.

    I do consider myself a lactivist, however. I promote BF whenever possible. I have read everything I can get my hands on about nursing -- so much so that friends come to me for advice! But I also don't condemn formula. I like to say, for ME my goal was not to give any formula. And I met that goal with two kids. But if other moms want or need to give formula, more power to them. It's all about choice. And that's the great thing about parenting now, you have choices. On the prairie if you couldn't BF, well, your kid died. Now we have the miracle of formula.

    I could go on and on about this topic, so much so that I have seriously considered going back to school to become a lactation consultant. With no nursing background, it would be an uphill climb, but something I would be excited and passionate about. I am so making a Lactivist shirt! :)

  6. It is unfortunate in this instance, as well as in the public health debate, that the wild-eyed troublemakers are the ones who get the attention.

    Good for Kear for making it work. There should be more "lactivists" like her and fewer of the type that bully women into feeling ashamed because they use formula. (And more feminists who lobby for an onsite daycare at work and fewer who flip out because a man held a door for her).

  7. Amy: I'll totally buy that!

    Becca: I agree. I think that those "ists" don't really exist outside the fringe. We need to reclaim ideological labels, I guess

  8. As a current lactivist I am facing a lot of external pressure to stop nursing my 16 month old. Even on our last trip I was really embarassed on the airplane, not because I was breastfeeding but because I was breastfeeding a little child who's legs were hitting the floor. Where does the standard stop? When is it no longer socially acceptable to breastfeed? Also, are you defining a lactivist as someone who actually breastfeeds or could anyone who believes that the breast is best be considered a lactivist?

  9. You totally summed up exactly what I was thinking, which was that the whole exchange smacks of, "I'm not a feminist, but..." She is a lactivist, for all the reasons you so nicely laid out here. She's raising consciousness, making a commitment, etc. etc.

    This was a really interesting read, and I guess all I'm saying is thanks for talking about it, and AMEN! to everything you said. Perfectly put.

  10. Gina, that's a good question. We (US culture) seem to demand that babies drop the bottle and the breast at 1, but the World Health Org recommends nursing @ least 2 years.

    For me, a lactivist is anyone who promotes BF/ makes the world easier for nursing families-- doesn't have to be a nursing mom, I don't think. But my definition is probably not the most common...

  11. (Should've read the other comments before posting mine. Sorry!)

    @Gina: I certainly think anyone who promotes breastfeeding is a lactivist, in the same way that anyone who promotes women's rights is a feminist. You don't have to be a woman to be a feminist, and you don't have to be a breastfeeder to be a lactivist.

  12. You took the words right out of my mouth with the "I'm not a feminist, but..." analogy. This is among the most insidious rhetorical forms of opposition to lactivism, feminism, etc.; when the opposition redefines the label, even those who are otherwise staunchly in the movement drop it. Then there are no feminists. When there are no feminists, all of a sudden the feminist movement is over. Wait. What?

  13. I totally agree with your arguments here, but i can understand that perhaps she doesn't want to be confused with someone who insults and denegrates a mother who isn't breast feeding. Like all of the women who offer unsolicited advice, criticism and dirty looks when they see me bottle feeding my baby. The women who think formula is poison, and never bother to ask if maybe I'm feeding my children formula because I CANNOT feed them breastmilk. The women who neve bother to find out about the month of heartbreaking fighting, with your baby who won't latch, with your breast pump to get out that precious liquid, with your own breasts to produce it so you can nourish your child the best way you know how. breast milk is best - but sometimes it is not an option. And I will not apologize for bottle feeding my kids because without formula they would have starved. despite never being able to do it myself, I totally advocate breastfeeding whenever possible, and I call anyone trying to promote the benefits of breastfeeding a lactivist. Education into options is never a bad thing. But the women who try and force breatsfeeding onto everyone, and try to impose guilt on women for not doing it, regardless of their reason, those people I call Nipple Nazis. let's not confuse the two.

    sorry to get a little vitriolic there, but pushy nipple nazis really get to me - i'm sure that woman was just trying to illustrate that she wasn't one of them. Lactivism is a great term, and should be used in a positive way, to descirbe the act of promoting the benefits of breastfeeding and giving mothers the knowledge to make an informed choice. thanks for letting me vent, la la la la, I feel better now. :)

  14. This was a great post, Sarah. I've had the same feelings and concerns that you and the commenters mention. I'm still nursing my 17 month old and the form my lactivism takes is changing as she ages. When she was 5 weeks old I was counting how many weeks and feedings it would be until she was 1 year. Now I'm trying to sort out my feelings about nursing, self-weaning and independence (for both of us) from friends' and pop culture's feelings about those issues. Honestly, it's hard to untangle them sometimes. And what really gets to me is the thought that perhaps if you are in the position to be a lactivist, you are somehow LESS of a feminist than you were pre-kids. Yuck.

    We were just on a flight last week and I was nursing my daughter before takeoff. The flight attendant came by twice saying, "She'll be much safer in her seat during takeoff" and "She really will be safer in her car seat. We've already pressurized the cabin so her ears won't be a problem". I said 'thanks' in my polite, tight voice and put her in her car seat when she was done nursing. Which was before takeoff. Which kind of pissed me off because it allowed me to avoid a confrontation. I just wonder if she would have said that to someone with a 6-week old baby, someone feeding with a bottle, a dad, etc. Not sure what my point is, but I think it's circling around the fact that there are daily opportunities to support your choices as a woman, mother, feminist, lactivist, etc. and it can be intimidating. But if we don't do it, the whole world of breastfeeding continues to be intimidating for everyone else, too. At any rate, thanks for being a well-informed and reasonable voice in a topic that's too often filled with blame, vitriol and hysteria.

  15. Kate: My next scholarly work is going to unpack the rhetoric of infant feeding, and I just want to tell you that the science behind the "breast is best" slogan is not as definite as breast is best rhetoric portrays it.

    For me, what's "best" about breast is the lifestyle-- the being with your baby 24/7, cosleeping, following a baby-led schedule, etc. These things-- this way of life-- is NOT exclusive to breastfeeding AT ALL. That's why the kind of lactivist reforms I support are aimed at transforming the public sphere to take our bodies into account-- male bodies and female bodies.

  16. First, let me say that I consider myself a lactation specialist of sorts something I moonlight as I guess...I digress, not that this relates completely to your post Sarah but more to the airplane breast feeding thing. I was coming home from a business trip and their was this nice young couple (very attractive wife, mine and this gentleman's) sitting in front of me with probably a 9 month old adorable baby. As I had been away from the kids for a few days I totally missed them and was looking at this adorable baby through the seats sleeping. Then I noticed I was also totally looking at boob because this woman was politely breastfeeding her kid with a blanket over him so nobody but nosy me would see her boob. I felt like such a pervy, D-bad.

  17. These are all really interesting, well-formulated perspectives on the subject. I wrote the essay in Parents, and as you guessed, the aside was just to distance myself from the obnoxious sancti-mommies who judge bottle-feeders and give us all a bad name. But its great food for thought (not to mention fodder for my blog). Thanks Sarah, for getting the discussion started.