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The Walking Wounded (Guest Post) 

I am away at the Blissdom Canada conference this week. After an interesting discussion with Karen Bayne (@karenebayne) on twitter last week, I asked her if she would be willing to expand on her thoughts in a blog post. Luckily she agreed and here it is. Please welcome Karen to the blog.


Last week there was another firestorm at Babble about breastfeeding – years after I thought we would be done. This time it came through the voice of a personal blogger who told other mothers to “cover up.” She has a one month old baby and is able to breastfeed discreetly.  I am sure you can imagine the comment section. It is full of people who feel judged and rightly so. She called their boobs saggy and informed them that no one wants to be “subjected to them.” She even implied that if women were really only interested in feeding their baby, they should not mind putting on a nursing cover to do so for the sake of others. It is far from a feminist argument as it puts the mother in the position of accommodating her body to the needs of several other interested parties for their comfort. But, she was not trying to make a feminist argument.

Over and over again, we are told there is no need to make such a fuss about public breastfeeding and that we should quiet down and be more reasonable. What I know now that I didn't know when I was breastfeeding my young is that we will never be done with mommy wars  while society's misogyny runs rough shod over our bodies, our interests and our voices. Each new generation of mothers discovers mothering for themselves. Each of us awakes and finds herself in a postpartum world that abandons us, asks us to shift for ourselves.

The Babble post revealed to me a new mother who is coping with being in the vice grip of  discomfort with her own newly postpartum body and perhaps even the role her breasts now play in her life. She is not the only mother to feel this way – to want to keep her breasts the sexual body part we are more comfortable hiding (or revealing and displaying) here in western society. No doubt this is shaky ground for many of us. With constraining standards of beauty and womanliness, our bodies in a state of very real flux, and infants needing constant care, we are in fact, trying to row up stream without a paddle when we engage in the small act of kindness towards ourselves. Can I love this postpartum body when there is no one telling me I should? If I am applauded for getting back into my jeans as soon as possible, surely I should hide any bodily evidence to the contrary, right?

I work as a birth and postpartum doula. I am  frequently with very new mothers who are experiencing intense postpartum adjustments. Many feel sad or anxious. Some feel angry, all over angry at everyone and everything. It can often feel more challenging to me to be a helpful support in this circumstance   compared to someone feeling alone, sad or worried.  How do I reach across the divide when someone is lashing out – whether in real life or on the internet?  Usually I spin my wheels a bit until I remember how angry I am that our culture does not do everything in its power to make this adjustment time better for families and mothers. Often times we simply abandon them, telling them they are fine and their babies are fine. Too often what new moms hear bout their emotions and experiences is exactly what this blogger wants the rest of us to do with our boobs:  grow up and cover them up, please.  And we want to do the same – hey lady, keep it to yourself– instead of helping to uncover the internalized oppression, we want to snark back about how awesome our boobs are.

Shame and Synchronized Latch

In the meantime Joanne Weiss wrote an article -  in the part of Slate that tells us what women really think  -in which she slams the lactivist movement for shaming women. I cannot find any specific evidence she has for this but no doubt some women have felt shamed by some parts of the lactivist movement. It is too broad a statement for me to deny - my own personal experience proves it to be true. Anyone familiar with the story of my second baby's illness will tell you how devastated I felt anytime anyone suggested I took the easy way out by giving him formula. There was nothing easy about our journey.   Weiss suggested everyone just grow up, cover up and become more rational as we had more important grown up things to talk about like maternity leave and paid sick leave. These are indeed excellent causes. I have not seen any evidence to show that I cannot support all of them – especially as having excellent maternity leave would improve my country's longer-term breastfeeding rates and keep infants healthier. Healthier infants must relate to paid sick leave somehow, right?

I find it objectionable that the author has no issue with lactivists promoting breastfeeding to participants of WIC or women  in vulnerable demographics or countries but portrays promoting and educating white, middle class women about breastfeeding as inherently shaming and, frankly, it seems, down right goofy.

There is a way in which the Slate author is quite right. When women turn our energies against each other we lose sight of the way our society has set us up to fail. This misogyny turned inward is the dark heart of the mommy wars. So, perhaps she felt shamed. I can hear that her piece. And she shamed them right back, those silly lactivists with their breastfeeding t-shirts and synchronized latches! When will they buy a nursing cover so they can sit at the grown up table?

My shiny new glasses

When I think back to my earliest days of mothering,  I remember my own history with judging and being judged. I was a young, somewhat broke, stay at home mother in a community filled with  more well off, older stay at home mothers and much more well off working mothers. I was judged. I appeared to be doing it wrong.  And I judged right back to shore up my own position. We all do this; we learn it as kids. It deflects unwanted attention away from ourselves. Then one day, because I lucked out and had a relatively easy baby and a supportive family,  the ground I stood on was not quite so shaky.  I saw clearly the external pressures I faced – a less than ideal job market, daycare costs that were intimating, jobs that did not have paid sick time and a work force in which my work was not going to be for equal pay. The revelation rocked my world, freed my spirit ; the sun shone everywhere for a few minutes and then I thought, “This sucks.”

My society held me 100% responsible for my situation while not giving me the support I needed to change it. When my eyes were opened to this truth, it was like wearing shiny new glasses. I no longer blamed myself for this conundrum. Nor did I blame other mothers who found their own path through the maze though it might look drastically different than mine. I ended my own mommy wars but not purchasing the premise – that I was in conflict with other mothers. I began to notice my judgments more – not less. I noticed how many of my judgments were based on my culture, my family history, my experiences, and my preferences, as well as the preferences of my particular baby. When I slowed down to notice my judgments, I was able to relieve myself of their burden. I began to ask myself, Why does that bother me? What about her choice is triggering this response in me? How am I buying into the values of my broken society and what do I stay to lose or gain by holding this position?

We can notice and respect to our own judgment -the decisions we make for ourselves and our families  - and also notice and be responsible for our own judgments  - for example, the feel of discomfort you might experience when you see an infant breastfeeding. We can choose to move  from everyone should  language, which is deliberately shaming and aggressive to here's what I think  language which is mature, responsible and open for debate. We can notice our reactions and chose whether we use them to shame others or not. We are not in conflict with other mothers. We may often disagree, we may decide very different things but our real conflict is with a world that congratulates us on the good news when we announce our pregnancies and then leaves us on shaky ground the moment we have a babe in arms.

Karen Bayne is a birth doula, postpartum doula and childbirth educator with ICEA. Her goal is to provide wise, compassionate care and information that is evidenced based and respectful to women and their families. She lives in Northampton, MA with her husband and three boys where she is the President of the Green River Doula Network and proud MotherWoman Board member. She blogs at Gentle Balance Birth and Needs New Batteries. You can talk to her more on Twitter and Facebook.

 Photo credit: parcelbrat on flickr
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Reader Comments (18)

I loved this-- it got me a little choked up remembering going through some of those same changes/struggles and revelations. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterceridwen

A long article, but brought to a perfect conclusion. People can relieve themselves of a huge weight by giving up judging and being judged, especially about things that don't matter. I'm not a mom, (I'm a dad, husband to a mom) but I really like your statement about people feeling like they should do something for the comfort of others. A terrible feeling, that others expect something of me for no good reason. Why should I wear or do what other feel I should do or would be pleased seeing? Especially strangers who care nothing for me?

But then we go into a piece again about "society" not helping those that are judged. It really does eventually fall upon the individual to either accept the shame or not, doesn't it? Judgers are lame, but their leers and words are harmless. As you discovered with your new glasses, accepting the message is a choice made by the person. Perhaps the best way is not to try to eliminated the judgers, which is very difficult, but to teach the judged that they don't need to be harmed. Then you're improving the one person who needs the help instead of the millions of anonymous people who don't think they need anything. After all, judgers have the freedom to think and say what they want, and they think they're right.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex | Perfecting Dad

Thank you, thank you for this article!!

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeah Perez-Lopes

Thank you for this. Beautifully written, and so very true.

"Often times we simply abandon them, telling them they are fine and their babies are fine.Too often what new moms hear bout their emotions and experiences is exactly what this blogger wants the rest of us to do with our boobs: grow up and cover them up, please."

Yes, yes, this. I had been wondering why people telling me "You're doing a good job" "You're a good mom" etc was causing such a negative reaction in me. They didn't know: they were just shutting me up. Fake encouragement and praise.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Nicely said. I know that my own judgmental days of early motherhood came from an intense feeling that I was doing things the RIGHT way. And that if there was a right way, there had to be a corresponding wrong way. It took me some time to gain the confidence in my own choices to believe them to be right for me, whether or not they were right for anyone else - and to acknowledge that there were as many right ways to parent as there were parents. Judging and shaming, on any side of any debate, gets us nowhere. I wish we could all move on from that.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Just earlier today I posted on Twitter about the frustration I often feel when I talk about how difficult this first year has been with my second child, and others respond with "But you'll miss this one day!" It's like Lisa said above, it feels like a brushing aside of my experiences, a well-intentioned "Oh just deal with it, and enjoy it because this is supposed to be blissful."

If there's one thing that motherhood has taught me it's that I know NOTHING about raising kids. That helps keep my own judgment of others in check... most of the time. It's a process...

Wonderful post, really. Thank you so much for sharing.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

"we will never be done with mommy wars while society’s misogyny runs rough shod over our bodies, our interests and our voices." yes. damn. fantastic.

A very insightful piece. Thank you. I love the comment that Suzannah pointed out (above) and this one "My society held me 100% responsible for my situation while not giving me the support I needed to change it" is the crux of the problem.

Alex (perfecting dad) is absolutely correct when he says the judged could take it or leave it. The reality is that 'taking or leaving it' is difficult to do when we are at our most vulnerable. Neuroscience is demonstrating that we are social creatures and the environment we find ourselves in is critical in all aspects of life and learning. Therefore we, every one of us, as a society , have a duty to provide a safe, nurturing, loving and supportive environment within which new mothers can find their feet and tread the mothering pathway knowing they are able to find practical support and kindness at each turn in the road.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Hastie

Thank you for this article. Very thoughtful.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

[...] After a post went up from a Babble blogger that shamed mothers who breastfeed without a nursing cover, and piece over at Slate that indicated the simplest way for us to move forward as women in society would be for lactivists to care less and the market to over better nursing covers, I was invited to write a guest post for Annie at PhD in Parenting. I hope you will visit me over there and join our conversation about misogyny, the female body, judgments and the mommy wars. [...]

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Walking Wounded « Ne

Nice article. Thank you! Some of it really hit home and made me think. :)

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

Bravo, Karen. This is an excellent, well balanced, and smart article. Well done.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicole Boyhouse

I might have to cut these out and frame them: "Why does that bother me? What about her choice is triggering this response in me? How am I buying into the values of my broken society and what do I stay to lose or gain by holding this position?"

The thing I find most surprising about being a mom is that my parenting expectations are apparently so... different from the other moms that I know. It's not just breastfeeding - it's trivial things about whether or not kids can/should sit through a meal, whether my daughter's separation anxiety is caused by extended breastfeeding, etc etc etc. I didn't expect this at all. Mostly I try to avoid the topic of parenting choices altogether, but I get a lot more flack about the things we do than I expected. It's hard to know when to bite your tongue and when to say something, because some other parental choices really get me upset. Not a fan of the parents who let their child get seriously overtired, gave child a choice about whether to do activity A or B, a few minutes later decided that activity B wasn't an option anymore and then walloped said child when the child was unhappy about not being able to do activity B. Also not a fan of the parents who claimed their child was unable to sit through dinner and gave them permission to "go play" somewhere while assuring us the kid would be "fine on their own". Meanwhile child physically unscrewed the handles on our cupboard doors and poured sand into the sink. "Kids will be kids. Ha! Ha!" Yeah. So if you come for dinner, don't take it personally when we tell you that your kid needs to stay at the table, or failing that you need to go and supervise them...

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

Love that post!

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Thank you especially for those last two paragraphs. My own tendency to judge troubles me. Your practice — of simply noticing the judgments, examining them, and letting them go — sounds so helpful.

October 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

[...] - A guest post in PhD in parenting on the debate generated recently on breastfeeding in public.   [...]

[...] guest post at PhD in Parenting on that Babble post shaming women into covering up while breastfeeding. The Babble post revealed to [...]

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRecommended clicking « b

[...] stereotypes, reproductive rights, religion and more. Many of the blogs tackle heated topics such as judgement between mothers, birthing choices and [...]

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