Motherhood, consumption and guilt part 2 (do not read this if you may be offended by my rage…)

Right, here goes (this is a long one).

I promised when I started writing this blog that it wasn’t going to be another whiny parenting blog about how hard everything is, and I think I’ve done pretty well to keep it proactive and positive when talking about parenting in conjunction with eco stuff.

Then I read this – and if you don’t want to see me getting cross and emotional, I suggest you shuffle off now and tune in again to the next post. Most of you who know me personally will be able to imagine why this would upset/annoy/infuriate me. I’m not even sure how coherently I’m going to be able to write about this, but I’m going to try – and if it turns out shit, I’ll leave it in the “drafts” folder and try something else tomorrow. (Turns out I left it in the drafts folder for nearly a week, kids.)

Some helpful scientists at Imperial College have highlighted the UK’s very low breast-feeding rates (34% of babies still receiving some breast milk at six months, following 81% initiation rate – stats here). They’ve calculated that if all mothers exclusively breast-fed for six months, as per the WHO guidelines, then the benefit to the environment would be the equivalent of taking 77,000 cars off the roads. “The Imperial team calculated that [this] would save between 95 and 153 KG of carbon dioxide per baby. […] The production of unnecessary infant and toddler formulas exacerbates environmental damage and should be a matter of increasing global concern.” The issues raised are the water footprint of milk powder, the methane output of milk-producing livestock, the paper and metal production and waste from formula packaging and transportation and marketing of “breastmilk substitutes”. Not to mention all the boiling of kettles to heat up formula milk.

I’ve read the full BMJ article and it’s bizarrely brief and poorly referenced, in my humble opinion. It’s simplistic and moralising, sure – but it also makes hugely flawed assumptions about the alleged low or zero carbon impact of breast feeding. What about the extra 500 calories per day you purportedly need to consume to breastfeed? That’s the very least additional input you would need, if it all goes simply. What about the nursing clothes, the pumps, the nursing covers, the nipple shields, the nipple cream? What about the trips to lactation consultants and midwives and health visitors when it’s not working out? What about the trips to A&E when it’s really not working out? What about the carbon footprint of looking after babies in intensive care units when it’s really, really not working out? (This is a thing, and there’s good evidence that it is increasing due to the militant promotion of breast feeding at all costs in hospitals allied to the Unicef Baby-Friendly Initiative).

The article suggests donor banks as a solution for when supplementation is needed – so at least it acknowledges that supplementation is sometimes needed – but what about the carbon footprint of setting up that network, pumping the milk, transporting it to where it’s needed in a timely manner and then refrigerating and reheating it?

MUCH has been written about the poor ethics of formula companies and I’m not denying that a lot of it is true – however, it can’t be ignored that one of the authors of this study is a director of the Hearts Milk Bank Foundation, so maybe just maybe might have something to gain by promoting donor milk? Maybe dodgy ethics are not just the province of Nestle?

Dr Amy Tuteur, an obstetrician, campaigner and author of “Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting”, refutes all this stuff much more eloquently than me here

“By refusing to consider the environmental impact of breastfeeding itself and the increased risk of hospitalization, Shenker et al. haven’t made the environmental case for breastfeeding. Unfortunately, they have shifted responsibility for addressing climate change from corporations (which could fix it) and instead blame mothers. Ultimately, [they] exert even more pressure on women. […] Recent research has noted how pressure to breastfeed has harmed women’s mental health.”

My story – very briefly, because after two years I’m bored to death of thinking and talking about it – is that I really wanted to breastfeed, in part due to environmental reasons, but I had no idea that it could be just not possible, because no one tells you that at antenatal classes. Every healthcare professional you meet tells you that it’s incredibly rare not to be able to breastfeed at all, and gives you a bunch of dramatic statistics (less than 1%? 2%? 5%?), all based on flawed and dated studies, of the percentage of women with insufficient milk supply to keep a baby alive. No sensible stats on babies who can’t latch, due to tongue tie or other reasons. No estimate of how many of them would have died from “failure to thrive” before formula came along. Anyway, in short – I had tons of milk but my son couldn’t latch due to the “worst tongue tie we’ve seen in 20 years”, according to the very expensive lactation consultants who snipped his tongue tie, twice, to no avail. I pumped for six weeks but in all honesty it made me housebound and virtually suicidal and I had to stop for the good of everyone in our household, including our son – it’s better to cuddle your baby and feed them formula, than have to leave them to cry while you pump “liquid gold”, in my considered opinion.

Anyway. I’m not anti-breastfeeding, of course, and if we had another baby, I would try again – but I wouldn’t allow myself to be bullied into misery if it didn’t work out. There are so many issues here around breast feeding support, education, cultural issues, bodily autonomy (some women just don’t fucking want to, and that’s ok too in this day and age, surely?) And I don’t doubt that there is some validity in the environmental argument – formula is a manufactured product which by definition is going to have an adverse footprint.

The reasons why women don’t breastfeed are complex, and I don’t disagree that it would be good for many reasons if breastfeeding rates in the UK were higher. But stuff like the BMJ article does not help.

There is major stigma around formula feeding as it is – and if you deny this, ask any mum you know who bottle fed in public, this is the real lived experience. I got stares, tuts and criticism, implications that I hadn’t tried hard enough, didn’t love my baby as much as breast feeding mums did, made the choice to formula feed for my own convenience rather than his well-being. There’s a perception that formula feeding mums are lazy (“aren’t you feeding him yourself?”), a bit thick and manipulated by evil formula companies’ advertising. This is not helped by the inconclusive but widely-touted studies on the impact of breastfeeding on the baby’s IQ. Many of the positive outcomes of breastfeeding have been demonstrated in babies where the mothers intended to breastfeed but weren’t able to, showing that a lot of the advantages are impossible to separate out from the demographic factors of privilege and socio-economic status. Anyway, have a look at Fed is Best if you’re interested in this stuff, or follow Dr Amy Tuteur on Twitter.

My point, finally, is that guilt-tripping mothers about using formula on environmental grounds (based on many flawed assumptions) helps neither the environment nor women’s mental health. A large proportion of mothers who’ve made that choice already probably feel shit about it, and they can’t just unmake it and relactate (although hardcore La Leche types would tell you that they could, I expect). Maybe the environmental argument might influence some pregnant women who are on the fence, but I doubt it very much.

What the BMJ position does is to further heap on the guilt and shame to mothers for all that’s wrong in our society, and the planet. It’s our fault that there’s a childhood obesity endemic, especially working mothers. If we go back to work early we’re neglecting our children and outsourcing their care to strangers, to their emotional detriment. If we stay at home, we’re setting a poor example and being bad feminists. We buy them too many plastic toys. We shouldn’t be having children anyway as the Earth is over-populated.

Actually, this is all just distraction. This is the problem – 20 global firms causing one third of all carbon emissions. And I hate to say it, but the majority of the key decision-makers in these organisations will be men. I don’t want to turn this into a gender blame game, but there are a few critical issues here.

  • We can’t fix this by giving up plastic or becoming vegan at an individual level, any more than we can fix this by not using formula for our babies. We can only fix this by manifest change in the way our societies and economies function – and that’s what XR are trying to achieve this week. Love them or hate them, at least they’re doing something.
  • Globally, men have more power than women to make these big changes. Is it right? No. Is it true? Yes. So we need to stop blaming women for everything we don’t like in society.
  • Women actually have huge power in the domestic sphere in terms of purchasing decisions – this is where we can make a big collective impact, in refusing single use plastic, reusing as much as possible, choosing green transport options for our families and teaching our kids about conservation and environmental issues.

Sorry, this is a long one today, but it’s from my heart and I think it’s important. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree with me.

“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.”
― William Penn

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