Thursday, October 14, 2010

Activism, Advocacy, Ethics, and How to not be an Asshole

So an advocate, and activist  and an asshole walk into a bar... There is no punchline here, just my growing realization  that there is such a huge difference between advocacy and activism. I think our society is really getting these two activities confused. Everyone likes to think they make good choices in life. Some people even like their choices so  much that they want everyone else to make those same choices, regardless of whether those choices are a good fit for those other people's lives.

The difference for me lies withing the expectation of the A-person. An advocate seeks to inform, educate and most importantly, EMPOWER others to make well-researched decisions based on balanced, unbiased data. An activist most often seeks to have everyone make the decision that they, the activist agree with, regardless of the individual circumstances of the decision-maker. A lack of ethics leads activists to masquerade as advocates. A perfect example of this would be a Crisis Pregnancy center (anti-choice activism) giving a woman false information regarding the safety of abortion - they are giving information, but it is not the kind  of data that an empowered decision can be made from.  

One step farther from misguided activism is just plain being an asshole - bullying, derisive  behavior meant to demonize those who are 'other'. Clinic protesters, 'intactivists' who post abusive Internet comments, sanctimonious parents who pity children born in a different manner than the way their children were born.  These behaviors do nothing to further a cause, and most often alienate the very people that are trying to be reached. 

I've come to believe that if I feel so strongly about  an issue that I can no longer advocate - that is, detach my self from an outcome I disagree with, it is time to move to useful activism. That is, taking concrete steps to change the cultural and societal framework, or legality of the issue at hand. For example, I truly believe that routine infant circumcision is not a 'choice' for a parent to make. I find it disturbing that my daughter's rights to bodily integrity are protected but my son's rights are not. So instead of being an asshole online, or in person, I do what I can to change the laws regarding male genital mutilation. And until certain frameworks are changed, I advocate by sharing information about the issue. Because until the larger societal issues are addressed (think formula company lobbies and parental leave in regards to breastfeeding, myths regarding male cleanliness and prepuce function for  MGM, hospital maternity policies driven by liability rather than informed consent in birth), individuals should not be crucified for making decisions based on bad information, habit, or pure survival. 

These are  really large issues, enough to make my head spin. I think though, moving forward as an advocate and an educator, it's important for me to reflect and examine these issues carefully. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thoughts on Breastfeeding

What follows is an essay I wrote on my personal history regarding breastfeeding, for one of the side projects in reproductive advocacy I have going on. It is in response to the following comment thread on Facebook.

Mira Clark via Kathy Abbott: If you are looking for support quitting smoking, you wouldn't call a hotline run by Philip-Morris...
Need help breastfeeding - call LaLeche League.
Formula Company: Call Us for Breastfeeding Help on Opposing Views. Issues, Experts, Answers.
Sunday at 3:03pm · Privacy: ·  ·  · Share

  • Gail Strunk Lachs likes this.

    • Leahla Contreras formula is the devil's milk.
      Sunday at 5:39pm · 

    • Gabriella Ercolani twinkies for infants
      22 hours ago · 

    • Mira Clark 

      Remember it's the companies, our system, and the lack of milk banks that force many mothers (including me) to use this inferior milk substitute. I really think if there was an attempt to create artificial blood, and it was marketed the way artificial milk is, there would be uproar. We need milk banks, proper education on breastfeeding management and physiology, and for American companies to be held to the WHO code. I'm lucky Bridger has only ever (and continues to have) my own milk. But I wasn't that lucky with Bella. And knowing where I was lead astray sucks. Hindsight...

      21 hours ago ·  ·  1 person

    • Leahla Contreras where were you lead astray? did it start with a hospital birth and a c-section? seems like that's where a lot of this gets slipped in.
      20 hours ago · 

Personal History
Mira Clark

    One of my earliest childhood memories is of sitting next to my mother, who read to me while she nursed my younger brother Stephen, and then a few years later, my brother Michael. As a child I knew that all three of us had been breastfed, and only assumed that was how all babies were fed. Although at that time I did not know the details of how long we each nursed, or that in the late 60's my mother had wished to breastfeed my older sister, only to be prescribed birth control at 8 weeks that dried up her milk, I just knew that breastfeeding was going to be part of my parenthood. The manner in which my mother not only fed my brothers, but mothered me at the same time left an indelible mark on my identity as a woman and mother.

    At the age of 24 I found my self very unexpectedly pregnant. In that chaotic time, as I worked through the decision to become this baby's mother, and own that choice, one of the constants for me was the knowledge that my child would be breastfed. Her biological father came from a very different background however. Where my mother chose to have her 3 younger children unmedicated and breastfed all of her children, his mother and sisters all had surgical births, and chose to formula feed from the outset. They did not understand my desire to have a natural birth, and thought that breastfeeding was a waste of time and effort. During my pregnancy, I bought the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. As there were no LLL Groups nearby, it was my lifeline, the only breastfeeding support I had nearby, as my family lived far away. 

    My daughter's birth was long, difficult, and without the necessary support, the natural birth I had envisioned became filled with the interventions I had wanted so desperately to avoid. After 29 hours of labor, mockery by my ex and the l&d nurse, an epidural, and pitocin I did not consent to, my daughter was born, healthy and normal. I was not allowed to hold her for an hour after her birth. When I did try to breastfeed, the nurse roughly shoved her on to the breast. She was so sleepy from the epidural that she did not suck at all. Despite the sign on her bassinet 'no artificial nipples', and my express wish to only room-in, a nurse came the second night while I was sleeping, took her to the nursery, and brought her back an hour later with a pacifier in her mouth. I spent the next hour trying to get her to latch on, we both sobbed, and no nurses came to assist us. Not surprisingly, she did not learn to latch properly, and by the fifth day my nipples were cracked open and bleeding. Thankfully I got a good phone consult to correct her latch, and some Softies, and our rocky start smoothed out a bit. She gained well, and I nursed on demand. Her biological father was still critical of my decision to breastfeed, but saw her irregularly. I had only a hand pump from WIC, and would pump all week so she could have breast milk during visitation. One Sunday he decided to let a full day's worth of breast milk go bad, bought a can of formula, and fed her that instead. He very proudly told me that she had eaten the 'better food'. She was constipated for days. I was furious that my effort and milk had been so undervalued. To this day, he still somehow believes that formula and bottles are the better way to feed a baby, no matter how much science and commonsense is shown to him.

    Even though I had a hand pump, I hadn't really grasped that if I missed a feeding, I needed to pump to try to keep up supply. At six months I started giving my daughter juice, not knowing she didn't need it. This coupled with the extraordinary stress of her father's erratic, sometimes violent behavior and trying to support my daughter as a single mother working multiple jobs caught up with me, and I lost a dramatic amount of weight. My supply dried up, and Isabella weaned around 8 months. I was very disappointed that I hadn't made it to the year mark that seemed to be the measure of breastfeeding success. There is so much that I know now that would have perhaps changed our breastfeeding history. I do know though that I did the best I could with the information and circumstances I had at the time.

    Fast-forward 4 and half years, and I was expecting my second child. I was happily married, my husband had just adopted my daughter, and I was doing everything in my power to have a different birth and breastfeeding experience with this baby. My son was born in the water at the North Shore Birth Center, after 2 intense hours of labor. He crawled over to my breast before the placenta delivered. Within an hour he had latched on, and took to sucking like a pro. All of his newborn care was done on my belly. I didn't put him down for at least 3 hours, (bathroom call :)). We went home that afternoon, and he nursed so well that at three days he had only lost 3 oz of his 9 lbs 5 oz birthweight. While he did cluster feed, and there were the 'clucks' of older relatives swearing that a baby that big could never thrive on breast milk alone, I had the confidence and support from my husband to continue mothering him as my instincts dictated. 

    After a few weeks, it became clear that my moods were not normal, and I began treatment for what would become a very severe post-partum depression. One of the only things I felt confident about was our nursing relationship, and it was vitally important to me to be able to continue nursing my son. In the weeks between starting medication, and feeling any effect of it, I truly crashed. A friend knew a local La Leche League Leader, and gave me her number. I left a message, and got her voicemail telling me where the next meeting was just before it started. To this day I am so profoundly grateful that I got her call and pulled myself out of bed for that meeting. The mother-to-mother support I have received since have helped me define who I am as a parent, provided me and my children with dear friends, and have been a constant affirmation that I am the mother my children need. I was so proud to make it to a year with my son, and with the support of the mothers in our Group, I'm confident my son will nurse as long as he needs to.  As an advocate I hope to give other women the information they need to make the decisions surrounding pregnancy, birth and parenting that work best for their families, and help them find confidence in their authority as mother. 

Remember I shake my fist at the system that fails women, not the women who have been failed. Did you want to breastfeed? Or have your children breastfeed if you are male or a female partner? Were you able to meet your definition of successful breastfeeding? If not, where was the trouble? Would you, or have you been able to, go do things differently knowing more now?