Saturday, April 16, 2011

Day 102: Activism Is...

I'm sitting at my dining room table surrounded by enfamil swag, literally sick to my stomach. I've got a "hospital gift," a "first visit nutrition gift," a "2-month visit gift" and even a "third trimester gift," because it's never too early to undermine breastfeeding.

And if you're silly enough to try to breastfeed anyway, their "breastfeeding support kit" complete with vitamin D (you know your milk isn't good enough for your baby, right?), pump accessories (babies need to eat from bottles - you wouldn't want him getting nipple confusion and refusing the bottle, now would you?) and plenty of formula (you haven't heard that mothers aren't able to produce enough milk to feed their babies?) is sure to change your mind!

A quote from my lovely end-of-pregnancy present that includes a cloth clutch "purse" filled with, you guessed it, pre-mixed formula: "Why not pack this clutch with your hospital essentials now - so you can just grab it and go when the time comes...And don't forget to slip the enclosed hospital gift certificate inside - so you'll be sure to receive your Enfamil hospital gift, including Enfamil PREMIUM Newborn formula."

I could go on to quote every piece of tripe they included in each of these "gifts," because every word undermines a woman's confidence in her body's ability to feed her baby and gives "advice" that is meant to, and successfully does, sabotage a breastfeeding relationship before it even has a chance. I start to shake every time I think about it.

Where did I get this nice little package? At a local Baby Expo. The first thing you saw when you walked in was the Abbott Nutrition (Ha!) booth lined with beautiful green and brown totes chock full of freebies, with an attendant whose perfectly lined lips and drawn-on eyebrows said, "You're not going to have time to look like me if you breastfeed!"

I was there to represent Holistic Moms Network, so I did my best to bite my tongue and man my own booth. But with each pregnant woman and tiny baby that walked by with one of these totes, I got more upset, until my heart was racing and my hands were shaking.

I had to take a break from the expo to head home and nurse Max before finishing out the day, and half way there I started to cry. This may seem like a dramatic response to a little free formula, but those bags embodied so much more for me.

It was a representation of all the babies around the world and plenty right here under our noses who are literally dying because their mothers are being intentionally lied to and sabotaged. It was a tangible reminder of the mother crying over her child lying in a hospital bed struggling to breathe, the one facing cancer in her little one whose life has barely begun, and the mom who has to leave her babies all too soon because of her own battle with breast cancer.

In those bags I saw the corporate greed that values profit over human life, and I was disgusted, angry, and devastated all at once.

I was overwhelmed because deep down I wanted to grab each and every one of these parents and beg them to read and think before they made a decision about how to feed their babies - to not simply accept formula, and thus illness, as normal, but to demand better for their children. Because I can guarantee every one of them wants what's best for their child, they just don't know where to find the truth in all the lies.

This was obviously not an energy I wanted to bring into my home and to my children, so I quickly started to calm myself by speaking these words: I cannot save the world. I love and support the people who cross my path, I stand up for what I know is right, but it's not my job to save the world. I do what I can and I let go of the rest.

When I returned to the expo, I had come to this conclusion: I may not be able to save the world, but I can and should speak truth when the opportunity presents itself. So I walked over to the booth and struck up a conversation with the woman, which, while it may not have been productive (although you never know who's listening in) at least gave me the opportunity to practice kind and respectful activism, something I was not so good at in the recent past and which I'm continually working toward. It also gave me a little more insight into their business practices and how their reps are trained to answer questions.

What's the nutritional role of corn syrup solids in infant formula? ("It's a carbohydrate.") Do you think these are the best ingredients your company can find for feeding babies - is corn syrup really an acceptable carbohydrate source? ("You'd have to call our 800 number to talk with one of the nurses or medical experts on the scientific stuff.") Why is there formula in your breastfeeding support kit? ("Because if mom's milk supply is low, she has something to grab out of the cupboard because baby's going to need to eat.") How do you feel about the product you're representing and promoting - about feeding corn syrup and vegetable oil to babies? Not professionally, but personally, ethically? (*silence* "I'm proud of the company I work for.")

And it left me with this thought: Activism is not what most people think it is.

It's not about winning or proving a point. It's not about getting heard or getting attention. It's not about being superior or right. It's not about hoping someone else feels inferior or wrong. And it's not about forcing anyone to live or feel a certain way or to make a particular choice.

So here's the completed title: Activism is empathy in action.

It's genuinely wanting the very best for everyone around you. It's heartfelt compassion and love for the anonymous people whose homes you pass on your way to the store, the drivers who wait at red lights with you, and the kids in the shopping cart next to yours. It's seeing and feeling their pain, past, present, or future, and doing all you can to heal it, end it, or prevent it.

This is activism and this is why I post incessantly on facebook, talk to anyone who's open, support anyone who's wavering, and speak truth in the face of lies.


  1. Thank you for this post! I love it. After participating in the April compassionate advocacy carnival, there's been some discussion going around about what it really is and whether all the empathetic posts met the criteria. I agree with you that without unconditional compassion, there can be no advocacy.

    And thank you for trying with the formula rep. That corporate greed over human life really chafes my chaps, too. I just came upon your blog on a random facebook suggestion and I'm so glad to make this connection to your blog. Subscribing and sharing <3

  2. Michelle SchneiderApril 20, 2011 at 8:53 AM

    Thank you Meredith for this post.
    I would like to tell you a few things that would add to your post.
    #1 I have a cousin who is a lot older than me, works full time and has two older children her youngest son is ten months old and as far as I know has been feed Enfamil his entire life. A comment that his mother made scared me.
    we were talking about our children since they are close in age and she asked me if Maggie had been sick I told her that Maggie had regrettably been sick for the first time last month she gave me a rather surprised look congratulated me and then continued to tell her mom and sisters that Bauer (her son) had been sick most of his life and on antibiotics for ear infections and colds she casually said that she thought he was just getting used to it (being sick) she then passed little Bauer off to his Grandma and went to make a bottle.

    #2 I too was at the baby expo. as you saw I was there for my midwives. I also got one of the green and brown bags filled with formula samples but I love free samples no matter what they are I usually get rid of the formula and just use the bags and bottle caddy's as my husband likes them when I pump and he has time with Maggie. I was later at the expo. talking to my midwife and I asked her why they don't get the samples from the formula company's like hospitals do. She then told me that nothing is free and that if we take their "free" samples we are saying that what they are doing is OK. It made me think a little bit more about "free" samples and although I did not take my bag back I don't think I will be grabbing free stuff from Enfamil, Similac or Gerber good start anymore. Because It really ticks me off when women so flippantly give their babies less than the best.I want to yell at these women and tell them "don't you see what your doing to your child/children?" yes breastfeeding is hard for some women but unless it is physically impossible for you to produce milk due to mastectomy's etc. than you should not use formula! it is great that it's there but it is way, way, way to overused just like hospitals for childbirth.

  3. @Zoie: Thanks for the words of support! I tend to think that each facet and style of advocacy has a purpose, but is only effective when used in the right context. I think this is why certain movements get a bad rap and why some people are turned off - not because there's anything necessarily wrong with intensity, just that it's either used at the wrong time, directed at the wrong place (i.e. the formula feeding mother rather than the system that failed her) or without the balance of support. I appreciate your input and look forward to interacting with you!

    @Michelle: It's sad how used to illness we've gotten as a society, isn't it? I'm often told we're "lucky" to have such healthy kids, but in reality it's the things we do and don't do that keep their bodies healthy.

    I love your breastfeeding passion! But if I careful to direct that at the source of the problem, not the sufferers of the symptoms. Women have the deck stacked against them before they even conceive. Women are not the problem - and as proof I offer the ~80% or higher breastfeeding initiation rate in hospital. Women WANT to breastfeed, but they're being given none of the tools or support they need in order to do so. Coming from a family that supports you (and exposed you to breastfeeding as normal!) and having a group like LLL behind you, it's very easy to say "just don't give up." I used to say the same. But it's not that simple.

    I posted an article on Facebook about Tina Fey being defensive around breastfeeding friends because she "failed" at breastfeeding and I think my comments there apply here: "Only when women find the strength to redirect this anger away from breastfeeding mothers, away from themselves, and toward the cause of their "failure" will we see more thrive in the breastfeeding relationship they all want so badly.

    Because it's not their failure. It's the medical system that medicates and interferes with their births then offers detrimental breastfeeding advice and no support. It's the society that simultaneously marginalizes and rejects breastfeeding women and negatively judges them when they don't succeed. It's the formula companies who do everything in their power (which is a lot) to undermine breastfeeding before a woman even conceives by making their product appear "normal" and benign in our culture, to get formula into their homes "just in case," to create fear and doubt about milk supply, weight gain, and ounces in a feeding, and to sustain the myths that breastfeeding is difficult and formula feeding is easy, that breastfeeding is "optimal" and formula feeding is normal, that breastfeeding isn't something most women are capable of and that breastfeeding hold a woman back from her life.

    THIS is where all that anger needs to go if we want all women and children to experience the joy, health and security of a breastfeeding relationship as they're biologically designed (and thus capable!) to do. It's not just for an elite few, it's available to every woman on the planet with the right tools and support."

    I think we, as successful breastfeeding mothers and breastfeeding advocates, need to be careful to direct our anger and energy that way also.