Sometimes the messenger makes you question the message.

Similac, maker of infant formula, recently sponsored a StrongMoms Empowerment Summit as part of the introduction of its StrongMoms campaign, which the brand describes as a “call to action to stop ‘mom-judging.’ “

StrongMoms is a call to create a more supportive and less judgmental environment to empower moms to be confident about the decisions they make for their children and families.

Who would argue with the idea of moms supporting rather than judging one another? The Motherlode contributor Kimberly Seals Allers, writing for The Broad Side, for one:

“One centimeter beneath the surface of Similac’s ‘Strong Moms’ Summit and online campaign you will find that framing of infant formula use as a ‘lifestyle choice’ that is not to be judged has been its primary marketing strategy for decades. And since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of responsibility of considering the broader implications of their decisions. And once I make my choice, no one is to challenge me. We can’t talk about it. And if you do, you are judging me.”

She adds:

“With this type of continuous marketing messaging, we lose the ability to have critical discussions about where the real choices lie and which ‘choices’ are merely illusions. Most problematically for the future of mothers, it deters us from addressing the systemic problems such as improving child care options, increasing the market for part-time work, the lack of a paid federal maternity leave, and other deep-rooted, anti-family policies that actually devalue mothering and shape our infant feeding choices.”

Mothers aren’t fools. Even those of us who are “fearless formula feeders” and those who don’t give a second thought to a woman holding a baby and a bottle find the public-service message “Don’t judge one another for feeding a baby formula” a little laughable when “brought to you by Similac.”

We get it. We may not want to judge one another. The very-lovely-I’m-sure marketing people at Similac may hope to help mothers bypass that judgment stage. But Similac itself, in whatever corporate form it has, wants people to buy more baby formula. When the message is from a marketer, it’s never just about the message.

That’s why Allers is right to encourage us to look harder at what it means when a company with a financial interest in our infant-feeding choices tells us not to “judge” them. That there is a line between judging and talking is something Similac has no interest in our thinking too hard about.

Plenty of women discuss their feeding decisions daily and stay friends, and we need those discussions. If a friend says, “I’m nursing, but I’m miserable, my nipples are cracked, I can’t sleep and I just don’t feel right,” we should feel free to offer up Hanna Rosin’s “The Case Against Breast-Feeding” and propose that our friend explore her options.

If a pregnant friend says, “I’m thinking it might be easier for me not to nurse,” we should feel equally free to share research on the benefits of breast milk and advice on making it work. Those comments shouldn’t be considered any more judgmental than letting a friend with a Baby Bjorn try out your stroller.

But we do feel judged. Some reader out there is composing a rant against sharing Rosin’s article (“So discouraging! The wrong message!”) or against giving pregnant women research on breast milk (“She’ll feel pressured!”).

In that climate, Similac’s message sounds benign. Instead, it’s only feeding the fire. The emphasis on “not judging” suggests it’s impossible to talk about breast-feeding and formula-feeding without judging unless we try really, really hard — and parents, particularly exhausted new parents, don’t have a whole lot of energy left to make that kind of effort.

If anything you say to a mother with a baby at the bottle or breast might sound judgmental, far easier to say nothing at all, especially if you were trying to think of a tactful way to offer breast-feeding support or help in a context where that would be appropriate.

There’s no denying Similac has a financial interest in convincing us that that conversation — the one in which you try to encourage a friend to breast-feed — is just too delicate to have. Sometimes it is. But we’ll be the judge of that, thanks.

Because if “no judgment” means “no talking,” and “no talking” means, as Allers says, we’re not talking about all the social, cultural and societal factors that play into the choices we make about feeding our babies, then we lose.

It means we’re not likely to say, “I might have nursed longer if I hadn’t had to go back to work after six weeks” or “I might have weaned sooner, but I felt like if I wasn’t working, I should be nursing.”

When we avoid conversations that might lead other women to judge us, we never experience the solidarity of knowing we weren’t alone.

Truly strong moms make our decisions recognizing that they necessarily stem from more than individual “choice,” and we know others do the same. We can consider each others’ choices and our own without judgment, not because a corporate sponsor tells us to, but because we trust we were each doing the best we could.

And without a pack of brand managers telling us to hush up, lest we be seen as judging, we can talk about what needs to change to ensure that when parents make decisions about how to feed and raise their babies, they really are making a choice.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

[email protected]


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