It’s been a while since I’ve published a blog. #sorrynotsorry – my top priority in the past year or so has been protecting my mental health and breastfeeding relationship with my daughter. I’ll write more about that some time but let’s just say that while I’m still in the middle of it I’d rather just get on with doing it 😉

So. As I flicked through my facey feed, I noticed a new meme that has started doing the rounds in breastfeeding social media circles. Created by a Canadian doula, this image has so far been shared by some of the biggest names in breastfeeding advocacy and support. The Milk Meg, Best for Babes Foundation, the UK Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.

This meme features the international symbol for breastfeeding, to which has been added the words ‘chestfeeding/breastfeeding’. Encircling this symbol are eight different sets of avatars representing a diversity of families and the different ways they provide breastmilk for their baby. Or babies? Who knows – because for all the smiling cartoon parents, there’s not a single infant* (or breast) to be seen.

Who do we see?

  • “Dads: inducing lactation”
  • “Solo mom: exclusively pumping”
  • “Trans dad chestfeeding: supported by mom”
  • “Both moms nursing: birth parent and induced lactation in non-birthing parent”
  • “Bottlefeeding: donor milk”
  • “Mom breastfeeding: from the breast supported by dad”
  • “Working parent: pumping & breastfeeding”
  • “Non-binary: birth parent chestfeeding & supplementing”

Houston, we have a LOT of problems.

The first problem, as I’ve already mentioned, is that not one of these families has a baby with them. Breastfeeding/chestfeeding/pumping/bottle feeding has been reduced to something which is performed by adults in the absence of the person who breastfeeding is actually for. This is further reinforced by the placement of images of bottles and breastpumps next to four of the families.

Using bottles and breastpumps as a stand-in for a baby is something of which breastfeeding advocates have long been critical. The international symbol for breastfeeding was created following a Mothering magazine contest in 2006, specifically to provide an alternative to iconography representing infancy that did not involve artificial feeding or soothing objects. The entire intent of this symbol is to represent the biological norm of babies feeding at their mother’s breast – surrounding it with imagery of adults, bottles and pumps is not only nonsensical, it’s regressive.

The fact that a meme like this can be created and shared, with even major breastfeeding organisations failing to notice that the babies are missing, speaks volumes about how totally and deeply normalised the separation of mothers and babies truly is. We refer to breastmilk feeding as ‘breastfeeding’, we accept commercial surrogacy arrangements. The absence of babies here is simply a continuum of the commodification of the female body and our milk, in which the needs of the mother baby dyad are ignored in favour of what that mother and baby are ‘for’.

And what is a baby ‘for’, anyway? Unfortunately, this meme very strongly suggests that the role of a baby is as a prop in their parent/s performance of breastfeeding. While breastfeeding can certainly form a very strong part of a mother’s identity, that is part of a mutual relationship which begins before birth. Breastfeeding is not and should never be a means of self-identification for adults. One of the key principles of breastfeeding support is that “Breastfeeding is for the baby, not the baby for breastfeeding.” This means that in situations where someone who is not a baby’s birth mother wants to breast or bottle feed that baby, it is legitimate and necessary to ask why, as well as what the costs and benefits may be for both mother and baby.

For example: “dads inducing lactation”. Where is the baby’s mother? Did she have the opportunity to breastfeed her baby at birth, thereby receiving the hormonal stimulation for her uterus to contract, protecting her against postpartum bleeding? Did she exercise fully informed consent in accepting the higher risk of breast cancer and PND (etc etc) that accompany not breastfeeding? Where is the evidence that the composition of male milk has the same properties as maternal milk, or that the drug therapy needed to sustain male lactation is safe for the infant? Where is the evidence that men can provide enough breastmilk to adequately nourish and sustain an infant?

Likewise, “trans dad chestfeeding supported by mom”. There is a growing number of stories of trans families in which the non-birthing parent has induced lactation and attempted to share breastfeeding, resulting in the inability of either parent to establish an adequate breastmilk supply. So, is the birth mother’s breastfeeding relationship being unnecessarily interrupted, putting both mother and baby at risk? And what of the power dynamics in the intimate partner relationship – we know that among heterosexual families, one outworking of coercion and control tactics is for fathers to insist on ‘feeding the baby too’. Trans parents are already a vulnerable subset of our communities – who is looking out for the families not represented by smiling nonbinary avatars?

I could go on and on… this meme just keeps on giving. Where, for example, is the exclusively breastfeeding single mother? Or the mother breastfeeding while coping with an unsupportive partner? The mother who had to stop breastfeeding because her local breastfeeding clinic was defunded and she couldn’t afford a private IBCLC? The mother with bleeding nipples and low supply and an aching c-section wound crying silently in the night as she scrolls down her facebook feed and sees that even men can breastfeed, so why is it so hard for her? Where are the single dads inducing lactation, or losing their job because they asked if they could have a room at work to pump instead of the toilet?

So come on people, really. This meme isn’t about inclusivity. This meme is about derailing the barely-there focus from the endless everyday barriers and oppressions faced by breastfeeding mothers, in order to fuel a narrative in which breastfeeding mothers and lactivists are the oppressor. (Hmm now, where else have I heard that line before *cough cough fed is best cough cough*)

Furthermore, this meme (and others like it) exploit the socialisation of women to DON’T HURT ANYONE’S FEELINGS and IF YOU DON’T HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO SAY DON’T SAY ANYTHING. Nobody wants to be the mean girl denying trans, nonbinary and men folk their chance to experience devalued and stigmatised caring labour  the highs and lows of breastfeeding. So we share the meme, we censure other women for their ‘transphobia’ and ‘homophobia’, we participate in our own oppression one virtue signal at a time.

Did the author of this meme intend any of this? Well, as I’ve been told so often and so wokely, intent =/= impact. The impact so far as I’ve seen, has been women becoming increasingly invested in defending the rights of men to lactate, and convinced that the best course of action is to take up the weapons of patriarchy in order to silence dissent. Business as usual, then.

*This is the point where somebody comments ‘BUT THE SYMBOL IN THE MIDDLE!’ First, the symbol is not the point of the meme. Second, applying the international symbol of breastfeeding on to a series of situations in which little if any actual breastfeeding is occurring, is appropriation, not representation.