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Mechanical bullshit

A two-year national breastfeeding awareness campaign that culminated this spring ran television announcements showing a pregnant woman clutching her belly as she was thrown off a mechanical bull (.MPG) during ladies' night at a bar — and compared the behavior to failing to breastfeed.

"You wouldn't take risks before your baby's born," the advertisement says. "Why start after?"

— "Breast Feed or Else," by Roni Rabin in The New York Times, June 13, 2006

Smart people all over the Internet have responded to this latest salvo in the ongoing culture-wide war against mothers who do...anything, intelligently addressing almost every one of the issues that occurred to me as I considered the New York Times article and the public health initiative it describes.  I admire their ability to take it seriously, to engage with it on its own terms, because I'm finding it hard to do.  I mean, come on: a mechanical bull?

Now, I'm the first to admit I don't know everything there is to know about el toro mecánico peligroso que come Travolta para el desayuno, but to the best of my knowledge, the only place you're likely to find one is in a bar circa 1982.  And your average mother-to-be who "doesn't take risks before [her] baby's born" isn't likely to be whiling away the last few weeks of her pregnancy in a smoke-filled liquor-fumed bull-equipped den of iniquity.  So they lost me immediately with that.

But just for the sake of argument, let's stipulate that the bar is smoke-free; she's there to enjoy a healthful virgin daiquiri made with pineapple — hel-looooo, infertiles; she's just hoisted her swollen feet onto an adjacent barstool to tell the bartender — who happens to be her legal spouse, all nice and legitimate — about her latest OB appointment while he nods and murmurs affectionate encouragement; the naked blonde dancing on the bar is not in fact a stripper but a childbirth educator demonstrating the proper position for opening one's pelvis during labor; and she's patiently awaiting the arrival of her dealer, who's promised her a taste of the purest white Colombian.  Colombian prenatals, people, completely uncut with baby laxative or Drano.  Seriously good shit.

So maybe with that out of the way I can give the ad its due.  It's problematic for a number of reasons, as the writers linked above explain.  The objection to which I'm most sympathetic is the one voiced by mothers who tried to breastfeed but who failed.  "I felt so guilty," said one mother of twins about her inability to feed her children, whose pediatrician demanded that she supplement with formula when her babies failed to thrive.  The ad, critics say, will only exacerbate such feelings among women who were unable to breastfeed.

When I think about the difficulty I had feeding Charlie, I am convinced that I did everything I could have done to get him to breast.  That's not to say I did everything anyone could have, as I know women and children in far more challenging circumstances manage where I did not.  But I did the best I could at the time, and isn't that all we should ask of ourselves? 

The ads don't inspire feelings of guilt in me because, please, mechanical bull.  I also know Charlie and I both benefited at least as much as we would have if I'd continued.  Nevertheless, it would be dishonest to say that I never feel pangs at my choice to stop trying, because for me, it was just that, a choice.  By the time Charlie was able and I was able, I was just so goddamned tired.  Occasionally I do wish I'd found it in myself to stick it out.  But just as I knowingly took on, say, the increased risk of ear infections when I elected to stop, I accepted the burden of guilt as a condition of that choice.

Other women, however, have that choice taken from them, by misinformation, by medication, by a start so bad it dooms the entire enterprise, by a thousand different conditions that descend on them when they're vulnerable.  It's terribly sad that their reaction to the ad might be to blame themselves. 

But I'm not sure the makers of the ad should be faulted for that.  After all, can we really be made to feel guilty without our consent?  If we truly tried to breastfeed, doing everything within our power to do so, then why can't we feel easy with that?  Why can't we give ourselves a break?  And why do we allow a television commercial — a television commercial starring a mechanical fucking bull — to shake our confidence in our efforts?