Lactavism? Adaptive guilt, Shame, and the myth of the Just World

The health outcomes associated with breastfeeding are weaker when breastfeeding is not exclusive. And I think this is part of the objection to "Lactivism" - the intense emphasis on exclusivity and increasing breastfeeding duration. Rather than viewing early breastfeeding cessation or cessation of breastfeeding exclusivity as a personal failing, I feel that it's more an indictment of the lack of structural supports and access to quality, evidence-based information that can best support the breastfeeding dyad. It's easy to conflate the finger pointing at the system's shortcomings with the individual, especially when mother guilt is in full effect.

Is guilt a bad thing? Not according to shame researcher Brene Brown, nor other shame researchers. When processed positively, guilt is adaptive and helpful - shame, however, involves holding what we have or have not done up against our values, which leads to discomfort. Indeed, labeling (such as the use of the term "Lactavist"....) is part of what transforms the adaptive response of guilt into the emotionally crippling reaction that is shame.

Adaptive Guilt?

Yes, guilt can be adaptive and serve a function. According to Tangney, Stuewig and Mashek (2009),"Guilt appears to motivate reparative action, foster other-oriented empathy, and promote constructive strategies for coping with anger". Previous interpretations of guilt as maladaptive were due to the conceptual frameworks applied that did not differentiate shame from guilt. Once this differentiation is made, and guilt is understood as a response to a specific failure or transgression while shame becomes an emotional reaction applied globally to a person's self-concept, with a broad stroke. Instead of understanding the thing that you did as something that did not meet your expectations, shame is the reaction to feeling that who you are, fundamentally, is not worthy.

There is a large body of research showing that children, adolescents and adults are not more prone to depression, anxiety or low self-esteem when they demonstrate adaptive guilt (Gramzow & Tangney 1992; Leskela et al. 2002; Quiles & Bybee 1997; Tangney 1994; Tangney & Dearing 2002Tangney et al., 1992, Tangney et al, 1995). Shame can be a crippling experience, and potentially robs an individual of the ability to take action, express empathy towards others, and interferes with the ability to develop more constructive emotional strategies.

Tracy, over at Evolutionary Parenting, had a blog post that debunks and delves in why 'mommy guilt' is actually a good thing.

The Risks of Labeling

I've written previously on the topic of in-groups, out-groups and the psychology of crowds. This is my main criticism of the idea of "mommy wars" and the us vs. them mentality that characterizes much of the dialogue surrounding motherhood. Dr. Thomas Scheff explores labeling in the context of mental illness in his theory of labeling, and I may be reaching by extrapolating - but the process of labeling is reductionist, and the stigmatization inherent in using a reductionist label as an insult, or grouping an entire subset of people into an out-group characterized by a single label, naturally involves subtle (and not so subtle) acts of emotional violence.

This emotional space - chaotic, violent, and irrational - is a well-spring for monetary profit. Companies make money off the wars we wage amongst ourselves, and over time what may have initially begun as an impulsive cash in can become something that must be fueled and facilitated. The UK has compiled a list of websites and organizations funded by the artificial baby milk industry. You would be hard-pressed to find a resource like this in the US, but the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Healthy Foundation have all received significant funding contributions from formula manufacturers. Artificial baby milk manufacturers also provide substantial discounts, in the form of rebates, to state Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Programs in return for the exclusive right to provide their products to the state’s WIC participants. WIC's bidding system saves the federal government a substantial amount of money, and in return, artificial baby milk manufacturers obtain dedicated customers who often, due to poverty and systematic, structural inequities,  also lack access to a real choice when it comes to infant feeding.

The Just World

Is the world a just place? Absolutely not. I tell my children this on a regular basis when they insist that I'm not being fair. Often, I'm not being fair. I'm asking them to reduce the severity of their emotional displays for personal convenience, or rushing them through something that would normally be a rich learning experience because we have to be someplace at a certain time...and I always respond that the world is not fair, and that they shouldn't have any expectation of justice outside of their own actions (yes, I'm a super fun mom /sarcasm). The Just-World Phenomenon is part of the cycle of unconscious bias that perpetuates victim blaming, and it is so ubiquitous that many of us have internalized this bias.

So, for example, the view that early breastfeeding cessation that happens before a mother has reached her own personal breastfeeding goals is somehow related to the shortcomings of the mother herself, can be an unconscious assumption that is actually a form of victim-blaming. In this way, we direct culpability to the victim and distance ourselves from our own feelings of vulnerability that can often be elicited by observing another person's trauma. Indeed, secondary trauma - a post traumatic reaction to witnessing the trauma of another person, is a real thing, although the degree to which this phenomenon becomes a disorder rather than a reaction is highly individual.

If we lived in a just world, infant feeding choice would be a real thing, and quite frankly it's not. The choice to feed your infant formula or breast milk is something that is a privilege. Many people dislike the term 'privilege' (more specifically it tends to be those who have the privilege to be in a place where they have the choice to dislike it! haha metacognition, ftw). Privilege is a condition that naturally arises from circumstances of social inequity. It's something that can only be ignored or denied if you are in the position to benefit from privilege.

And so it follows, if you believe in a just world, you will probably unconsciously engage in victim blaming, and you may also feel uncomfortable with the concept of privilege or strongly assert that you are not part of this system (maybe you, too, grew up in poverty or you also _______. Something to that effect.)


There was an entire book recently published with this blazoned as a title. I dismissed it immediately, because I knew that indulging in a reductionist label as a book title comes from that emotional space of chaos, aggression, and subtle violence that characterizes the attempt to financially capitalize off of facilitating an ideological conflict. The idea that new mothers are pressured brings circumstances that are a reflection of structural and systematic shortcomings back into the realm of victim-blaming, and asserts that the feelings of shame that are rampant in a culture and society that doesn't do a very good job creating emotionally healthy people are a reflection of those people making us feel bad.

We are a culture that suffers from an epidemic of anger. Anger can be leveraged towards something that is adaptive and leads to growth, but that requires a high degree of resilience (which is often the result of developing a health attachment to caregivers at the primordial stages of emotional development in infancy and early childhood) and a high degree of self-awareness.

Dr. Melissa Bartick proposes the abandonment of the term altogether, and I tend to agree. Using this term perpetuates divisiveness and justifies the micro-aggression (and overt aggression) that characterizes the current depiction of motherhood. If you had the privilege to make an informed infant feeding choice from a place of freedom, understand that your experience is the exception rather than the rule in our nation of multitudes. Advocacy for families is rooted in providing others with access to that same place of freedom to make an informed choice themselves, rather than being forced into a specific direction due to circumstances beyond your control.

Perhaps the facilitation of secure attachment and the acknowledgment of the sacred space that exists in the bond between parent and child is the foundation from which a peaceful and truly just world can be built upon, and maybe this can make a real dent in the anguish evident in the American psyche of today.


Popular posts from this blog

The Endocannabinoid System and Therapeutic Use of Medical Cannabis, THC and CBD

MORE on Cannabinoids and Cannabidiol (CBD)

A word on Westworld, Flashbacks and PTSD