Usually, I have no feelings on the month of August. It’s just another month on the way to spring, and warmer weather and then my favorite holiday of them all, Christmas.
This August from which we are all emerging was brutal. First, there’s the matter of the ongoing third wave of COVID-19 infections. For the first time since this waking nightmare began, I lost people I know and care about, people who took every precaution available to them, people who should still be here. For the first time, it is starting to feel like this might really be it for life as we knew it. I am watching in disbelief as people reject the lifeline of a freely available, safe and as effective as possible vaccine, even as people around them suffer and die.
Secondly, in my line of work, August begins with the annual commemoration of World Breastfeeding Week. Reader, I hate World Breastfeeding Week. As to be expected from any commemorative calendar period, it is a week that often skims over the depth and breadth of breastfeeding experiences, preferring to give airtime to the truisms and generalisations of broad public health messaging. One of the reasons I love the project for which I work is that it is founded on and operates from a deep respect for the lived experiences of mothers. As a mother myself, I know it is no small thing to be mother-focused, and mother-first in an approach to social change. The broad strokes of World Breastfeeding Week often force us into spaces where the nuance and texture of experience is subsumed by the pursuit of a global good. Breast is best, never mind the body to whom that breast is attached.
In as much as it has been a frustrating month, filled with battles on multiple fronts, I am grateful that these two unlikely worlds (COVID-19 and breastfeeding) have collided. Tuning into the noise of World Breastfeeding Week and experiencing (and reexperiencing) what it feels like to be talked at and condescended to by mass messaging has helped me find spots of empathy for the vaccine-hesitant among us. (Not to be confused with the anti-vaccine for whom I have no empathy whatsoever.) I get it, on some level. The scientific establishment has never been particularly good at communicating with the masses. It has always been especially terrible when it comes to communicating matters of public health. What we have witnessed as COVID-19 emerged, mutated time and again, and burned a swath through humanity – the endless shifts in messaging on masks, the confusion around different types of vaccines, the many unanswered questions – is not unusual in the long journey that is scientific discovery. Having some experience as a researcher (albeit a useless qualitative kind), I know that we are watching the sausage being made, and while it is messy, it is not unusual. What’s unusual is that the veil has been lifted on processes we don’t usually hear about. Instead of being presented with a fait accompli in the form of a fully-approved vaccine or a cure, we are watching the hypotheses form, the experiments in design, and the qualified and cautious conclusions emerge.
This is how research works, even in the natural sciences where it can seem like almost everything is known and known for sure. The fact that people might not know that, is the fault of science communications. Instead of trusting people’s judgment enough to let them in on the knowledge-production process, it is cloaked in obscure jargon and produced only to communicate in one-size-fits-all terms. Maybe this is the most efficient way to deliver wide-ranging information that has an impact on almost everyone on the planet. I don’t know if it’s the most effective. When it comes to matters regarding people’s bodies and their health, it is lazy to assume that the same general tropes will suffice. It is even lazier to continue to assume that, even as your knowledge and understanding is shifting faster than you can redraft messaging. I can understand why, after a lifetime of confident assertions regarding our bodies, the hedge-betting nature of COVID-19 science feels confusing. Especially if you have experienced the effects of reductive one-size-fits-all messaging in other spheres of your life.
In my communities of mothers, I have heard this story time and time again: A mother heeds the advice of medical science and public health messaging and commits to breastfeeding. She receives little to no official antenatal preparation around this. When the time comes, there are many nasty surprises, chief among them being the reality of newborn feeding: it is constant as their tummies are very small. I remember sitting alone in a hospital room on the third day of my son’s life, exhausted and in pain, in the fourth hour of trying desperately to establish a latch. I remember screaming at terrified-looking nurses. I remember a decision to syringe-feed formula to soothe my fussy infant. It is a combination of my class privilege and sheer luck that those stop-start early hours didn’t affect our chances at exclusive breastfeeding. We don’t tell women the truth about early breastfeeding. We leave out the cracked, sore nipples, the aching back, the painful letdown, and the crushing insecurity and guilt. Breastfeeding is natural in that it occurs in nature, but let me tell you this: it is hard work. Furthermore, it is dependent on so many factors that are far outside of the control of a mother. Granted, this message doesn’t roll off the tongue. It’s not hashtag-worthy and might not fit on a poster. But it is true. It is fundamentally cruel to sell breastfeeding as this simple, uncomplicated monolithic tradition inherent to our species. I can imagine why a mother who is sold these goods might now struggle accepting any goods at all from public health messengers.
I am certainly not suggesting that there is an association between breastfeeding struggles and vaccine-hesitancy. Far from it: often, mothers who have struggled with breastfeeding and had to supplement with formula can live with contradictions. They have a healthy relationship with the nature of the truth as it relates to something as personal and individual as their and their child’s body. Science knows many things, but it does not know everything.
Ultimately, human beings (especially those who parent smaller human beings) are fine with this. That’s why we can accept the fact that breastmilk is the most superior source of nutrients for an infant, and that formula is an acceptable feeding option. We understand that life is lived in the grey, in the spaces between hard lines. Do scientists understand that? Do public health professionals understand that?
If they do, their messaging does not reflect this. The costs of these gaps in messaging are higher than ever. We are now seeing an attempt to introduce nuance and uncertainty into messaging that has never before acknowledged its existence. Unlike ever before, we are reliant on the human tolerance of uncertainty to help us reclaim a few of the old certainties.
I get it. I’m as angry as you probably are, Reader. I’m angry at the anti-vaxxers and I’m angry at the irresponsible conspiracy peddlers. I am angry at the so-called developed nations who have hogged the global supply of vaccines. But, what do you know? It has been a dark August, and I have anger to spare.
There are many lessons we can learn from this collective nightmare. I hope that one of them is how to talk respectfully and honestly to one another, and trust that we can process and even live with the unknown, just as long as we hold on to each other.