Sour milk.

Vir­ginia Larson

North & South - - In This Issue -

In Fe­bru­ary, we ran a story on breast­feed­ing. Its gen­e­sis was in con­ver­sa­tions we had with moth­ers about their “fail­ure” to breast­feed their ba­bies, the guilt they ex­pe­ri­enced and the un­help­ful, some­times bul­ly­ing, re­sponses they had from ma­ter­nity car­ers and on­line moth­ers’ groups.

Ear­lier, we’d re­ceived a phone call from a Welling­ton mother of five who said she was reg­u­larly and openly crit­i­cised by people for breast­feed­ing her chil­dren be­yond an age these strangers deemed ac­cept­able. Her mes­sage was sim­ple: to re­spect people’s choices and sup­port new mums. “What mat­ters,” she said, “is you’re okay and the baby’s okay.”

If only it were that sim­ple. In the in­tro­duc­tion to Sarah Lang’s story, which shed light on some of the more mil­i­tant “breast is best” dis­course, we asked, “What’s hap­pened to com­mon sense and kind­ness?”. Un­for­tu­nately, noth­ing that’s un­folded since the story was pub­lished sug­gests ei­ther com­mon sense or kind­ness has soft­ened the hard­lin­ers’ views – on­line, es­pe­cially.

I don’t be­lieve for a mo­ment people were kin­der, gen­tler or more open-minded be­fore so­cial me­dia al­lowed ev­ery­one a vir­tual soapbox and the op­por­tu­nity to rant anony­mously or oth­er­wise. But I’m still sur­prised that some of the most vin­dic­tive, per­son­ally abu­sive on­line com­ments em­anate from, let’s call them, the “car­ing crusaders” – from people who de­clare they want only the best for chil­dren, for in­stance, or claim they love an­i­mals.

I men­tioned this to a friend who works for a city coun­cil. She sent me a link to a web­site called Fe­line Rights NZ. Not only does this group de­scribe For­est & Bird, Welling­ton City Coun­cil, the Mor­gan Foun­da­tion and the Pol­hill Restora­tion Project as “eco-ex­trem­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions”, it also posts photos of “en­viro-nazis” and “cat ranger fas­cists” – mostly coun­cil­lors, park rangers and the like, go­ing about their law-abid­ing busi­ness.

Fringe- dwellers, you might say of Fe­line Rights, but there are mem­bers of groups like this whose fa­nati­cism ac­tu­ally threat­ens in­di­vid­u­als and their liveli­hoods. Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion (DOC) staff work­ing on pest con­trol know what lengths the “an­i­mal-lov­ing” anti-1080 pro­test­ers will go to, hav­ing been abused and ha­rassed by these ac­tivists. Some DOC work­ers have had wheel nuts loos­ened on their ve­hi­cles and poi­son left in their let­ter­boxes.

Breast­feed­ing ac­tivists surely wouldn’t stoop to such tac­tics. Af­ter all, as Lang points out, “many women speak highly of mid­wives and Plun­ket” – and “you’d look long and hard to find a preg­nant woman who doesn’t plan to breast­feed”. So it’s dis­ap­point­ing to re­port that a post­na­tal prac­ti­tioner Lang in­ter­viewed for her ar­ti­cle has been the sub­ject of a sus­tained, seem­ingly or­ches­trated on­line at­tack. At one point, Philippa Mur­phy’s Face­book page was be­ing hit al­most daily, with damn­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that she “puts the lives of ba­bies and moth­ers at risk”, gives “dam­ag­ing ad­vice”, is “dan­ger­ous” and even a “pla­gia­rist”.

Mur­phy’s Face­book page is an in­te­gral part of her ser­vice; it re­flects her 23 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence and hands-on care of in­fants, and car­ries feed­back from par­ents she’s worked with. Her tor­men­tors may not be sab­o­tag­ing her car, but they are dam­ag­ing her rep­u­ta­tion. Their bar­rage of one-star rat­ings has seen her five-star rat­ing from clients drop to a three. In con­trast, Mur­phy’s re­sponses to these ac­cusatory posts have re­mained mea­sured, pro­fes­sional and po­lite.

She’s no stranger to on­line bul­ly­ing, how­ever, and re­cently wrote to the Mid­wifery Coun­cil, in the hopes of end­ing a vol­ley of highly crit­i­cal com­ments from a local mid­wife. The coun­cil CEO said her com­plaint was un­founded, stat­ing, “none [of the posts] ap­pear to have any ev­i­dence of un­founded ac­cu­sa­tions”.

You’d have to won­der, then, what in­flam­ma­tory state­ments Mur­phy has made that have at­tracted this level of vit­riol. In Lang’s North & South story, you could sum up her com­ments as “breast is best… un­til a baby’s health or mother’s well­be­ing are com­pro­mised; that’s when mixed-feed­ing or for­mu­lafeed­ing should be con­sid­ered”. (For the full story, visit NOTED.CO.NZ and search for “breast­feed­ing”).

It’s also hard to be­lieve mid­wives and breast­feed­ing ad­vo­cates would ob­ject to the in­ter­ven­tion pol­icy pro­pos­als Mur­phy has de­liv­ered to the Min­is­ter of Health, ad­vo­cat­ing for more ded­i­cated post­na­tal ed­u­ca­tion and care for new­borns and par­ents; she also wants soy­based for­mula re­moved from su­per­mar­ket shelves, be­cause of its phy­toe­stro­gen con­tent.

Clearly, there are mid­wives, lac­ta­tion con­sul­tants and baby nurses who don’t agree with Mur­phy’s ap­proach to feed­ing prob­lems and other par­ent­ing is­sues. She be­lieves they have the right to their opin­ions. And she doesn’t post deroga­tory com­ments on their Face­book pages.

Mur­phy was re­luc­tant to be the sub­ject of this ed­i­to­rial; she told me she knows how hard mid­wives and nurses work and how stretched the ser­vice is. She didn’t want to be seen as “un­kind”. It’s a pity the same benev­o­lence hasn’t been ex­tended to her.

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