Shaming EU mothers who buy formula

A mother shopping at Tescos in the UK was refused a free parking voucher because she was buying infant formula.  If she had been buying beer or doughnuts or baby shampoo or almost any other product, she would have received the voucher.  Only cigarettes and infant formula were excluded from the voucher program, in accordance with EU regulations which forbid the advertising and promotion of those products.

Laura Leeks felt shamed and guilt-tripped by the staff at Tescos and felt the need to explain the reasons why she was formula feeding rather than breastfeeding in a detailed personal account on their Facebook page.   I hope Tescos listens to her and changes their policies.  Giving parking vouchers for any product does not seem like promotion of particular products and an overly strict application of the regulation.

I saw the opposite of this a few weeks ago in Peru.   Marketers for Pediasure, a product from the US company Abbott, came through the waiting rooms of the paediatric section of the hospital, where mothers were waiting for their infant check-ups, handing out leaflets and balloons for children.  Their leaflet explained that Pediasure would help children grow taller!  Two centimetres every 120 days!


These promises were based on a research paper, cited on the back of the leaflet.    The research paper was produced by employees of Abbott.  They recruited 200 children in Manila, chosen specially because they were small and thin for their age.  At baseline, most of them were eating less than the recommended daily calorie intake.   Then, the Abbott employees gave the parents free formula and asked them to feed it to their children every day, boosting their diets by 450 kcal every day for a year.

Turns out, giving underfed children extra calories makes them grow slightly bigger!  The weight for height percentiles of their sample averaged 16% at baseline (very thin) and 30% at the end (thin).  Height for age percentiles averaged 14% at the beginning (small for their age) and 17% at the end (small for their age), a negligible difference.

How would those results compare to giving those children calories from another source – say, fresh food – for a year?  We will never know.  Obviously, Abbott employees have no interest in making such a comparison.

So yeah.  Let’s restrict the marketing opportunities of these sorts of companies.  I’m sorry that Laura Leeks and other EU mothers got shamed though.



Stories we create about mothers

adoption-177427_1280.jpgA Dutch woman travelled to South Korea because she wanted to find her birth mother.  She ended up on a television show about reuniting people.  A call was put out for her mother, who phoned in and the pair were reunited.  They did not have a language in common and so Hosu Kim, a sociology and anthropology professor based in the US, was called in to interpret for the show.  Kim wrote about her experiences on the show as part of her new book which is all about the transnational adoption of Korean babies.

The producers of the television show deliberately scripted the reunion, and Kim noted that the experience of the birthmother was falsified in several ways for the sake of television.  The show made it seem as if the birth mother – or, the virtual mother as Kim likes to call her – recognized her daughter’s face as soon as she saw it on the screen and called in at once.  In fact, it was a friend of hers who recognized her name and who contacted the show for her.  On the day the reunion was screened, the producers called the mother.

Emotionally, the narrative of the show was that the mother had been longing for her daughter all this time, that ill health and poverty had forced her to give up her daughter to a better life, and that she was delighted to be reunited.  But the truth was not like that, it was more ambiguous.  The mother had been married at the time of the birth and it was never really clear why she had chosen to leave her baby behind in hospital.  She has five other daughters, and they had never been told about the other sister.  The conversations that Kim helped interpret after the screening of the show she described as “confusing, frustrating, and unsatisfying”.

Kim describes two imaginary cultural figures of birthmothers:

The first figure is of an elderly, sacrificing mother who awaits her adopted child’s eventual return in order to reclaim her motherhood; the second figure is of an unmarried, sexually irresponsible woman who has no viable option except to relinquish the child to adoption.

You know, when I first read this, I felt angry and indignant at the idea of women being judged as too irresponsible to keep their children.  How outrageous!  Why, if those mothers did not have sufficient emotional, social and economic support to raise their children, then it was the fault of society in general!  As Hrdy and others have explained, the work of raising a child is simply too much for a single person.  There needs to be a team (a village!) backing her up.

But, you know, while I am still a mother of young children, retirement seems just a stone throw away, really, and young women seem like a different generation.  It occurs to me that in societies without strong government welfare, the work of caring for young, irresponsible mothers and their offspring would have fallen to people like me!  To middle-aged, middleclass women who lived in the area with their own children.  We would have had to cough up money, food, babysitting time, concern, just to get those babies through to school age without any disasters.  And we would have resented it!  There’s enough work for us to do already without irresponsible young women not taking enough care to avoid pregnancy in the first place!  Hmm.  Obviously, the situation is quite different nowadays because of abortion, contraception and government benefits.  It’s none of my concern whether people get pregnant or not.  So I have the luxury of being liberal minded.

Television is all about selling a story, and Kim writes in an engaging way herself.  Still, there’s something very intriguing about the idea that we’re all culturally and politically invested in stories of individual mothers.  I’m not Korean, and Kim lost me a bit when she talked about Korean history and culture, but I definitely felt invested in how the story of this birthmother was framed.  Her story is my story!  Except of course, it isn’t even remotely my story.  So why does it feel like that?


Kim, Hosu. “Television Mothers: Birth Mothers Lost and Found in the Search-and-Reunion Narrative.” Birth Mothers and Transnational Adoption Practice in South Korea. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016. 115-143.