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Last week, a woman wrote to Dear Prudence with the explosive claim that she had walked in on her daycare provider breastfeeding her formula-fed baby without permission. “The provider said that she was saving my baby from chemicals I was trying to force into her body and I should thank her for doing it all these months,” the woman wrote. Dear Prudence’s Daniel Mallory Ortberg was rightly aghast. “This is a huge breach of trust, a total violation, and absolutely worth reporting,” he wrote.

Simple enough, end of story.

Except that the story—this 358-word letter written to an advice columnist—then made international headlines. The Daily Mail covered the story with its signature all-caps: “Mother is left horrified after catching her babysitter BREASTFEEDING her baby - but the nanny insisted she was just ‘saving the baby from chemicals’ that are found in formula.” It was covered by People,
the New York Post, and The Sun, which is how I came across those horrifying headlines this morning in my newsfeed. A woman! Breastfeeding another woman’s baby! Without permission! To save the kid from formula!

I figured that, surely, this was a story only because a lawsuit had been filed or charges were being sought (it wouldn’t be the first time). But, no, it was just a week-old advice column letter transformed into an international news event, because of breastfeeding and mommy shaming and maternal conflict. Even the feeblest tale of mom-on-mom crime is worthy of this degree of tabloid coverage, because these stories get traction. They get traction because they so efficiently exploit our fears and guilt around children’s safety and good-enough motherhood.

That’s what a mom fight like this does: it symbolically plays out the pressures, dichotomous divides, and deeply unsatisfying choices facing mothers, while distracting us from the systematic bullshit that mires us here. It’s why the media so often creates a mom fight even where there is none.

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Of course, stories like this also hit a fundamental nerve around violations of trust and drastic overstepping of boundaries. In 2017, Globe and Mail columnist Leah Mclaren sparked backlash after writing a now-deleted column in which she admitted to trying to secretly breastfeed someone else’s baby at a party, despite the fact that she was not lactating. This isn’t even the first time Dear Prudence has addressed this particular issue: In 2012, a letter writer said she walked in on her baby unexpectedly suckling at her mother-in-law’s breast.

But this Dear Prudence story is so much more symbolic, which seems part of why it’s gotten this outsized media spotlight. It not only taps into the breastfeeding versus formula debate, but it also channels the stay-at-home versus working moms and daycare versus nanny debates. There are all sorts of strong undercurrents of shame and judgment and, maybe most of all, fear. So we click. I clicked.