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Our regressive, insensitive and cultish attitude to breastfeeding

Blind adherence to the principle of “breast is best” seems to have become more important than treating babies, toddlers and parents as whole human beings.

A woman breastfeeds her newborn baby. Photograph: Getty Images

Both of my children were breastfed, the first one, miserably, hidden away in public toilets or upstairs rooms ( “we set this one aside for you”), or on the sofa at home, following a long trudge back from town (“no, I can’t feed you now, I know you’re hungry, I hear your cries, but someone might see”). With the second it was different. With two children under two, I stopped caring. I ignored all the “this town welcomes breastfeeding” stickers placed only in the loneliest, most isolated places. Took no notice of the “discreet” breastfeeding aprons now marketed at mothers lest some innocent passer-by is corrupted by the sight of babe on tit. I whacked my breasts out anywhere and everywhere. My baby needed feeding. I fed him. I didn’t care what people thought. I might have had twice as many little ones to care for, but life was a whole lot easier.

It’s a couple of years since I breastfed and in some ways I miss it. I liked the bonding and I’ll be honest, by the end of it, I liked the “fuck you” it gave to anyone with the sheer nerve to be offended by it. And many people still are offended by it – really offended. Many of the worst offenders (or offendees?) lurk on Twitter (a surprising number of people feel inclined to tweet their disgust at nursing in public, frequently comparing it to defecation). I’ve never had such comparisons made to my face, but have had the odd “bitty” comment. This form of public disapproval is bad for mothers, bad for babies and terrible for the relationship they’re trying to forge. I still feel shame at not having given my firstborn sustenance freely, whenever and wherever he needed it.

Breastfeeding needs to be made easier, much easier. The trouble is, we’ve set our sights on the wrong people, something which became increasingly clear to me when I trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter. There the whole focus is not on prejudice but on ignorance – to be specific, the presumed ignorance of new mothers. The idea seems to be that society doesn’t need to change, new mothers do. When they don’t breastfeed it’s always because they “don’t know the facts”, or “haven’t persevered”, or have physical and/or psychological challenges that can be “easily overcome”. The idea that perhaps a woman just doesn’t want to – and that that is fine – is something no one in the pro-breastfeeding camp dares to mention. As time goes on, I become increasingly convinced that a great deal of breastfeeding propaganda isn’t to do with supporting women, regardless of how they choose to feed. It’s about pushing a broader philosophical position on how mothers should be, and it’s one I find regressive, insensitive and more than a little bit cultish.

This week American academic Joan B Wolf will give a lecture at the University of Kent in which she will argue the health benefits of breastfeeding are over-rated. This is to tie in with her book Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood.  I have not read the work and am prepared to believe that it is not without its own biases (Wolf is a professor of gender studies, not a clinician). Even so, I am relieved that the perception of breastfeeding as the default “right thing” for any mother to do is being challenged. I don’t think you need to talk to scientists (as Wolf has done) to know that it’s not so clear-cut. Any mother who hasn’t been bullied into losing the ability to think critically should be able to recognise this.  

Here, for instance, are just some of the drawbacks of breastfeeding (not including those based on external prejudice):

  • You’re on call to feed the baby 24/7 (convenient, my arse)
     
  • Other parents can’t take part in feeding unless you express, which is so time-consuming you end up thinking “sod it, shall we just agreed that I feed him/her?”
     
  • Other children lose out on one-on-one time with Mummy
     
  • It makes returning to work more difficult
     
  • It causes mothers physical pain (“not if you’re doing it properly”, they say. Of course, they’re not around in the morning when you wake up with tits like rock-hard boulders)
     
  • It can give mothers mastitis (“not if you -” oh, just give it up, you fibbers)
     
  • It can make mothers lose too much weight (“Too much? Is there such a thing as too much?” you might ask. Well, yes. I lost so much it triggered an eating disorder relapse. On balance, this was not a plus)
     
  • Variations in milk supply and ability to achieve let-down cause distress and frustration to both mother and baby (one of the reasons I think my youngest self-weaned. By the time he reached nine months, he wanted some consistency, dammit, and who can blame him?)

These, by the way, are all the complaints of someone who found breastfeeding “easy” i.e. me. What’s it like for someone who finds it hard? Why are we so convinced that the benefits outweigh the risks? What about the fact, pure and simple, that this is another person’s body we’re talking about? What about her right to bodily integrity? What about her feelings? (Contrary to popular belief, mummies still have those.) I’ve never seen satisfactory responses to these questions. Women who’ve just given birth are ordered not to be so “selfish”, yet isn’t selfish to base serious parenting decisions on something other than the antibodies found in a particular liquid, a liquid for which there is another, perfectly acceptable if not-so-antibody-tastic substitute.

Four years ago I attended a seminar run by my local breastfeeding support network. It was led by breastfeeding guru and author of The Politics of Breastfeeding, Gabrielle Palmer. Palmer was a good, convincing speaker. It was some of the other breastfeeding supporters I had issues with. They scared me. A lot of them seemed furious – really bloody furious – about the very existence of formula milk. They were outraged at the way formula manufacturers piggy-back on the benefits of breastfeeding in order to promote the alternative, outraged at the way “follow-on” milk has been used to get around bans on advertising formula for newborns. I just can’t get that cross. They’re just adverts. All adverts are sneaky. I’ve used follow-on milk. It is not the sperm of the devil. It feeds babies. It might not be breast milk, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing in and of itself. It seems to me that the whole Nestlé scandal, while indefensible, has been exploited by certain breastfeeding supporters to make the use of formula itself appear morally wrong. This isn’t logical and it isn’t fair.

Yesterday morning I saw this issue discussed on Twitter and it struck me that many mothers – regardless of how they feed their babies – do not hold the extreme views commonly ascribed to them. We do not fall neatly into two camps, those of defensive bottle-feeder and smug, self-righteous breast-feeder. We are able to see nuance and make the compromises we need to as parents. By contrast compromise wasn’t something I encountered in the breastfeeding counsellor who trained our group. She objected even to the use of breast pumps because “feeding a baby from a bottle will cause nipple confusion, even if the milk is expressed”. I did once mention to her that I’d depended on my breast pump after my second child was sent to hospital in a different town. Without expressing, I wouldn’t have been able to spend half my nights at home with my other child while my partner stayed in the hospital. The counsellor’s view was that my elder son – not yet two – should just have settled for not having Mummy at home for a while. I found it hard to believe that the avoidance of baby bottles, regardless of what they contained, should have been more important than reassuring my son at such a difficult time. It felt as though blind adherence to the principle of “breast is best” had become more important than treating babies, toddlers and parents as whole human beings, with a broad range of physical, emotional and practical needs. Is such an attitude really likely to make more women think breastfeeding is worthwhile?

We should of course be frustrated at the fact that those mothers who wish to breastfeed don’t always get the support and information they require. More than that, however, we should be outraged that all mothers, regardless of their choices, will be made to feel bad about how they care for their babies. Breastfeed and you’ll feel the pressure to hide from public view. Bottle-feed and it will be suggested that you have “failed”. And yet however you do it, feeding is caring and nurturing. How can we have let it become a source of shame?