Bribes for breastfeeding: Why is a woman's personal choice made so difficult?

Breasts are not a self-contained, independent milk bar that a mother merely happens to have located on the front of her body. Breastfeeding is something a woman makes a choice to do.

When it comes to bribes for breastfeeding, it seems I got my timing all wrong. It’s three years since I last breastfed and apparently the £200 worth of high street shopping vouchers awarded to mothers taking part in a new research project can’t be awarded retrospectively. It’s a shame, since as MP Charlotte Leslie helpfully points out, said mothers could even spend the vouchers on “fags and booze” (think of the post-breastfeeding shindig you could have!). Anyhow, I’ve clearly missed the boat on this one and will have to look out for something else (presents for pushing? Gifts for gestating? The possibilities are endless).

Like many people, I have my concerns about this project. I’ve nothing against vouchers or breastfeeding but putting the two together does not, to my mind, make sense. It reduces the complex reasons why a mother may not breastfeed to the assumption that she’s clearly not bothered, at least not until someone waves a few Poundland vouchers under her nose. While I realise some of these vouchers will be going to women who need them, it disturbs me to think that they will be withheld from women with similar needs who fail to toe the line. I worry that if breastfeeding becomes, in essence, paid (however poorly) some women will feel unbearable pressure to continue regardless of how they and their babies are responding. I worry about abusive partners exerting pressure on women to get their vouchers. I worry about how progress will be monitored and how intrusive such monitoring could be. I also wonder why such a radical scheme is being proposed when the usual, tried-and-tested methods of support are being withdrawn. Beyond all this, however, I wonder what this says about our attitude towards women and their bodies that we will bribe them to perform biological functions that they should be free to opt out of. 

I have no problems with breastfeeding itself; I would do it again, but that would be my choice. What bothers me is how little acknowledgement is given to how personal a decision this is and to the degree to which breastfeeding compromises ownership of one’s own body. It’s a compromise that I, as an individual, wanted to make but I can’t help feeling the overwhelming pressure on women to breastfeed – regardless of their feelings and circumstances – disregards their individuality and their needs.

Breastfeeding does not begin and end with the act itself. Breasts are not a self-contained, independent milk bar that a mother merely happens to have located on the front of her body. As long as you are lactating you are subject to the rhythms of your baby, regardless of whether you are the primary carer or have other responsibilities. Any time spent away means either miserably expressing in public toilets or being punished with painful engorgement and leaking. When you are unwell you will feel pressured to avoid all medication, “just to be on the safe side”.  The clothes you wear will be dictated by “ease of access” principles. Your sex life may suffer (not because, as is often suggested, we are just too squeamish around breasts, but because sex is weird, we all have our preferences and suddenly getting let-down while getting down to it might not be an individual’s idea of fun).

I realise all of these things will strike some people as minor issues but the discomfort and inconvenience affect people differently according to their circumstances. It’s not good enough to say “it is always worth it for the sake of your child”. As far as I’m concerned, this kind of thinking sits neatly alongside the view that pregnancy is an inconvenience, abortion a lifestyle choice and a caesarean a posh woman’s indulgence. It’s the belief that women’s bodies have a purpose without context. It is dehumanising.

I’m sure breastfeeding is made much more difficult than it needs to be. Not only is the already inadequate supply of practical support via health visitors, midwives and breastfeeding counsellors under threat, but our attitude towards bare female flesh is characterised by a mix of salaciousness and prudishness that makes breastfeeding in public contentious when it should be a perfectly natural thing to see. There is, however, a clear difference between supporting, enabling and judging.

There is something badly wrong with the way in which any discussion of breastfeeding brings up crass stereotypes, with lactating Primrose Hill Polly Fillers played off against ignorant formula fiends who need bribes in order to make them do the right thing. The debate is crammed with classist assumptions, something which the voucher proposal only exacerbates. The truth is, new mothers need help for a wide variety of reasons and financial support should not be contingent on making a choice that has such a personal impact.

In Expecting Better Emily Oster notes that when it comes to pregnancy, good decision-making is rejected in favour of recommendations which focus on data alone without considering the personal pluses and minuses which “may result in different decisions for different people”. The same is true, I think, when it comes to recommendations on how mothers should feed their babies. Increasing the pressure to breastfeed rather than creating the conditions in which mothers feel happier to opt in sets a damaging precedent. By all means give mothers the means to purchase the things they need but let them nurture their babies in the way that is best for them.

Breastfeeding does not begin and end with the act itself. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war