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I also wonder why such a radical scheme is being proposed when the usual, tried-and-tested methods of support are being withdrawn.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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.