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I also wonder why such a radical scheme is being proposed when the usual, tried-and-tested methods of support are being withdrawn.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.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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