Breastfeeding is not some cute and joyous luxury - it's work

There’s nothing emotional or touching about sitting in an office sick room, desperately trying to drain your boobs before the next meeting starts.

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Across the UK, women are being held back from doing the unpaid, exhausting, boring work each and every one of them was born to do. As a result, the UK risks falling behind competitors in terms of the efficient exploitation of womankind.

According to experts, the social stigma attached to cleaning behind the fridge and ironing underpants is leading countless British women to neglect these tasks entirely.

“Attitudes need to change,” said one. “For too long society has been ambivalent about watching women get down on their hands and knees and scrub the floor for no pay whatsoever. Men in particular have tended to find this ‘yucky’. We want women to know that servitude is a normal part of daily life and in many cases will bring them great joy.”

I’m joking, obviously. No one would actually say these things, would they? While it might be true that both globally and within the UK women perform a greater share of unpaid domestic tasks, few would try to sell this as something women need to be “liberated” to do even more of, at least not without an offer of material support and economic recognition.

And yet we do this with breastfeeding. Time and again, the hard work of breastfeeding is sold to women as some luxurious activity – “a wonderful, joyous thing,” according to Prof Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – despite the fact that for many of us, it’s anything but.

It’s not that I’ve got anything against breastfeeding (or floor-scrubbing) per se. I breastfed all of my children and would do so again. I absolutely agree that all women who want to breastfeed should be encouraged to do so, which is why I even trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter.

But let’s be clear: breastfeeding is work. It’s not some cute little mother-and-baby bonding activity that society needs to indulge while the men get on with the real jobs. Feeding an infant is a task essential to the maintenance of human life, yet somehow, along with gestating a foetus, it’s not considered any great sacrifice. The womb’s just there; the milk’s just there. No big deal, right?

Only it is a big deal. There are definite advantages to breastfeeding compared to bottle feeding, even disregarding the health benefits. There’s no expenditure on formula, no faffing about with a steriliser, no mixing and heating and washing. But – and this, for me, is a massive, tremendous, all-too-often-ignored but – even if you find breastfeeding relatively straightforward and painless, you are the only person who can do it.

You don’t get any time off. Yes, you can express and get someone else to do the odd feed, but your body doesn’t care for your personal timetable. You are on that lactation treadmill all the time. Any attempts at skiving will be met with leaking, engorgement and the ever-present threat of mastitis.

Return to paid work and you will need to intersperse your usual tasks with regular trips to the breast pump. There’s nothing emotional or touching about sitting in an office sick room, your dress yanked down around your waist, desperately trying to drain your boobs before the next meeting starts. I did this until my last son was one and frankly couldn’t wait for this “joyous” bonding experience to end.

Today we’re seeing reports about the need to end stigma by teaching children about breastfeeding in school. Great, I say. Stigma is a problem, although I’ve a sense it’s getting better already. The first time I breastfed was in 2007, the last time, 2016. In my darkest hours, I can look back on those early days with my first son and think “yes, we may have had a Labour government and been members of the EU, but it was definitely harder to get your tits out in Starbucks”. So, there’s always that.

Even so, I’m tired of the sheer entitlement that comes with recommendations to increase breastfeeding uptake. Yes, it’s important that men stop seeing breasts as solely sexual objects. Indeed, it’d be great if men could stop doing that with the rest of women’s bodies too. But removing obstacles and providing encouragement isn’t the same as actively appreciating and rewarding female reproductive labour. Women shouldn’t be grateful for being “allowed” to breastfeed. Any gratitude is owed to them.

According to the WHO’s Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and UNICEF’s Anthony Lake, “breastfeeding is not a one-woman job”. I understand that by this they mean significant cultural and structural support is required to help women breastfeed, and that breastfeeding can benefit whole communities. Of course, on both of these things they’re absolutely right.

All the same, I’m pretty sure neither Ghebreyesus nor Lake are likely to be getting their man-boobs out any time soon. There are limits to how much of a shared enterprise breastfeeding can be. If breastfeeding is so wonderful – if, as these men write, it is “an enabler to ending poverty, promoting economic growth, and reducing inequalities” – then it’s about time we stopped taking female bodies for granted.

Reproductive labour comes at a cost. Instead of constantly asking for more, isn’t it about time the rest of the world started paying its dues?

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