On the perennially explosive topic that is breastfeeding, it seems you have to declare your own experience at the outset, so that, like with much else in life, people can pigeonhole you. I’ll oblige, although I don’t really agree – I’ve had two children. Both times breastfeeding was difficult at the outset, especially the first time. I was handed a bottle of formula in the hospital because ‘baby might get jaundice’. With some persistence I managed to breastfeed, although my first always had a little bottle of formula most days: I’d not been able to shake the idea that my milk was ‘not enough’.
I do think that most women, given the right amount of time and care, would be able to breastfeed for the first six months (beyond that I don’t think is an area worth expending huge amounts of energy on) and this is the most desirable outcome. I was always struck by the analogy of the Martian looking down to Earth, being puzzled by seeing a new mother’s breasts fill with milk who then gave the child a different form of sustenance.
This article is not to sing breastfeeding women’s praises however, nor an indictment that all women should breastfeed. For those that can’t or won’t that’s fine. I am more interested in the reactions and opinions that surround the issue.
The three main reasons espoused by the breastfeeding lobby are health, convenience and cost. The first is definitely a grey area, with evidence emerging regularly to prove or disprove theories regarding health benefits for mother and/or child and recently possible toxins in breastmilk absorbed from our environment (The Guardian 23/6/2012). I’m a bottle fed baby (my mother having been given no support) and I turned out just dandy. The other two reasons are hard to argue with. Yes, if you’re bottle feeding someone else can do it for you, freeing you up to go out, but seriously, it’s six months out of your life. It may seem an eternity while you’re in it, but it’s not really. The third speaks for itself really.
What intrigues me is the furore that is constant around the whole issue. Bottle-feeding mothers assume that they are being looked down upon by breast-feeding ones. Some feel guilty, others are defiant. Generally the breast-feeding mothers I’ve met are not judging, they’re just getting on with their lives, hoping their cracked nipples will recover and their thrush doesn’t worsen into mastitis. Sadly I think this is yet another example where women are pitted against each other, by themselves, the media and society in general. This is intensely personal because it involves their bodies and it is an oft-observed fact that women’s attention to their appearance is more for the benefit of other women than attracting men, who are usually much more forgiving.
Very few articles I see on this subject acknowledge the fact that the increased sexualisation of women’s bodies over the years has played a part in the attitudes to breastfeeding. We have a strange dichotomy on our hands. Many feel uncomfortable over women breastfeeding in public, yet we still have the daily sexy tits shot in a tabloid. A recent article by Zoe Williams in The Guardian discussed many of the issues around breastfeeding, but not that.
It also touched lightly on the even more thorny subject of class:
‘The assumption tends to be that the kind of people who breastfeed anyway and eat organic have no need of advice, while the people to whom advice is dispensed are essentially counselled to act more like the middle classes.’
This was picked up someone commenting on the article. As a Spaniard, she doesn’t realise that mentioning ‘class’ outright is for the English (not so much for the rest of the UK, I think) on a par with buggering the bursar.
‘In this country, we have managed to turn breastfeeding into a class issue. As a Spaniard living in the UK for 24 years, it never ceases to amaze me how we again and again turn the most innocuous subjects into class definers.’ Waybuloo, Comments
She goes on to say that she wishes she hadn’t breastfed because ‘I can't bear to be thought of as in the same camp as those breastfeeding nazis farting on and on.’
Again, a little harsh but it raises the uncomfortable fact that breastfeeding is a class issue. Generally those that breastfeed are middle class. Why is this? Is it as simple as the fact that they are raised or live in households where the daily newspaper doesn’t display women’s breasts? A daily dose of titillating tits would surely make most young girls believe that breasts not used in a sexual sense but as a food source is somehow disgusting and dirty?
Women can often be their own worst enemies and this topic is no exception. Claire Jones-Hughes organised a flashmob (literally) after her upsetting treatment at the hands of some narrow-minded bullies who were upset by her feeding her young baby in a café. This attracted a fair amount of media attention, especially as it was in Brighton, where we feed our babies until they’re 56. As a supporter of Claire, I posted a link to the story on my Facebook page. An acquaintance of mine wrote: ‘How disgusting. I would have gagged into my latte to see her feeding in public. Don’t judge me, I have brought up three lovely bottle-fed children.’
Don’t judge me?! When she herself was judging? I removed the remark from my page.
Feeling the battle is far from won, Claire is organising another event – a picnic - for mothers, families and supporters. Having received some flak for the first event from those claiming it was sensationalist and no doubt criticism for daring to speak out in public at all, this event is a bit different. She has described it thus:
‘No one is excluded, no matter how you fed your baby, come and show solidarity with breastfeeding mothers. I'm extremely tired of certain media publications using the issue to sell papers and dividing the public in general. How we will ever hope to educate future generations of the benefits of breastfeeding if the debate is trivialised and sensationalised?’
How indeed? The debate will rumble on for many decades, I suspect.