This World Breastfeeding Week, coming after the birth of the Women’s Equality Party (of which I am a founding member) reminds me of the episode of Friends where Ross expresses incredulity about a man being a nanny. “It’s like if a woman wanted to be…” erm… Cue Rachel’s disdain and his only answer, “King?”
Nursing a child at the breast is truly a conundrum in the age of equality. It is a job only a mother can do.
And what a wonderful job it is too. It turns out equality has it only half right if it only focuses on sameness rather than fairness and justice. After all, if mothers and children were valued, equality would include supporting breastfeeding mothers, adequately supporting those who work to support breastfeeding mothers, funding the Infant Feeding Survey (rather than scrapping it), funding breastfeeding awareness week (rather than withdrawing cash), ensuring adequate training in breastfeeding for all health care professionals and ensuring that formula companies comply with the World Health Organisation’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes. For starters. Try reading the Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer and looking at Nestle and ‘follow-on milk’ in the same way again.
Breastfeeding is a reminder that it is women alone who have the equipment for the natural nourishment of human babies, that we are mammals, and that babies, from an evolutionary perspective, expect to receive mother’s milk. One might say that baby’s need for mother is intense in the early years, as basic as her need for food. And, my goodness, doesn’t that make us all so very uncomfortable. It is almost verboten to say it.
Mothers worry, naturally, that any choices they make in, say, feeding, parenting, discipline or choice of stroller, or paths they might be compelled to travel in their journey as a parent might harm their children in some way whether now or down the line, manifested in 13 years’ time by mental illness, obesity, diabetes, criminal behaviour or general misery. Society, on the other hand uses the double bind of mother-blame and low status to mothering to rob us of the pride in nurturing our babies at the breast and mothering our children.
In the age of equality, breastfeeding is at risk of being seen as a tie, rather than a bond, a hindrance rather than a womanly art of value for mother and child. That said, in our culture, the word ‘womanly’ sounds like an oddity nowadays. Only now heard in conjunction with ‘hips’ or ‘demeanour’. Much in the same way that breasts are seen as sexual, rather than as for the nourishment of children.
The support of other mothers is often crucial when we become mothers ourselves – for companionship and friendship and more. Skilled support can be particularly important if we wish to breastfeed, and especially so if we have never held a baby before let alone witnessed a baby nursing at the breast. Indeed our culture educates a woman about everything she needs to know in a man’s world. Breastfeeding and normal infant feeding behaviour are not among them. Our apprenticeship for mothering is almost non-existent – or consisting only of pre-natal viewing of Supernanny. The society we are expected to mother in lacks the village of wisdom and sisterhood – replaced with cities of economy and employment.
Outside of family support – my mother and sister both breastfed – skilled breastfeeding support has helped me in developing the courage to breastfeed, to overcome real difficulties in breastfeeding both my children, and to continue to breastfeed according to the needs of my children rather than an arbitrary cut-off point imposed by somebody else. A local lactation consultant helped me through some tough times, my post-natal doula was able to hep me – not least in her calling of ‘mothering the mother’ – and La Leche League meetings helped me though some difficult spells, in warm company of a circle of women. I enjoyed supporting other mothers, too, as a peer supporter in the local children’s centre.
At these various gatherings, I found real help in the nourishing company of fellow mothers engaged in mothering in the most old-fashioned of ways. None are intimidatingly seemingly perfect in every way – we are mothers who are doing our best and good enough is good enough. Nursing our children together, seeking and offering support, is something which falls outside GDP, outside contracts, PAYE and outside tax. It is squarely in the realm of love and nurture and care. And the women – and it is women – who offer their time, dedication and experience to support breastfeeding mothers? Volunteers. Unpaid. Many of them, ‘stay at home mothers’.
You know. Those mothers wasting their talent at home, contributing ‘nothing’ to the economy and refusing to play the equality-as-sameness game.
So yes. For me and my family, breastfeeding started out as a way to feed my babies – and over time it became a way to respond to their needs for food, comfort, love, sleep, warmth, closeness to me and reassurance. This is one of the reasons I baulk at the idea that I am somehow replaceable in the early years (indeed at all), that I am substitutable by another relative or a stranger and that I am ‘equal’ only in terms of a capitalist game and economic agenda written by non-lactating males.
It might not contribute to GDP as would the purchase of commercial substitutes and paraphernalia. It might be invisible economically and politically. Yet, the milk I have provided for my children for four-and-a-half years is precious, the normal and natural food produced by my body to meet their changing needs. And the warmth of my arms in its delivery is priceless. There is value in that.