Thursday, 26 April 2012

Under Pressure

Women are under too much pressure to breastfeed, my friend complained recently, and that’s not fair to those who choose to formula feed. I’ve been digesting this for a while. And, actually, it’s an argument I keep on hearing. I suspect I’m not the only one?

At first I wanted to dismiss this. I’ve never felt a pressure to breastfeed. Not an external one, anyway. If this perceived pressure, however, is resulting in feelings of negativity towards breastfeeding and breastfeeders, then it must be taken seriously, surely.

Initially, I want to think about what pressure is. We don’t tend to talk about feeling pressured to do things that we find easy and enjoyable; I don’t feel pressured to eat this slice of chocolate cake (I wish I had a slice of chocolate cake) although, technically, I probably was by advertising, special offers, and the fact that my mate told me she had some chocolate cake last night. You probably don’t feel pressure to take a bubble bath, cuddle your partner, or read that juicy novel you’ve been into. These are nice things to do even though they sometimes require a little effort. Perhaps those women who feel pressured to breastfeed don’t see nursing as an enjoyable activity. That’s not to say they don’t see nursing as beneficial; passing exams and earning money are beneficial, for instance, but much more likely to be loaded with feelings of pressure because they’re hard work. To what extent do women who feel pressure to breastfeed see it as being an unpleasant and difficult activity?

I suppose to answer that we need to think about who is feeling this pressure. To me, two groups are distinguishable: those who already have first-hand experiences of breastfeeding, and those who haven’t. The feelings of pressure will be rooted in different places for each of these women. Women who have previously breastfed but feel pressure to do it again are likely to have had negative experiences, which are possibly wrapped up in guilt and since that’s another blog post let’s take the ‘virgin’ breastfeeder first:

For a woman who has never breastfed her first encounter of pressure to do so is likely to be from the midwife she sees while she is expecting her first child. Whether or not you or I would interpret the midwife as pressuring is irrelevant, really, as this pregnant mother does and it’s her response that we’re currently concerned with. We have to remember that it’s highly likely that this mother’s experiences of baby-feeding, right up until the point of conversation with the midwife, have been formula-skewed. It’s likely that she would have been formula-fed herself at some point and that her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews would have been too. She would also have seen bottles everywhere; almost ubiquitously hailed as the icon of baby feeding and printed on cafe walls, bibs, and baby clothes. The chances are pretty high that when she played with dolls as a child she ‘fed’ them from a moulded plastic bottle (or one of those where the ‘milk’ vanishes if you turn it upside down if her parents had the cash). She would have seen acres of shelf space given over to SMA and Aptamil, and a fair few formula...sorry, follow-on milk adverts on TV. Statistically, her friends with babies will have started off breastfeeding, before moving to formula. This will result in her having heard plenty of explanations as to why breastfeeding ‘didn’t work’, ranging from the painful (“my nipples were virtually hanging off”) to the mysterious (“the baby just wouldn’t latch on”). She’ll have heard that ‘breast is best’, but she’ll also be pretty damn sure that it’s hard work. If she was raised in Western society – as we’re assuming she has been – our pregnant mother is almost certain to have been bombarded with images of unobtainable female bodies and sexualised breasts for two or three decades and therefore have a deeply ingrained understanding of how she should view her own boobs (imperfect and rude). She’ll probably never have risked exposing her nipple in a public place.

Cue the midwife and her leaflets about the positives of breastfeeding. Leaflets that tell her she must outdo all her friends by exclusively breastfeeding for six months. Leaflets that turn over at least half of their printing space to troubleshooting ‘common problems’. And leaflets that are often accompanied by a demand for intentions right there and then. When the midwife asks our pregnant mother how she is going to feed her baby there only seems to be one correct answer... and it’s not the one she’s used to being exposed to. I’m not saying that the picture I have painted is representative of all expectant mothers, but if she was part of a society in which breastfeeding was seen as normal, pleasurable and public, would she feel pressure to nurse? Or would she just do it because that’s what people do? What if she lived in a world in which the question wasn’t asked because breastfeeding was so near-universal? Would she feel more or less pressure in this situation? Would the nursing be more or less achievable?

The experience of pressure doesn’t just come down to which side of the argument is louder or who spends the most money on advertising. It’s about perceptions of normality and about the extent to which an individual feels comfortable about what she is being asked to do. People don’t have to be persuaded very hard to do things they see as easy, positive, and normal. The pregnant woman sees the midwife’s leaflets and questions as pressure because her mind’s already made up how she’s going to ultimately feed her baby. Her mind has been made up for her.