Thursday, 14 February 2013

I breastfed my baby but...

If you’ve ever been inclined to read the bottom half of the internet when it comes to breastfeeding articles then, apart from the usual ‘formula is just as good’ and the occasional troll-like ‘bitty!’ comment you’ll almost always find somebody explaining that, while they breastfed themselves, they were extremely careful not to rub it in anyone’s face.  These comments often go along the lines of ‘I breastfed my baby for eight months but I think that the breastfeeding mafia go too far’.  Or ‘I am pro breastfeeding but I think that it’s everyone’s personal choice’. Here is a real example:

Breast milk or formula...who cares. What's important is your child is fed. I'm a breastfeeding mom and I don't pres my views onto others. If you want to give your child formula....great! Go for it. I hate how everyone seems to have a view on how other children are raised and fed. Get out of other people's business.

This breastfeeding ‘mom’ has carefully aligned herself with the cultural premise of personal choice and distanced herself from those who have an opinion about (breast) feeding. This seems to be a popular position. Breastfeeding mothers are in the ideal position to criticize ‘lactivists’ because they can’t be accused of feeling bitter due to guilt (as formula feeding mothers sometimes sadly feel). They can say ‘look, I breastfeed but I’m not going on about it’. This kind of political positioning seems to be highly acceptable.

Women (and the occasional man) who do hold strong opinions about breastfeeding, however, tend to be vilified. It’s acceptable, even in mainstream media, to label us as ‘mafia’, ‘breastapo’, and ‘nazis’ amongst others. I used the term ‘lactivist’ tentatively above because, although it’s been somewhat successfully reclaimed, it still has negative connotations. I don’t actually know what term to use.

Of course, one reason for the objection is that our opinions offend people. Most Western parents give their babies formula milk. If you suggest that formula milk, on balance, is potentially harmful and that breastmilk should be the norm that’s going to irk a whole lot of people. Nobody wants to be told that they are putting their child at risk and some are going to respond by shooting the messenger. It’s not a new idea amongst breastfeeding commentators that the phrase ‘breast is best’ is harmful to the cause because it carries the implicit message that formula feeding is standard; most people are satisfied with being standard and suspicious of overachievers.  A preferred message is that breastfeeding is normal, but then the implication is that formula feeding is inferior. What would happen if that was the explicit message: formula is potentially harmful? Respondents to this very question of my Facebook page were pretty sure that this would not be met gladly. In this area of public health we’re more concerned with ensuring that we don’t offend those who have already made a choice than providing information to those who are yet to make one.

Another potential reason why the general population seem to be turned off by the ‘breastfeeding gang’ is that we’re perceived as being a bit weird. While I cannot even pretend for one second that I have any data to back up this assertion, parents who are interested enough in breastfeeding to get political about it are often the same parents who babywear, use cloth nappies (or EC), baby-led wean, co-sleep, and buy organic produce. We’re hippies. And it’s easy to take the mick out of a hippy. Of course, I’m not supposing that this is always the case. There’s a spectrum. But it’s about perceptions. That’s why it’s so important for us ‘booby mob’ to flag it up each time a famous woman says she’s nursing; it raises the profile of breastfeeding as a whole (sadly, accompanying articles invariably talk about ‘baby weight’ loss, but I must be careful not to complain about everything).

Whilst I don’t have the space or inclination to pick apart the minutiae of it here, one element that shouldn’t be dismissed when trying to establish why the ‘nursing clan’ are so utterly vilified is feminism. I will undoubtedly be invited into a boxing match of fact presenting for announcing this, but I am a feminist. I sincerely believe that a person’s sex or gender shouldn’t define their opportunities. I don’t think that men and women automatically display different traits (not all men are ‘masculine’ and not all women are ‘feminine’) but I do think that we’re foolish if we try to ignore sex altogether; biological males can’t get pregnant and they can’t breastfeed. There is a brand of feminism that argues that women are not viewed as equal – particularly in the workplace – because they are forced by society to undertake the burden of the majority of child rearing. I’m not saying that this is not true, but this type of feminism would have it that breastfeeding is one of the causes of this and that, just like modern science gave us the Pill to give women freedom of reproduction, it also gives us formula milk to free us from the shackles of lactation.

To my mind, feminism should not be about establishing methods to allow women to become more male-like to increase their chances in a patriarchal workplace, it should be about respecting and valuing femaleness, one defining factor of which is our ability to perfectly nourish an infant. In a recent collection of self-promoting articles, professor of gender studies Joan Wolf asserts that the old adage that breastfeeding is free is untrue because it supposes that a woman’s time is worth nothing. She uses this as an argument against breastfeeding, but other researchers have suggested that this is, instead, an argument against the devaluing of women and of their contribution (via breastmilk) to the health and wellbeing of society. Wolf invites readers to “imagine if men had functioning mammary glands. Would breastfeeding seem as urgent? Or would we say that its benefits were marginal...?” I’d like to suggest that we certainly would see breastfeeding as urgent. We’d throw resources into examining breast milk and proving its fabulous properties, and we’d establish a culture that allowed for men to continue to nurse while continuing to add value to society in other ways, such as on site crèche facilities, breastfeeding in the boardroom, and lengthy paternity leave at full pay. This would ultimately benefit everyone.

Us ‘bap chaps’ (nah, that’s crap) need to be aware of how we are perceived by others but this shouldn’t stop us being political. It’s fine to have an opinion about infant feeding. It’s good to want parents to have the correct information. And it’s great to try to change the world. In fact, it’s not about changing the world; it’s about reversing the damage. Damage that has created financial gain for one industry and resulted in measured harm to the rest of society. So shoot the messenger, but it won’t be in my back because I’ll be facing you and I’ll be speaking my message.


  1. Yes. Thank you. I remember reading this book called The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin. It is a feminist sci fi book where the inhabitants of the planet Winter are sexually latent androgynoids. When they enter relationships one of them becomes the sire and one becomes the child bearer based on pheromonal secretions.

    The concept is fascinating to think never knows which role their body will take on until it happens. This means that everyone in the planet could possibly be stricken pregnant or lactating….no one is “immune” from having to deal with this reality. The whole social structure and consequences of reproductive work has to work for everyone. Imagine if that were the case for us earthlings? If, just by chance alone, any given person could be faced with the biological reality of pregnancy and its sequelae? Oh, wait, that’s right, it actually does happen that way, but half of our population get consigned to our lot in life at birth. And we are raised in the patriarchy so we come to accept that we have to settle. I totally agree with you that if men could breastfeed that breastfeeding would be seen as urgent. The fact that it's women who do so---within the patriarchy--- is a huge part of the reason why it is not valued.

  2. Wow. I love this. Thanks!

  3. I usually don't comment on blogs that I read as I rarely have the time (my arms are full with a hungry 15week old most of the time, who is a wiggly feeder) but as she dozed off, I had the chance to here, and I'm glad of it. Can I just say, it's refreshing to read another's view regarding breastfeeding that falls in line so closely with my own, especially it's relationship to feminism. I often get frustrated at the assumption one can't be feminist and female, despite that not being the goal of feminism. And even more frustrating is when I am criticised for using my body for it's biological intention, such as breastfeeding my daughter, because it means I'm acting too 'female' to be considered a feminist. I've been mulling a lot over the attitudes I've faced over my choice of how I feed my daughter, and where they have originated from, and I feel that somehow, whilst my choice should be strengthen by it, some twists & turns in the feminist movement means my choice weakens my place in others eyes. It doesn't help their opinions when I reveal myself to be a stay at home mum. It's terrible that despite the idea of solidarity, there is a lot of animosity in the ranks as to who is part of the 'club'.

    I've liked your facebook page and look forward to reading more of your posts in the future :) I'm just getting caught up reading back from your latest post!

    All the best,