The Art of Breastfeeding – cultural notions and a personal matter
Some issues are only particularly poignant at a certain time in your life. Once your situation changes, you never give them much thought again. That is a pity, really. In hindsight, you are able to make observations you would not have been able to make, while you were in the middle of it. Lately I was reminded of such an issue by the women in Hong Kong who protested for their right to breastfeed in public. Soon after, I read a blog by someone who was not able to breastfeed because she was on medication. She faced a lot of social pressure – even from people who knew about her need for medication. These two articles, in a way completely opposite of each other, took me back at least ten years.
I had my eldest child unexpected and early in life. In the months prior to his birth, I was busy getting married, finding somewhere to live, working and doing up the humble apartment we had found. I knew nothing about babies, but when the midwife asked me if I was going to breastfeed, I answered yes. I had read somewhere that it was healthier, and I had heard from other relatives that my own mother, long dead already, had breastfed me for nine months or so. I did not give the matter much thought: I figured it would all happen naturally, like my pregnancy had. Besides, I could not think beyond the birth itself: horror stories of other women had left me frightened and even uncertain I was going to survive the whole thing.
The myth of “natural” mothering
Eventually, I had a very speedy, indeed natural delivery, which left me surprised, elated and with a healthy baby boy in my arms. There, my story as a breastfeeding mother started. That did not happen naturally. I made a lot of mistakes the first few weeks. Eventually I had gotten the hang of it, and fed him for a year and a half. My daughter was born two years later. By now – I thought – I was an experienced mother, but a slightly premature baby delivered with a C-section turned out to be a wholly other matter. She was sickly and weak, and I was still recovering from the major abdominal surgery a C-section really is. She turned out to be allergic to a great number of things, which made breastfeeding all the more important. Gradually, she became better, I became better and I ended up breastfeeding for at least three years.
During my time as a struggling new mother, without any experienced female relatives around to support me, I used the still young internet as a source of information, support and advice. Put differently: I needed the high tech internet culture to get through this “natural” stage in my life. It was very much a skill I had to master, but the fact was that I had to master it from scratch. I ended up giving other women advice online to pay it forward: to stop worrying was the best advice I had ever received; so I passed it on.
It is known that other primates and indeed a number of other animals need examples to be a good mother themselves; there is ample evidence this holds true for humans too. Yet this very elementary aspect of being a mother is hardly ever visible within our societies. I had occasionally seen women feed in public before, but it was not a common sight. At first, I had expected healthcare professionals to tell me how it was done. But they advocated rigid schedules for feeding a baby, which can work out counterproductive when you are breastfeeding.
Supposedly it was dangerous to sleep with your baby in bed. Yet, this was the only way I was going to get any sleep in the first place and breastfeed casually throughout the night. I thoroughly enjoyed the intimacy and deep connection I felt to them. I carried my children around with me as long as they could not walk, instead of using a stroller. It felt like the right thing to do. Yet, I constantly found myself explaining myself to imposing strangers. I was secure enough to secretly follow my own path, but still too insecure to tell them to mind their own business: I was a very young woman, a girl really, with an unplanned-for baby. Who was I to think I knew better?
A non-articulated discomfort grew in me. I witnessed countless internet flame wars between breastfeeding women who thought other women needed a really good excuse not to breastfeed, and formula feeding mothers who felt very defensive about their choice not to breastfeed. Meanwhile, I was flooded with marketing for baby formula. The World Health Organisation has a code that formula for newborns cannot be marketed. But from six months and onward, it is fair game really. Women who feed their children for over six months, were called long-feeders in the online communities I frequented, as if they were a strange breed. Yet the same WHO advocates two years of breastfeeding. If it was healthy to breastfeed for years; why was it still such an exceptional practice in my society?
I sometimes met with disgust when people found out – I never advertised it – I was still breastfeeding my three year old daughter. Yet, nobody would even notice a three year old with a pacifier or a bottle of milk for the evening. During that time, I also met countless women who would start explaining themselves to me, unasked. I heard many stories – many of them on why they had not been able to breastfeed and between the lines of every story there was a plethora of emotions: defensiveness, hurt, relief and regret. Just seeing me with my children had opened a well of grief in them.
What was happening here?
Something that was supposedly so natural, was laden with cultural notions, often completely opposed to scientific findings and common sense (even among health professionals). Only now I see that precisely the lack of female friends and relatives with children around me, enabled me to find my own way in being a mother. I did not have to deal with the social pressure as much as others did. The internet provided a gateway to knowledge I would not have had access to ten years earlier. I was doing alright myself, but at the same time it felt something was horribly skewed and uncomfortable in our society, when it came to this hot item.
The discomfort I felt, grew ever more diffuse: I could not pinpoint the problem. My experience had strengthened my intuition that breast was best. Yet I could see I was speaking from a position of privilege. I was lucky to have been born in a country with at least 10 weeks paid maternity leave. After my son’s birth, I was able to work part-time, close to where I lived. And even though it did not work out that way at all in practice, I had the legal right to pump milk during my office hours. I recognized many women around the world would dream of such a situation, and still it took quite some perseverance on my part to keep up the breastfeeding – in the face of others’ critical scrutiny of my mothering skills. For everybody seemed to have an opinion on how to feed your baby. I was warned that I was spoiling my children. This seems ridiculous now: my children are in their early teens now and they are neither fat nor spoiled, and are very independent in their everyday life. But back then, these criticisms raised doubt and insecurity.
I did notice that women were their own staunchest critics, neurotically critical of themselves, but also highly critical of their “sisters”. I place “sisters” between brackets: apart from a few encounters, the mercy of one new friend and a couple of online connections, I never felt the sisterhood in those days. I enjoyed my time with my children, but I felt deeply lonely too. There was a lot of sibling rivalry. It was women who enforced their own notions and ways of doing things on others.
Even then, I recognized that if women were to stick together on this, oppressive and rigid structures and people would not stand a chance. But they were and are deeply divided on this matter. Breastfeeding was interpreted into complex essentialist discourses of what motherhood is, and who a woman was supposed to be. I met with fundamentalist attitudes at both ends of the spectrum, in Paganism, Christianity and the general public; and a lot of insecure, struggling women caught in the middle. Breasts as sexual objects were all around me in this so-called liberated society I lived in; I rarely saw them depicted as life-sustaining organs.
This supposedly ordinary human experience and behavior was a battleground of interests: a true opaque cauldron of intersectionality I did not comprehend. Feminism, as an umbrella concept, did not offer any clarity. Was feminism about cultivating and empowering a different way of being in the world, opposed to patriarchal structures and values? Or was feminism about advocating financial independence, even if that meant severing the physical ties many ordinary women feel to their babies and toddlers. Some women, I could see, felt tied down by the constant availability of their time and body to a child. Others, like me, felt most alive and purposeful while doing so. Who was I to say what other women should or should not do? My conflicting thoughts on the subject were never fully resolved; I was still steeped in the experience myself. Eventually, as my children grew and went to school, the immediate urgency of these issues faded.
I am still a staunch advocate for breastfeeding. There is every reason to believe it is healthier on a physical and emotional level for mother and child and I would recommend it to every expecting mother – if it all possible – to at least give it a try (if they can). Yet, breastfeeding is no guarantee for healthy children; my daughter still has health problems.
It is also true that a deep, physical relationship with a primary care giver are of the utmost importance for a child’s development. Yet, there is no reason why this should necessarily be the mother. We must not play down the huge problem the packaging of powdered milk, the huge corporate interests and – not in the least- the exploitation of animal mothers and babies presents. The widespread availability of formula has saved many lives – but is in all likelihood also related to the emergence of other health problems. An intellectually honest position in this debate must inevitably be a balanced perspective. The debate should be fierce, but I do believe it should take place far away from the cradle.
I would never have the audacity to judge a mother who chooses not to breastfeed. I do not know her story. She might have a history of abuse. She may be on medication. She might have tried and failed: I almost failed myself and I felt deeply inadequate when I was struggling with it. She might just not feel like it. It is none of my business.
It is none of our business.
What is our business, is creating the infrastructure, providing accurate information that empowers the general population. Enabling parents to give their young children attention and nourishment is an investment that is priceless in its return: I truly believe it helps to foster grounded individuals with empathy and deep ties to the rest of the world. But I prefer not to look upon it as an investment: it is a gift. We can also make sure this mundane, healthy human behavior is not regarded in some warped sexual manner, and not outlawed by narrow-minded and silly demands of decency.
If you truly want to do something for a new mother, bring her a ready-made healthy meal or offer to do some grocery shopping for her in those first vulnerable months. Just let her know you are willing to help; she does not need your unsolicited advice. She needs your support.
This issue might seem small; minute even in the face of “bigger” issues in the world. Yet, the wisdom and small acts of kindness I received back then, were amplified exponentially, as good magic always does. They trickled down into the future, where they will live on to shape and bless my children’s lives, and hopefully do even more good in the world one day.
Religious by nature, Linda lives in Dutch suburbia with her family and pets. She is an avid gardener and sometimes blogs at theflailingdutchwoman.wordpress.com.