When it comes to breastfeeding, everybody has an opinion. And it’s invariably a strong one.
Jamie Oliver, Katie Hopkins, Donald Trump, Adele. Barely a week goes by without a breastfeeding scandal – from Claridge’s to Primark – and a following PR scramble. Everyone’s wading in, and waging war. There are in fact very few issues which seem to inspire more rabid or random evangelism – in myriad directions.
I for one think that mums would be much better served if things were a little less emotional and everyone Just. Calmed. The. Fuck. Down.
Because do you know who’s right in the middle of the combat zone that’s been created around breastfeeding? Ordinary women trying to muddle their way through and do the right thing for their babies and their families. All the while being told – loudly – what they should/shouldn’t be doing and thinking. By everyone and their nanna.
Now obviously, in the whole history of calming down, no one un-calm has ever been soothed by being told to ‘calm down’. Quite the opposite – it is in fact a red rag to a bull. And that’s kind of the point. Because if you’re reading this and your gander is already up about being told to ‘calm down about breastfeeding’, you are part of the problem.
Look, I don’t really care if you think it’s disgusting – and that it’s your right to say so because you’re ‘just being honest’.
I don’t really care if you think it’s amazing – and you’re standing up for all of womankind by saying so.
Whoever you are, you are allowed to be passionate. You are allowed to have had experiences – and to have used them to form an opinion. You are NOT allowed to forcefully inflict that opinion on other people, or pursue it to the exclusion of all debate, reason, or – and this is key – sympathy. K?
So YAY, it’s a full house of breastfeeding crazies in tonight! Let’s have a bit of a roll call, shall we?
When the respectable ladies in David’s family feed their babies they go off into another room or discreetly cover themselves with a shawl. These flop it out floozies should try having a bit of class – a bit of dignity.
Maud has had six children, and all of them were formula fed, and they all turned out alright. (Apart from Charlie who was always a wrong ‘un). So that must be the right way for everyone to do it. End of.
As a child of the 60s, Wendy knew it was her body and her right to get it back again after the baby was born. Formula was a scientific breakthrough that freed the boobs from their oppression by the MAN.
Bob thinks breastfeeding is unnatural, because boobs are really for sex, aren’t they? And it makes him uncomfortable to be confronted by them nourishing an infant, and therefore be confronted by his own complex lust and mother issues.
Kelly thinks that if people don’t want men looking at their boobs they shouldn’t breastfeed in public. I mean, eeeew. Who wants to see that when they’re out shopping? They’re just out for the attention. Her Billy would kill her if she was flashing her tits around like that all the time.
Peter thinks this is a family restaurant, and babies aren’t part of families. For God’s sake – there’s bloody kids here who are getting an eyeful. It’s not decent.
Jane thinks her daughter is making a rod for her own back – if you ask her that baby needs a bottle. Then maybe he’d sleep through. Just breastfeeding him and cuddling all the time is going to spoil him – he’ll learn to expect it whenever he’s sad or hungry! Imagine! She’s said it once and she’ll say it again. And again.
Adele tried to breastfeed but struggled, and was made to feel really bad about giving up by people constantly pushing the ‘breast is best’ message. Now she’s at war with the lactavist nazis and their strong arm (boob?) tactics.
Laura found breastfeeding really easy and could do it in two minutes flat without baring any skin at all – so she doesn’t really understand why all these other women are making such a fuss about it. It doesn’t need to be in your face does it?
Sally found breastfeeding really hard. Her nipples bled more liquid than they lactated. She had mastitis four times, two abscesses, and three billion blocked ducks. And if she managed to power through the pain to successful breastfeeding, everyone else just isn’t trying hard enough.
Vicky thinks that formula is EVIL POISON, and that mothers who feed it to their babies should BE REPORTED TO SOCIAL SERVICES. She suffers from a CHRONIC OVERUSE OF CAPITAL LETTERS in all typed communications.
Hester knows the law and she knows it’s her right to breastfeed where and when she wants to – and she is poised and prepared to fight for that right every minute of every day. When her baby is hungry she’ll feed it anywhere. And really, if you’re going to be shy about it you’re probably not cut out for motherhood at all.
Rebecca is constantly outraged about breastfeeding mothers being discriminated against. It’s outrageous. She shares and comments her outrage on social media every day, and her facebook feed is populated more by pro-breast memes than by pictures of her own kids. She knows all the ‘breast is best’ stats and she isn’t afraid to use them. Continuously.
Joy did breastfeeding the right way. Everyone else should do it her way too. In fact she might even become a peer supporter so she can make sure everyone else does what was right for her.
Jamie’s wife breastfed all 38 of their kids with irritating ease, and it’s just so natural and convenient he thinks the government should make everyone do it as a matter of course. Or even policy. Because it’s obviously exactly the same for everyone.
This is a pretty crude list of characters – but you probably recognise some of them. And here’s the thing: the Vickys, Sallys and Hesters are just as bad as the Davids, Bettys, and Peters. And every single one of them really does need to calm the fuck down.
David et al – it’s just a bit of boob. 50% of the population have them. It’s not the end of the world. It’s 2016. Women are allowed to leave the house (they even work! and vote!) Babies are allowed to eat. (It’s kind of necessary for the continuation of humankind). Sometimes they have to eat out of the house. Would you really rather share a public space with a screaming infant or a hint – a mere hint – of mammary? Try looking the other way, or covering your own face with a modest shawl. This is the law, people. The ship has sailed.
Jane, Wendy, Maud, things have moved on. There’s been some science. If you really care about the issue, read up on it.
I’m delighted you found breastfeeding so easy, Laura, and that your wife did, Jamie. Lots of people don’t, though. Lots of people – for whatever reason – CAN’T. Lots of people simply can’t do it discreetly either – especially if you’re trying to check a latch or have a thrashy nosey baby bent on peekaboo.
I’m sorry things were hard for you Sally – it’s amazing you got through that. Well done. But please don’t compare your pain with someone else’s – no one wins that competition. Carrying on might have been the right choice for you, but it might not have been for the next woman. It might have pulled her under. And guilt tripping her for using formula – or for feeling shy – (Vicky, Hester) isn’t helping either. There are actually very few of us who actually relish flashing the father-in-law.
The fact is that it is the attacks and responding counter offensives from BOTH reactionaries and revolutionaries that is creating such a hostile environment for breastfeeding. One that’s pretty damn alienating for your average mum. You know – the one who’s struggling. The one who’s just trying to do the best she can. The one in no fit state to join either a fight or a club.
I know that the anti-boobers are annoying. But shouting back isn’t helping. Try thinking about them like your toddler – however ignorant and irritating they are they really can’t help it, and getting into a slanging match is not going to be productive. These are not rational beings. The minute you shout, you lose. Just let the tantrum/emotion work its way out. Ignore them. Because fighting back – going into bat for the titties full tilt and full volume – pulls you down to their level. You’re the grown up here – act like it.
Let’s forget the fictional characters and concentrate on a real life, Sheffield, April 2016 example. The example that inspired this blog.
I met up with an old friend the other day. Jan is about to go off on maternity leave. She had PLANNED to breastfeed. But when at her antenatal classes she’s started asking questions about mix feeding and formula supplements, she was shut down. Unceremoniously. She was told that if she introduced bottles she’d ruin her chances of breastfeeding. End of discussion – cue standard ‘breast is best’ spiel.
She left classes so perturbed by this boobing militance, she’s now actively planning NOT to breastfeed. Because, as she put it, ‘I just don’t think it’s for me’. She left those classes seeing breastfeeding as a ‘scene’ that she’s just not part of, and simply can’t reconcile with how she sees herself, her body, her life and her family. With her unbending refusal to intelligently discuss options or practicalities, this ante natal tutor has stopped a previously breast-willing woman from even giving it a go.
Feelings around breastfeeding run high – I know this because I’ve attempted it twice and felt so, so strongly about it both times.
The big small person didn’t drink milk. It was a nightmare. I wanted desperately to breastfeed but I – we – couldn’t make it work. She lost weight. I lost sanity. I sobbed with relief when a kindly GP finally told me it was time to throw in the boobing towel (or muslin). And when I regained some (not all) of my mental capacity I swore I’d never let anyone put me under so much pressure to breastfeed again – not even me – and especially not to the detriment of my baby’s health. And like Adele I told everyone who would listen NOT to listen to the Bloody Boob Brigade. It made me feel better. It made me feel less guilty.
The second small person, however, changed all that. She LOVES the boobies! It took us some time, persistence (and yes more tears) to get the knack. It also took a lot of help from various lovely support workers, and a bit of formula and bottle feeding until supply and demand evened out. But we did it. And it’s pretty damn magical. I get it. I want to tell people how special it is, how that bond feels. How important it was to me this time to finally win at breastfeeding.
But this time, do you know what? I don’t. I don’t wax lyrical. I don’t opine. It honestly turns out to be really quite easy. Do you know what I do?
Let me give you a news flash, friends. We do not support women – or indeed anyone – by pushing them. We do not support them by withholding information. We do not support them my doggedly pursuing a personal crusade – for or against. We do not support them by limiting or stigmatising their choices.
Let’s stop being militant. Let’s stop talking in absolutes. Let’s stop judging. Let’s stop justifying our own choices. Let’s all calm down.
Let’s start discussing, and LISTENING.
If someone had stopped to listen to Jan, they might have found out that the multiple miscarriages before this precious first baby have taken a toll on her relationship. They might have found out how keen she is for her husband to be able to help with feeding as part of their healing and grieving process. They might have found out that his job is uncertain, and she wants to keep her feeding options open as she doesn’t know how soon she’ll have to go back to work.
If only there had been a little more information, a little more empathy, and a little less agenda, Jan might have felt she had options beyond the bottle.
We have clearly not got this right. How about some stats and facts? (Thanks Rebecca!) According to the NHS Infant Feeding Survey 81% of mothers start off breastfeeding their babies at birth. Six months down the line, only 34% are still doing any breastfeeding. And the number of mothers exclusively breastfeeding at six months is just 1%.
If we want to improve the stats we’ve got to improve support – at a time budgets are being slashed to the bone, and beyond. We are not going to do that by being blinkered and belligerent. We are not going to do that by making breastfeeding a battlefield. It doesn’t need us to take a strong stand anymore – right now it needs us to take seat and a chill pill.
Pro-boob evangelism is just as damaging as anti-boob sermonising. Let’s try being just plain old pro-people. Let’s try a bit of moderation – a bit of consideration. Teaching without preaching. Advocating without alienating. Enabling without expounding. Informing without influencing.
Nobody likes being told what to do. But everybody – everybody – likes to be heard. Even Bob. (And he really does need some help).
All WE really need to do is to stop yelling.