It’s been a bad weekend for media representations of breastfeeding.
Saturday’s Age and SMH ran a feature in the Good Weekend supplement detailing French feminist Elisabeth Badinter’s opposition to what she sees as the tyranny of motherhood, especially physically demanding practices like breastfeeding. Like Hanna Rosin’s, Badinter’s views on breastfeeding have been carefully deconstructed over the past few years by other writers. Take this piece by blue milk:
But then you can’t entirely blame feminists like Badinter for being nervous about any ambitions to elevate motherhood either. They haven’t seen much good come out of the institution of motherhood for women – servitude, guilt, martyrdom, rampant biological determinism and invisibility. Still, given that most women end up being mothers, and given that a good deal of us even strongly desire motherhood there is no point throwing that particular baby out with the bath water. We won’t elevate women anytime soon by denigrating motherhood.
Make no mistake — denigrating physiologically normal (though by no means universal) processes of motherhood, like the physical changes of pregnancy and birth and the work of breastfeeding, is denigrating motherhood. It is also, I think, a mistake to underestimate the level of maternal desire driving some of our choices. But more than this; assuming that the holy grail of feminism is solely an ability to centre paid work, alternative achievements and other relationships in women’s lives (as men have always been able to under patriarchy) is extremely limiting. Why not instead seek new ways of working, earning, living, doing mothering and making families which enable choices to stretch beyond the starkness of: A) bottle feeding and long daycare or B) long unrewarded hours at home in an isolated mother–child dyad?
Those long hours alone can be devastating for a new mother’s mental health; I know this from experience. Even when a parent has company of some kind, they may feel figuratively alone if their actions are not supported with both compassionate reassurance and practical assistance. This is the concern raised by Beyond Blue’s deputy chief executive Nicole Highet who was quoted in The Mercury today. Dr Highet isn’t wrong in saying that breastfeeding difficulties and anxiety about feeding choices can contribute to the stress and even despair felt by many new mothers. In the early days and weeks breastfeeding is difficult for most (impossible for some) and severely overworked (because that is what they usually are!) post-partum women are particularly vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy. The physical pain of cracked nipples, mastitis, thrush or engorgement is all too real. So is the emotional pain of being confronted with choices which seem patently unfair and yet take on the importance of life-or-death decisions. Mothers in our culture are bombarded with all manner of ‘expert opinions’ and given the distinct impression that everyone — health professional or self-styled baby whisperer or mother in law — knows our babies’ needs better than we do and yet, somehow, when it comes down to getting the actual work of mothering done the buck stops with us. And when it comes to taking the fall for choices that are made, it’s all mothers all the time.
When was the last time you saw the mainstream media ask for fathers to step up and do something about low breastfeeding rates? (Research shows that a male partner’s attitudes towards and willigness to assist with breastfeeding is the single biggest determinant of whether a woman will continue to exclusively breastfeed once she has left hospital, but strangely it’s mothers who are always targeted when feeding choices have to be accounted for.)
Although I completely deplore the employment of the term ‘Breastapo’ in that inflammatory Mercury piece, it’s important to acknowledge that the trend Beyond Blue has picked up on is real. Some women are, for whatever reason, experiencing pressure or negative attitudes about their feeding choices and that is harmful, both to those individual women and to the cause of lactivism generally.
Dr Highet and many others (including Leslie Cannold who tweeted the Mercury piece this morning) seem to take the experiences of women who felt that breastfeeding advocacy or advice given in hospital was shaming in some way as evidence that the ‘breast is best’ message has gone too far. I tend to draw the opposite conclusion.
At the moment, mothers (and actually when I say this, I mean mothers in the ‘Western’ world) seem to experience a particularly insidious form of blame-shifting. Women are told, usually repeatedly, by health professionals that breastfeeding is the best ‘choice’, and the vast majority believe it. (Over 90 % of Australian women choose to initiate breastfeeding). Breastfeeding advice, in many cases, seems to constitute little more than a bit of information about how to do it and a very clear intimation that it’s what good mothers do. What it all too often doesn’t include is sensitive, individualised, and knowledgable information delivered in a mother-centred way. What it definitely doesn’t come with (if it’s being delivered by a health professional or, well, just about anyone) is actual real-life support to achieve the mother’s breastfeeding goals.
In short: most women hope to breastfeed. Most women are let down by a lack of practical support.
Complicating the picture is marketing from formula companies and ingrained cultural practices (like expecting babies to ‘sleep through’ or feed by the clock and expecting mothers not to feed openly in public) which make breastfeeding seem like perhaps the ‘best’ but not at all the ‘normal’ choice to make.
By the time a woman has been ground down by the sheer exhaustion of birth and her first week of overworked parenthood, ‘normal’ can seem pretty good. ‘Normal’ can seem attainable.
This makes me sad not because I am a genocidal fascist who wants to see mothers suffer through mastitis (for crying out loud, can we just stop with the Boob Nazi slurs?) Rather, I feel saddened by the alarming regularity at which women give up their desire to breastfeed because breastfeeding is not the ‘best’ way to feed babies. It’s the normal way.
The idea that breastfeeding is somehow extraordinary persists because we live in a culture where very limited paternity leave is normal, where an expectation to continue cooking and cleaning and exercising and socialising in the post partum weeks and months is normal, and where a perception that unpaid work (especially if it is physical and monotonous) is pointless drugdgery is normal.
What good breastfeeding advocacy has to offer mothers is more than admonishments and informational pamphlets. Breastfeeding advocacy is at its core advocacy for mothers and babies, and although many of the people doing it do not identify as feminists, their organisations frequently do work which could be described as feminist.
I find it odd when people choose to promote women’s choices by standing against grass roots lactivism. Organisations such as the Australian Breastfeeding Association and La Leche League are run by mothers, for mothers. They grew out of a need, identified by women who were living in the era of Betty Friedan, for woman-to-woman support. Volunteers run them, they do not make profits, and they can’t pay for the kind of lobbying and marketing that formula manufacturers buy each day before breakfast. In short; I don’t think they’re the enemy.
If mothers are experiencing pain and anguish from ‘all the pressure to breastfeed’ I think we need to be asking why, and certainly, we need to ensure that any breastfeeding advocacy is sensitive and shame-free. But I have a feeling that less support for and information about breastfeeding is not what will help Beyond Blue’s cause. (And not only because breastfeeding hormones can sometimes help stave off depression, although this was my experience.)
What we need are real choices, not rock-and-hard-place compromises. And for that to be possible, much more needs to change than the message they put on posters in the maternity ward waiting room.