Tag Archives: breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is a feminist issue

The latest article on Breastfeeding Medicine confirms it: breastfeeding is a feminist issue. Breastfeeding advocacy is a feminist concern (although breastfeeding advocates are quite often not feminists, and feminists are quite often not interested in breastfeeding.)

Lactivism and feminism collide and collude in many ways: workplace rights for women hinge on reproductive rights (and breastfeeding is part of the reproductive process when we consider that it is physiologically normal for a baby to be fed from its mother’s body). The right of women to exist in the public sphere whilst still being able to choose activities that are specifically feminine, that have been traditionally relegated to domestic spaces, is at the heart of lactivism and also feminism. Asserting that our bodies can be functional and do not merely exist as eye candy is feminist, and part of the power of breastfeeding. Resisting commercial messages about the inadequacy of women’s bodies compared with the ‘scientific’ formula produced in a factory is resisting patriarchal messages. Caring for our babies as we see fit, in a sustainable way, in a gentle way, can be a radical act.

But isn’t feminism about choice?

Sure, it is. I fully support the right of all parents to choose how they feed their babies: and that means supporting their right to use commercial baby milk. That means accepting that some parents will always choose never to breastfeed, or to breastfeed for only a short, pre-ordained period. I may not always understand why someone would freely choose not to breastfeed but I will always argue for their right to do so.

The reality, though, is that most parents who don’t choose breastfeeding, or whose babies are weaned from the breast very early, aren’t making a choice without regret. There are a confluence of pressures on new parents. Returning to work is a common one (to be able to breastfeed on demand for more than a few weeks or perhaps months is still usually a marker of economic privilege). Physiological problems (and a lack of support to overcome these) account for a small but significant percentage of early terminations of a breastfeeding relationship. But what we really have, when it comes to breastfeeding rates, is an attitude problem. In Australia the vast majority of mothers attempt to breastfeed in the early weeks. But a lack of acceptance of not only breastfeeding but perhaps the parenting challenges – and delights – which accompany this choice, abounds in our community. If parents and grandparents and friends and even doctors or midwives are conflicted about infant feeding, overcoming common hurdles can seem impossibly hard. And when knowledge is limited and health professionals give conflicting advice, breastfeeding is probably not going to be easy.

Those who claim that mothers who ‘give up’ on breastfeeding just aren’t willing to try are misguided at best, downright nasty at worst. Breastfeeding problems like painfully cracked nipples or recurrent mastitis might be temporary and they might be solvable but for an individual mother they can be excruciating, demoralising, defeating. I know: I too have felt the tug of the deceptively simple ‘solution’ of artificial feeding in the early hours of a pain-filled night. I don’t for one instant underestimate the struggles that women who try, and fail, to exclusively breastfeed. I don’t for one instant assume the bottle they are offering their infant is any less representative of nurturing and love than the breast I offered to mine.

How do lactivists reconcile a commitment to respecting individual choices and accepting that feeding is only one part of a loving mother-infant bond with advocacy for higher breastfeeding rates? To me, the answer is quite obvious. Being critical of the forces which work against mothers to limit their choices is congruent with supporting individual parenting decisions. Better support for breastfeeding mothers: parental leave policies, parenting rooms, well-educated health professionals, a community that accepts and respects the needs of babies, will benefit all parents, not only the lactating kind.

Lactivism isn’t, and should never be, about making non-breastfeeding parents feel guilty. There is nothing to be gained by drawing the ire of women who tried to breastfeed. Rather, we should be encouraging those parents who value breastfeeding whether or not they were able to do it to direct their anger towards the systemic problems that constrained their choices. But first of all, we have to be decent human beings worth listening to. We have to stand up for all parents. We have to support women and their choices. You know, like feminists.

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Filed under Breastfeeding, Lactivism and Doula-ing, Feminism, Motherhood and Parenting

A place for us

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of women-only spaces. And I still feel that they are important: maybe necessary. But there is another kind of space that I think matters even more, that I think needs to be created and recreated in a multitude of ways until we all have easy access to one. It’s the kind of space I witnessed last weekend, fleetingly, and only through contrived circumstances which unfortunately don’t crop up too often. Not a women-only space, but a women-centring space. A woman-honouring space.

To train to be a counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association you need to have breastfed for at least six months — so we’re all women. The Association centres the lives and needs of families generally and mothers in particular by its very nature. And by its nature, its leadership positions are all held by women, which makes it, unfortunately, quite a rare kind of organisation.

But men matter, too. Most of us have male partners, and so we relied on them to care for infants and children while we studied. And to the Association, men matter: research shows that male partners can have the biggest influence on whether a woman will persist with breastfeeding and so it is vital that we are able to include men in our advocacy work. On the weekend, my husband supported us by staying at home with Bean. Many other partners supported the work of the Association by travelling to the conference venue and engaging in childcare away from home. Our location was cold and devoid of easy distractions: their work was no doubt quite difficult.

At meal times, we’d gather in a central area and talk over our classes. There were lactating breasts everywhere (how lovely to have a space where a feeding toddler is barely noticed, let alone remarked upon) and, although in relatively small numbers, there were men. There were men who were explicitly in support of one woman, an Association of women… of, you know, women. How often do we see that?

A friend told me recently that she’d been to a concert where, partway through, she’d experienced a great feeling of welcome and wellbeing. Upon reflection, she’d realised it was because the artist, through his demeanour as well as his song lyrics, quite obviously appeared to like and respect women. How refreshing, to be standing in a big crowd of people (a majority of them men) to see a male performer, and to feel that kind of safety.

It shouldn’t be refreshing. It should be normal.

I don’t think women-honouring spaces need to be dominated by women (although of course my weekend was.) But they do need to be dominated by respect. And it’s a sobering thing, pondering just how many other spaces I enter don’t have that feeling, don’t engender confidence, don’t make me feel some combination of fear or shame or wariness at least some of the time. We forge out our feminist spaces online, and we advocate for workplaces free of harassment or discrimination and for greater safety from violence against women and for the end of harmful prejudices on the basis of gender or race or disability or sexuality or age or size. Sometimes it seems a cruelly impossible task. But other times, after feeling what existing in a women-honouring space is like even for a short period, there is renewed energy and hope.

What does a safe space feel like, to you? How do we make more of them?

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Filed under Breastfeeding, Lactivism and Doula-ing, Feminism

Did the earth move for you?

If you haven’t heard, yesterday Facebook/Twitter and probably other corners of the interwebs – were awash with boobs.

Um, yeah. And how is that different from any other day, you ask?

All the fuss was about a protest against misogyny and superstition: more specifically, against statements recently made by an Iranian cleric suggesting that women who flaunt their bodies and are promiscuous cause earthquakes. Because, you know, we women and our flesh are RUINING THE WORLD. Clearly, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi’s comments were offensive and also stupid. And the response – a day dedicated to showing off cleavage to prove that a whole lotta boobs won’t cause a natural disaster – was at best a fun way to show a little solidarity and at worst, a little bit misguided. (A good summary of various opinions can be found here at Feministe and in the comments.)

A couple of my Facebook friends and tweeps got in on the action and I say, good for them. Breasts are great, Boobquake participants clearly like their breasts and feel it is their right to wear low-cut tops, and I applaud them for celebrating that.

But I can’t help but wonder whether what we really need is another kind of protest altogether. Boobquake isn’t really revolutionary here. Barely-covered breasts are everywhere in advertising and the completely naked kind are similarly prevalent in the media. Excepting certain circumstances, I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing in itself – I would certainly not want to be aligned with the slut-shamers and extremists.

What is important to note about all of these ready representations of breasts, though, is that they are overwhelmingly sexualised. In our culture, displaying your cleavage is generally acceptable and it is almost always seen as sexy, flirtatious, ‘flaunting it’. (Unless you don’t meet the age, size or other criteria for acceptability, but that is another discussion altogether.) What is not so generously embraced in our culture is revealing a breast for the purpose of feeding a child.

Get your boobs out to nourish your offspring, and suddenly, they’re not so palatable. Even those who explicitly support breastfeeding will commonly say things like ‘but you should be discreet’, or ‘it’s easy to cover up’. The plethora of breastfeeding shawls and modesty wraps now on the market is testament to the fact that breastfeeding in public is still a fraught activity for many. The irony of the promotion of Boobquake on Facebook is that were women to participate by showing a breast with an infant or child attached, they may find themselves accused of contravening Facebook’s obscenity rules.

Solidarity with those who experience appalling oppression in places like Iran is a noble aim. Showing that an unabashed celebration of the female form can be fun and empowering (and not world-destroying) is great, as superstitions about female bodies and sexuality are the source of much misogyny. But mocking the easy targets – religious extremists – does little to effect change. And celebrating the sexualisation of breasts can only take us so far – in fact, in this culture it can’t take us any further because we’re already there.

The kind of quake I want to experience is that which would be caused by the visibility and acceptability of all women’s bodies in all their guises: fat or not; disabled or currently not disabled; cis or trans; of any age and any colour; with large or small breasts or mastectomy scars or implants; running or belly-dancing or working or voting, and yes, also breastfeeding. Because for women’s bodies to always be our own to use and inhabit and enjoy, to make our own decisions about and to take pride in for what they can do and not only how they look — well, that’d be a real seismic shift.

Bean breastfeeding

Boobquake, milky style.

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Facebook, bastion of misogyny

Facebook likes to claim that it exists to

Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.

In many ways it does this: I’m a regular user. I like sharing pictures of my kid with faraway friends, for one thing. But there are many ways in which Facebook does not make me feel open, or connected. And as for sharing? Well, I’d better not share a photo of me breastfeeding Bean because that would be obscene!

The furore over Facebook’s removal of breastfeeding photos such as these may have abated slightly but there has been no satisfactory resolution. Members of Facebook groups promoting the right to breastfeed publicly and the acceptance of breastfeeding as physiologically normal are still periodically either banned or threatened with banning. Images of breastfeeding posted either on individual’s profiles or group sites are subject to removal.

When I posted about the Facebook breastfeeding ban here and here, the hypocrisy of Facebook’s founders concerned me: here was a site which happily rakes in revenue from targeted ads (dating services seem to be a favourite) which very frequently include sexualised images of women. Logging into my page on any given day, I know I’m likely to be bombarded with a nice bit of boobage spilling out of a tight dress inticing me to click, click, click. Moreover, like Myspace, Facebook hosts many images uploaded by users of themselves or others in sexualised poses. Where these images don’t contain the requisite amount of nudity to be called ‘obscene’ by Facebook, they are left alone.

Now I’m not saying that all pouty-face shots must first pass the censors! But clearly there is a disconnect here: rational adults know that an image can be highly sexualised without including outright nudity and we also should know that breastfeeding is not sexual, even though it very often includes some form of nudity.

April at Eclectic Effervescence wrote this Open Letter to Facebook about the breastfeeding ban

Last week, I posted a picture of myself breastfeeding my newborn twins using my Facebook account. I posted this picture to a pro-breastfeeding fan page, to help encourage other mothers. My picture was one of thousands uploaded to the page. What a beautiful site. All of these experienced breastfeeding women, supporting each other. Helping to say, “breastfeeding is normal!” “Breastfeeding is beautiful!” It really is an amazing page.

But you took that picture down.

And this follow-up piece, complete with images that Facebook apparently don’t think are inappropriately sexual, is well worth your time.

Lately, my ire has increased. It’s not just in the advertising or the typical user-uploaded images that fundamental hypocrisy is laid bare. Facebook is home to innumerable ‘groups’ and ’cause’ pages which violate every element of basic decency, taste, and fairness. In short: they are obscene.

For Exhibit A, I present:

The recent Facebook page set up by male university students attending St Paul’s College in Sydney and dedicated to the benefits of raping women and vitiating both the moral and legal concept of ‘consent’ is an example, albeit extreme, of maintained attitudes regarding women, sex and sexual violence.

This piece by Caroline Taylor on last year’s controversy over a page set up to promote rape rightly suggests that the culture in which a page like this was allowed to flourish for months unchallenged – that is, the culture of Facebook and also of Australia – is not respectful of girls and women. It is a rape culture.

It’s also a violent culture. Facebook provided the perfect outlet for those bored with playing Grand Theft Auto: Killing Your Hooker So You Don’t Have To Pay Her.

More recently, Melinda Tankard Reist has written about a group dedicated to slut-shaming.The site has since been removed, but only after numerous reports were made about its title, content, images and commentary – including around twenty from me on separate counts of extreme hate speech. Some of the images were of girls as young as ten.  One of them was a woman with a battered face: comments included ‘her husband had to tell her twice LOL’ and other statements that do not bear repeating. Melinda Tankard Reist writes:

Some images are clearly posted for revenge. Often full names are used. What means do these women and girls have to defend themselves? How do they deal with it? What does it mean for them in their daily lives at school or work or at home or anywhere, to be identified to the whole world as a slut?

By allowing this site, Facebook is a conduit for bullying, harassment and abuse.

After a campaign of reporting, the group was removed: but not hastily. And at what cost to the girls and women shamed, was that delay? Anecdotally, I’ve heard a breastfeeding photo can last less than a few hours on Facebook if it is prominently posted. The apologists who keep telling me that Facebook can’t possibly moderate its content any faster may need to try again with a better argument. As Danielle Miller writes, this type of cyber bullying can be devastating for those directly targeted, but it can also be triggering and disturbing for the rest of us. These shrines to hate speech and denigration only serve as constant reminders that women (or any other targeted group) are less than. And open to vicious attack.

Arguments that Facebook’s user-generated content is simply reflective of the broader community and should therefore be left alone don’t sit well with me. Facebook and other social media is not real life: it can feel consequence-free, and it can channel outpourings of goodwill — or hate — in ways which seem to gather their own momentum. It is also becoming an ‘essential’ part of the lives of most teenagers and adults – even young children — so its reach is huge. It markets itself as safe — certainly, the reputation it has with parents seems to be more favourable than that of MySpace, and the rhetoric used to justify the banning of breastfeeding photos suggests that the company cares about young users and ‘keeping things clean’. And yet, because they rely on user moderation and clearly don’t pay enough staff to deal promptly with user reports, they can unwittingly host extremely offensive and also illegal content.

Australian online newspaper The Punch took them to task over this, prompted by the hijacking of two pages dedicated to memorialising young children:

Tribute pages to two children who died in tragic circumstances this month – Elliott Fletcher and 8-year-old Trinity Bates – were used to post obscene messages and pornographic content. The incident has sparked a heated debate over the extent to which Facebook monitors the content people distribute on the network.

Apparently the depravity of some people knows no bounds, and far be it from the moderators to stifle their ‘fun’ too swiftly.

After reading about this, I had a little look around some group pages set up to raise awareness and/or funds to fight the proliferation of images of child sexual abuse. I won’t link to what I found. But suffice to say there are two kinds of people who frequent those pages who are most certainly not welcome: those who think that it’s entertaining to make jokes about raping children in order to get a rise out of people, and those who post links (or hints of where to find links) to objectionable material. I even stumbled across some Facebook profiles of people using aliases which double as euphemisms for paedophilia, one of whom listed as his employer ‘child porn’. And included a link to a website in Asia. The only place I clicked was the Report button but I still felt like I needed a shower afterwards.

So is the answer just to log off? (Unfair to lose this platform to share photos and updates with friends!)  Shout loudly until somebody starts to listen and content is more sensitively moderated and reports more acted upon more quickly? (Perhaps – although this is difficult, demoralising work to do without significant support.) Set up counter groups about diversity and respect, consent and empowerment and then police them vigilantly for trolls? (This is already being done – are enough people paying attention?) Accept that douchebaggery is inevitable? (Isn’t that depressing and defeatist?) Just look at some pictures of kittens and think happy thoughts? (Maybe.)

What’s your best answer? Because I honestly don’t know mine.

Also guest-posted at www.melindatankardreist.com.au

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Help: not that kind of four-letter word

I spent a few hours on Saturday volunteering for the Australian Breastfeeding Association, handing out information packs at one of those huge baby expos where pregnant women and parents battle to manoeuvre their burgeoning bellies and showbag laden prams, respectively, through the milling masses.

The depressing thing about these expos, at least for me, is the sheer number of products aggressively marketed to people who don’t need them (‘follow-on’ formula anyone?). And the uplifting thing is all those people wanting happy and well-fed kids. And the cute babies. BABIEEES!

I spoke to a number of mothers who visited the ABA stand who knew about the National Breastfeeding Helpline, and had probably needed it, but not used it. One of them said she was too embarrassed to ask questions. Another said she had always called the Maternal and Child Health Nurse staffed line instead, because a doctor had told her about it. (This is a pretty good service and we’re lucky to have it, but the MCH nurses are not always well-educated about breastfeeding and many of them are perplexed by certain parenting practices which may support breastfeeding, like co-sleeping). Another said that she’d had so many hospital midwives and lactation consultants tell her that despite her pain everything was ‘fine’ that she feared the ABA counsellors would tell her the same thing instead of really hearing her.

I don’t think I’ll forget that particular mother in a hurry. She started to cry at one point during our chat and said it was because no one had been nice to her about her breastfeeding before. No one had congratulated her on persisting, or had promised her that ongoing help was available to make it more enjoyable and ease her anxieties. No one (not the midwives, the hospital lactation consultants, or her doctor) had told her that the ABA offered local group meetings where in-person qualified and peer support could be provided on a regular basis, before.

Her baby was three months old.

This story, and the many others like it, clearly show that although Australian hospitals now ostensibly promote breastfeeding (and the rate of initial efforts to breastfeed in hospitals here are very high), the support actually given to new mothers ‘on the ground’ is lacking. Although each maternity ward seems to employ one or two brilliant midwives who share their knowledge with warmth and care, for most new mothers a bombardment of conflicting advice and a dearth of empathy characterises learning to breastfeeding in hospital. And this isn’t good enough.

What is heartening is that there is real, evidenced-based and sympathetically delivered help available. The ABA provides this. So do many midwives and lactation consultants in private practice. Some Maternal and Child Health Nurses and a few doctors are very knowledgable about how best to support breastfeeding.

Still, the onus is on women to seek out appropriate help. A helpline is worthless if people don’t pick up the phone. Group meetings don’t count if you don’t turn up. So why don’t more of us?

I didn’t ring the ABA helpline in my neediest, most desperate days soon after Bean’s birth. The Fireman urged me to, but I shouted at him ‘I’ll just bloody cry and what can they do over the phone anyway!’ I did fear that I would just sob into the phone and also, I felt I knew in my head what to do but it was the doing part that was hard. I didn’t think more information would help. Now, it is clear that sometimes it’s not the amount of information but how thoughtfully it is given which can matter. What’s more, when Bean began her breast refusal at eleven months, I did call up and sob down the line one day – and it was okay.

So what was really stopping me from reaching out? What was really stopping the women I talked to on Saturday from getting dedicated help before they had ‘four bouts of mastitis in six weeks’, as one did? Or maybe the more pertinent question is, why were a great number of pregnant women at the expo so proactive in joining the ABA and signing up for classes and getting on board with support they may require in the future, when the rest of us leave it until after the greatest need has passed? What makes them so much wiser?

I could say that in my case, social anxiety played a part. A fear of failure made it hard to acknowledge that I might encounter problems I couldn’t fix on my own. But I think there is more. For some, an unwillingness to reach out beyond the sanctioned authority of obstetricians, hospital lactation consultants and doctors is unshakeable. It can be hard to admit that the advice from someone whose white coat you trust could be insufficient, or plain wrong. There is a tendency to see the ABA and organisations like it as hostile entities, waiting to be judgemental and preachy. And there is mother guilt, a fear that talking to women who have embraced something that you are currently struggling with will show up all your inadequacies. My baby doesn’t feed/sleep like that, I don’t know if it’s okay to use this dummy, I’m not brave enough to breastfeed publicly, I’m giving two bottles of formula a day, so I don’t qualify as a breastfeeder. Everyone else is coping better than me and if I open my mouth it will show.

The ABA, doulas, MCH Nurses and other health professionals obviously all encourage women to seek information and help and have a vested interest in doing so. But whilst new mothers still feel pressured to be perfect and to put on a veneer of ‘coping’, these efforts can only go so far. What we need is a societal shift in thinking about what it means to ask for help. Independence is generally admirable but there are times when it looks more like foolhardiness, or indeed, loneliness. New mothers need plenty of places with the implicit subtitle: no judgement here. ABA meetings can provide one such place, online communities another — the world at large needs to create many, many more.

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The myth of the mindless mother

When it comes to women’s behaviour, a lot is put down to ‘hormones’. News flash: this tendency is often a vestige of our unenlightened medical past, when ‘hysterics’ were thought to have been literally sent mad by their bodily femaleness and the inherent weakness of women was an unshakeable reality as far as ‘reason’ was concerned.

Now, new Australian research suggests that ‘baby brain’ - that foggy-headedness attributed to pregnant and post-natal women – is a myth. That instead of being intellectually hampered by the hormones flooding our body at this time, we are instead hampered by pervasive cultural beliefs.

This makes a lot of sense to me – after all, we ‘perform’ motherhood (and pregnancy and birth). But I also know that to me, pregnancy and lactation felt sometimes as though my body had been commandeered for purposes beyond my own rational requirements and that there wasn’t always very much I could do about that. Many mothers will attest that pregnancy tiredness, for example, is another kind of beast altogether: perhaps it is an increased desire to preserve our health which makes us pay more heed to the symptoms of fatigue than other times, but it sure felt to me as though my legs were walking me to my bed of their own accord some days. And there were moments when I was breastfeeding that I became acutely aware of how little conscious control I had over matters – again, most mothers who have tried expressing milk will tell you that it ‘works’ better if their baby or at least a picture of baby is in the room. It is as if our breasts become sentient and demand their own cues, beyond those given by our thinking minds. And that feels, at the time, a lot like a hormonal coup.

I am glad that this research is being done and thrilled that it’s being reported by the media – the more that people think about the social conditioning behind our assumptions about gender roles the better. But I also think the task of feminist mothers is to navigate the difficult terrain between essentialism and erasing women’s bodies. At least, I felt that was my task when undergoing the enormous bodily and psycho-social changes that motherhood brings.

My mind did not belong to my placenta, I did not give birth like an inert incubator expelling offspring, lactation did not turn me into a brainless bovine. All the same, I know that there was an odd calming in my body and mind when it was flooded with placental progesterone, I did birth as if I was following animal instincts, and lactation (when allowed to proceed normally) is a physiological process generally independent from rational thought. I am a mammal, after all.

Acknowledging this doesn’t change the reality that I’m a thinking, feeling human being whose brain works no less effectively now that I have used my body to create and nourish a child. So long as I get enough sleep, that is.

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