Breastfeeding has been getting a lot of exposure in the past couple of weeks. Dr Jennifer James sparked a a slew of newspaper articles, television news stories and current affairs program stories with her proposal that infant formula should be available on prescription only. At the same time there have been a few articles and television stories popping up here and there, debating whether or not women should or shouldn’t have to, or want to, cover their babies and their boobs while breastfeeding in public. Usually I’d be thrilled that a topic so dear to me is getting this much airtime, but at the moment I’m in an ambivalent kind of fug. In fact, it’s not so much ambivalence as a quiet sense of hopelessness. If only the media was buzzing about the value of breastfeeding, the value of mothers, about increasing support for women to initiate and sustain breastfeeding, and about helping women mould their lives around their need to breastfeed instead of the other way round. Then I would be delighted. But it’s not. To me the focus seems so negatively skewed. There’s a prevailing defeatist attitude that while women might want to breastfeed, most of them will be failed by their inadequate bodies or their sick babies, so they might as well opt out from the beginning.
This is absolute crap. Yes, there is a tiny percentage of women (<10%) who physically cannot breastfeed because they just don’t have sufficient breast tissue, or they don’t have their breasts anymore, or they’re being treated with the very rare medications that are not safe during breastfeeding (note to all: commonly used antibiotics do not fall into this category). The rest of them are not failed by their bodies or their babies. They’re failed by our peculiar society, with its distrust of the unpredictable rhythms of the human body and its voracious, conspicuous need to consume and control. Articles like Breast is best, but don’t ditch the back-up are just a literary and, in this case, actual advertisement for artificial feeding – the original article had an active Google advertisement for Nutricia smack bang in the centre. I could go on and on about the enormous infant formula companies and their ability to profit from fear-mongering. But really it is as simple as this – there is no money to be made from breastfeeding women. Except possibly for the people who make these (Oh Hathor, thank you. On days when I really feel the whole world is mad, I visit your blog and am instantly cheered up.). So, it doesn’t matter that breastfeeding is the biological default – I would say it’s the normal thing to do, but statistically that is a doubtful statement these days – it will still be advertised as too difficult, inconvenient and easily and safely replaced with powdered, modified cow’s milk. Is there another mammalian species on earth that fails so comprehensively at feeding its young that it chooses the milk of another species instead? Somewhere in me is a lengthy opinion about shared breastfeeding and community and donor milk, but that’s for another day.
Sometimes it’s just exhausting to care what choices we make as a society. So what if breastfeeding is the default setting? So is spontaneous, unmedicated vaginal birth. So is boys having a foreskin on their penis. Who cares if it’s the best choice, with long term health consequences for mothers, babies and society? So what if women are encouraged to opt out of doing something because they might not succeed, or it might hurt, or their partner won’t be able to bond with the baby, or they won’t be able to have a drink, or they might want to go to a wedding, or they won’t be able to buy enough stuff to sustain the local baby emporium? Why even bother trying to stop the juggernaut? Let people opt out. We can opt out of every other potentially uncomfortable thing in life. Why should this be any different? Even goddamn Pass the Parcel at children’s birthday parties has a prize in every layer these days, so kids don’t have to feel the discomfort of not winning. If that’s life when you’re four, why should adulthood be any different? And isn’t that the beauty of choice? So that people can make choices for themselves and their children even if the consequences are negative and irreversible.
That’s how I feel when I read the news these days. If people don’t value breastfeeding, if they’re not taught and supported to do it, if they’re misinformed, if they’re hindered, if they’re shamed for doing it in public, if they’re harassed for doing it for more than six months, if they suffer through difficulties over and again with no help, or if they just don’t want to do it, making infant formula more difficult to access won’t change that. But if we can fix everything else? Then absolutely…I’m on board!