Tag Archives: lactivism

Boob psychology

I’m still thinking about breastfeeding, given the week that’s in it. (Actually, August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month in the US, so I can go on and on with this.)

I’ve always wondered why the Irish have such terrible breastfeeding rates. Because we really do. According to the ERSI, just over half of mothers (56 per cent) currently initiate breastfeeding in Ireland, compared to 81 per cent in the UK and over 90 per cent in Scandinavian states.* Only 22% of babies are still breastfed at 3 months, with that number dropping below 10% by 6 months. In the USA, by contrast, almost half of babies are still breastfed at 6 months** – no small feat considering how many of those mothers had to go back to work and start pumping milk from as soon as six weeks post-partum.

In the wonderful personal accounts the Irish Parenting Bloggers have been sharing this week, one thing has stood out in my mind: the lack of support they’ve suffered from many of the health professionals involved in their babies’ births. But associated with that is the way several of those mothers found it hard to speak up when faced with terrible treatment, because they didn’t want to be a bother to anyone, and because the nurses they encountered – mostly nurses, it seems – made them feel that they were causing trouble. Causing trouble by asking for pain medication. By asking for help with latching the baby on. By asking to have their crying baby picked up and given to them after a c-section.

I understand this mentality, I really do. I don’t like bothering people. If I’m a patient, I want to be a model patient. I want to be the one who is no trouble. (Look how proud I was of actually asking questions, way back in my first pregnancy.) I want to get the answers right, so that the doctor/nurse/professional I’m talking to approves of me and decides I’m a nice girl.

What the hell? Who worries about being a nice girl when she’s having a baby – which is pretty hard and important work, ya know? Well, apparently I do, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Did my mother make me this way? Was it mentally beaten into me, and into her, and her mother before her, that good girls didn’t make trouble? I would go so far as to say that, though of course there are people of every level of assertiveness all over the world, in Ireland we perhaps have more non-assertive people/women than in other countries.

Perhaps we even like the martyrdom, just a tiny bit. It feels good for your soul, doesn’t it? Hedonism is definitely bad, so putting up with hardship and not whining about it must be good, right? Oh dear, this is getting awfully Catholic.

Whatever – my pop psychology is based on no actual research. But the fact stands that given the vulnerable situation of a mother at the exact time when breastfeeding begins, in the midst of pain and unfamiliarity and at the mercy of the “professionals,” the Irish tendency to “offer it up” works against many people.

Maybe, just maybe, this aspect of the Irish national psyche has something to do with the low rates of breastfeeding. Maybe many mothers who really wanted to try to breastfeed were sabotaged not just by the system but by their own innate disinclination to speak up for themselves, because they didn’t want to make trouble.

(A doula is really helpful here. One major job of a doula is to advocate for her client when her client is in a vulnerable and unfamiliar state. A doula knows what’s going on and how the system works, as well as what the mother wants. If you are pregnant in Ireland, I would strongly advise you to look into getting a doula.)

The thing is, I know that every single mama can and will advocate for her child. Every mama, Irish or otherwise, is a mother bear, a lioness, a spitting, snarling tiger mother if you threaten her child, or fail to help her child, or let her child be in pain.

So I would say to you, expectant mothers of Ireland who are planning to breastfeed (and anywhere else they like to breed nice girls): find that righteous anger, access your deep but vast recesses of self-assurance RIGHT NOW. Use it for yourself right at the start of your child’s life, to ensure that you get what you need to begin breastfeeding the way you wanted to, the way you know will work best because you’ve done the research even if the person talking to you has not. Advocate for your baby. Because breastfeeding isn’t just about us, it’s about our children.

World Breastfeeding Week logo

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to get to the root of the Irish breastfeeding problem. This is what I wrote four years ago

*Source: http://www.esri.ie/news_events/latest_press_releases/breastfeeding_in_ireland_/
** Source: http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/reportcard.htm#Indicators

"You’re still WHAT?"

You* are not the only person in the world nursing a three-year-old. I am not the only person in the world nursing a four-year-old. If you think you are, or I am, that’s because we’re just not talking about it so much.

When Jamie Lynne Grumet and her latched-on standing-up son appeared on the cover of Time magazine last year, the idea that breastfeeding still happens with children who can walk and talk and maybe even write their names in wobbly backwards capital letters was a huge surprise to many, anathema to some, and just another normal day to a subsection of mothers who happen not to have weaned yet.

Time had no interest in breaking down barriers between mothers or normalizing extended breastfeeding: Time just wanted to sell copies of Time, so it made its cover as sensationalist and purposely divisive as it could. It worked – people were suddenly talking about Time magazine, and they weren’t even trapped in a dentist’s waiting room at the time.

But for most people nursing a preschooler, it’s just not something that comes up in conversation. It’s probably something that only happens at night, or first thing in the morning; it means you don’t have to get up and pour that bowl of cereal quite as early as you might otherwise. It means your son or daughter drops off to sleep in five minutes instead of twenty-five. It’s quite easy not to talk about it, and then you realise that you’d feel funny admitting it: if they mention to their teacher that they love you because you have the booboos with the milk in them, you might even be just a tiny bit embarassed. (No, this never happened to me. Not at all. Not three weeks ago, for instance.) If they try to kiss your booboos goodbye at nursery-school dropoff, you might even brush them off with a quick “Not here, stoppit.” You might hope people don’t know what your booboos are. You might be totally deluded.

This is the thing: Nursing an older toddler or a preschooler is not a conscious decision for most mothers. It’s rarely something we set out to do: it’s just something that hasn’t finished yet. While some babies wean themselves before they turn twelve months old, and perhaps most dwindle and leave off nursing during the second year, others just don’t want to stop, and their mothers may be in a position where they don’t mind that. It’s not a big deal until someone comes along with a magazine article to turn it into one. (If you have an older nursling and are feeling weird about it, read this wonderful piece about nursing in Mongolia, and feel better.)

So while I want to wean Mabel, and I’m looking forward to the day it happens, I’m willing to wait until she’s ready too. We have set a tentative date of her fifth birthday to be done, but we’ll see what happens. I don’t want to be nursing a six-year-old in two years’ time; I have no intention of nursing a six-year-old; but then again, I had no intention of nursing a three- or four-year-old either. When I started out on this crazy journey I said, “At least three months. Six would be good.”

Life makes you change your plans. That’s how it works. Work with it.

*Maybe not you. But maybe you.

Bring out your boobs

It’s National Breastfeeding Week in Ireland, and once again I’m shocked by the statistics. Reading this article in the Irish Times, the basic takeaway is this part:

Just over half of mothers currently initiate breastfeeding in Ireland compared with 81 per cent in the UK and in the region of 98 per cent in Nordic states such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

What’s going on?  Are Irish maternity practices that different from those of the UK? (Yes, I think they are.) But according to the finding cited later, that after a month, “women who gave birth in hospitals where there is a particular breastfeeding culture are no more likely to breastfeed than other women,”  that’s not really where the problem lies.*

I think it’s entirely about peer pressure. You do what your friends do. You don’t want to be the weird one. You assume that what’s “normal” is the most “right”. The Irish psyche is also deeply suspicious of things that authority figures tell us to do. We’re a lot more likely to listen to our friends than the experts or the media, at least when it comes to deciding how we’re going to behave. We have a healthy scorn for experts.

In the comments on that article, several people mentioned that Irish mothers want to get back to the pub. They don’t want to be tied to an infant, and they don’t want to have to moderate their alcohol intake for an indefinite length of time. The idea of six more months without a pint or a (good) few glasses of red, after a whole nine months of self-denial already, is horrendous to your average Irish mother. Is that really true? Is it because the Irish doctors take the more USA-ian approach of no alcohol at all while pregnant or nursing rather than a Continental attitude of a little is fine? Or do Irish doctors know that “a little” is not an option once an Irishwoman goes out drinking?

On balance, I’d like to think this isn’t true. The Scandinavian nations where breastfeeding rates are highest are not exactly known for their abstinence from hard liquor. The Swedes party hard, I’m told. But they are probably able to exercise a modicum of self-control too, and I imagine if the breastfeeding culture in Ireland was more like that in Sweden, Irish mothers would find that they could, let’s see

  • have one drink and stop
  • have a few drinks once in a while and offer formula that evening instead
  • pump enough to have a backup stash in the fridge for the babysitter to offer while you’re out on the batter, and for you to give while you’re still a little worse for wear once you get home

or even

  • discover that it’s no fun trying to care for an infant when you have a hangover, and realise that moderation might be a good thing

Lots of options there. Not having a drink is not enough of a reason not to breastfeed; but from the point of view of a first-time pregnant woman who’s dying to get her life back and doesn’t understand that her life is about to be irrevocably changed anyway, it might look like one. By the time the baby’s out she’s already told everyone that she’s not going to do it, and bought the bottles and the formula, and made a date for her first girls’ night out, there’s no going back, so she goes forward, and there’s one more baby who didn’t even get a chance at the colostrum, one more set of potential siblings who probably won’t either, one more bottle-feeding mother out there not changing the public perspective on what’s “normal”.

Yes, yes, there are many people who really really wanted to breastfeed, and it didn’t work out. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the almost 50% who decided beforehand that they weren’t even going to think about it, because it’s weird. Or because it’s not what anyone they know does.

If nobody ever does, then nobody ever will. Simple as that. Are we all sheep, Irishwomen? I’d like to think not. Don’t just do what your friends are doing. Find out for yourself. Remember, in the immortal words of L’Oreal, you’re worth it. And so is your baby.

Mind the Baby has some words to say about the week here. Coincidentally, since she talks about the PR campaign, my own post linked at the top of the page described my imaginary advertising campaign aimed at the Irish market. Perhaps we should add one that just says, “Why breastfeed? So your friends will too.” Maybe it’s just that simple.

*Although higher rates of intervention are statistically linked with lower rates of initiating breastfeeding, so it does have something to do with it.

Lactivist-in-action

So this morning we went to the nurse-in at the Hirshhorn, which really does have two h’s in its name. (Wait, three.)

There was a woman outside handing out little laminated cards with the right-to-breastfeeding law printed on it – the federal law and the state laws for DC, Maryland and Virginia. Handy to have on your person if you think you might have to defend what you’re doing to antsy security guards, for instance.

We were shuffled upstairs to the third floor, which at first I felt was a little like sending the crazy ladies away where they wouldn’t inconvenience anyone, but actually half the exhibition is up there (the other half being down in the basement – the entrance level is just the shop). We came up the escalator to a lovely plethora of mothers and babies, sitting on the benches and against the walls nursing, nursing while walking around, nursing in carriers, and just chatting and laughing. There were plenty of dads too, and siblings. I sat down in a nice leather chair and offered Mabel some mumeet. For the first time in living memory, she refused and asked for snacks instead. “No,” I replied, “it’s time to have some mumeet.” She ran away laughing. So much for my lactivism.

We wandered (that is, chased the two-year-old) around the exhibits (hey, I can do modern art – big canvas, blue paint, Bob’s your uncle), bumped into a friend and her daughter, smiled at all the babies and the commotion, noted the presence of the news cameras, and finally Mabel deigned to get down to business and have a wee dram of the good stuff. Three minutes and we were done. Oh, for a newborn who would have let me sit there all morning. Still, Monkey was militating to go downstairs and eat his snacks – I assumed that food and drink on the other floors would be verboten – so we couldn’t really tarry.

The Hirshhorn knew what it was doing when it welcomed the nurse-in: it was great PR and they probably had five times more visitors than on an average Saturday morning in February. We’d never been there before, and while it’s not particularly my cup of tea (and they don’t even have a cafe, so there were no cups of tea at all), it’s a lovely space. In fact, I can imagine that, on a regular emptier day, it would be just the sort of area I’d have been delighted with as a newly nursing mum – lots of nice comfy chairs and handy benches where I would assume I could just sit down for a few minutes and quietly nurse the baby without bothering anyone.

I hope that’s what it will be from now on.

Decent exposure

Next Saturday, I might be going downtown again, this time to flash some security guards.

There’s a nurse-in planned at the Hirshhorn Museum, where a mother a few weeks ago was told by more than one security guard to feed her baby in the restroom. There was no chair or otherwise designated breastfeeding area in the restroom. The law states that a mother may nurse her baby anywhere she and her baby are allowed to be, even if part of her breast is exposed during feeding. If we can’t even get people to respect that, here in the fairly left-leaning nation’s capital, what hope do women in more far-flung, more conservative areas have?

I’m trying not to nurse Mabel much in public these days. I am, at least, making an effort to have snacks with me and offer them first, or try to distract her. It’s not because I’m embarrassed to nurse my two-year-old in front of other people: it’s just that I’d like us to start winding down and that’s a good way to begin.

However, if I have to briefly take a retrograde step and sit down in a public building with the express purpose of breastfeeding my toddler, I will do that to ensure that everyone else has the right to do it too. It’s not about exhibitionism. It’s not about thumbing my nose at other people’s sensibilities. It’s not about being contrary. It’s about basic rights for mothers and babies, and helping normalise the act of breastfeeding for everyone.

No, I don’t have to whip out a boob to feed my toddler. She can eat big-girl food. But if she was under six months old, that would be all the food she’d be getting. Why should a mother feel she has to hide a wriggly baby under a “modesty” cover – which, as far as I can see, just enrages babies and calls attention to what you’re doing in a way that simply lifting your shirt and hiding everything with a baby on your lap rarely does? Or that she’d better pump at home, decant to a bottle, bring the bottle along, and feed the baby that way to avoid embarrasing others while out and about?

Some babies don’t take to bottles and refuse to drink from them. Some mothers can’t pump more than an ounce or two. (Me, last time I tried, for instance, though my supply is far from paltry.) Some mothers can’t afford a pump anyway. Most mothers have other things to do, and really don’t want another thing to have to remember before heading out for the day. One of the wonderful things about breastfeeding is the ability to just go, with the bare minimum of stuff attached. You always have the food, it’s always the right temperature, it’s always sterilised, and there’s always enough.

But even if you do see a mother breastfeeding a baby who can walk, or – horrors! – talk? What of it? Would you rather listen to a screaming toddler meltdown? All the way home on the train? Wouldn’t it be so much nicer all round if the mother held her baby close and comforted him or her, quietly, making everyone happy? You probably wouldn’t even have noticed them. That’s what nursing can do – even on the DC Metro System where if you stick to the letter of the law you may not feed your poor tired grumpy child so much as a goldfish cracker without transgressing Metro rules. (Here I am compelled to note that I do not stick to the letter of this law. My children have eaten more than one goldfish in Metro stations and on Metro trains. Am I alone?)

The bottom line for me is that if nobody ever nurses in public, then nobody will ever nurse in public. Breastfeeding whenever, wherever, should be normal, unexceptional, not-head-turning. If some of us have to turn a few heads in order to help make it that way, I’m up for that too.

nursing a toddler

Selling the boob

The breastfeeding rates in Ireland are pretty crap. We just don’t have a breastfeeding culture at the moment, and there’s nothing harder to change than culture. The only thing to do, as a nursing mother, is get out there and nurse, and talk about it, and let people see you doing it.

Admittedly, I didn’t exactly hang out with new mothers when I lived in Dublin last, being more of the young-free-and-single set, but I really only remember twice ever seeing someone nursing: once when I was about 8 and my friend’s mother came to lunch with her new baby; and then the mother of the kids I babysat, but she was Dutch, and therefore Doesn’t Count.

Anyway, the breastfeeding PR people are fighting a losing battle against the Irish psyche. We will not do anything The Man tells us to, for The Man represents 700 years of English Oppression, even when The Man is a nice hippie lady who just wants what’s best for your baby. We don’t like hippies much either. So the more the BF lobby tell the Irish populace how much they really ought to breastfeed, the more the Irish populace say “No, it’s time to think about *me* after these hard 9 months of pregnancy, and I’m going to give myself a break and bottle feed. It’s all the same to the baby, give or take.” At least, I imagine that’s perhaps the thought process.

So if you can’t browbeat the Irish into doing the right thing, how do you appeal to them? To their innate laziness, of course. To their desire to save a bob or two. To their love of the easy life. This is my plan for an ad campaign:

  • Big picture of boobs (somehow covered, for modesty). Caption: Convenience Store, open all hours.
  • Big picture of boobs. Caption: Piggybank. Small print: [Some statistic about how much you would save on formula if you breastfed for 6 months.]
  • Big picture of boobs. Caption: Sterilizer. Small print: [Statistic about how much time it takes to sterilize the bottles versus opening your shirt.]
  • Big picture of boobs. Caption: The gym. Small print: Breastfeeding is nature’s way of losing the baby weight. And you don’t have to lift a finger. (Disclaimer about how it doesn’t work for everyone.)
  • Big picture of boobs. Caption: Cancer protection. Small print: [statistics about how women who breastfeed are less likely to get breast cancer] 

You get the idea. I’m sure I’ll come up with some more.