The Ecology of Breastfeeding

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Breastfeeding is food. It is part of the wider network of food production and relations. The food of love, as it has been called. And it is. Breastfeeding provides sustenance and nourishment and love in one swift gesture.

That breastfeeding is food is a fact that it is often forgotten in debates about breastfeeding in public, for instance, where breastfeeding is likened to going to the toilet or to having sex in public. This is because breastfeeding touches on a number of taboos. As breasts have become hyper sexualised, the taboo of showing a breast in public is related to sex, and thus indecency, and this is the reason the people who complain about breastfeeding in public and ask for discretion are all about. The other taboo is that of human secretions in public. The taboo of natural human waste products: urine, poo, even sweat, long held in many societies, which are not meant to be seen in public, has somehow been collated with breastmilk. The act of breastfeeding, with many times leaking breasts, and the act of transposing a liquid form one being to another in public seems taboo.

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Taking our time

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Birth and breastfeeding are an invitation to enter into another domain of time. Or more accurately, to be in time, to be grounded in the cycle of life. The other day, I went for a walk and I came across a rabbit. He crossed my path, in not much of a hurry. I followed it, until I saw him hopping into his burrow. It reminded of Alice in Wonderland, and how she saw the rabbit, followed it, fell into the rabbit hole and entered a new dimension. She accepted the invitation. Motherhood at times felt like falling into a hole where there are different rules and things flow differently, and things that made sense before are not useful anymore. One of those things is clinging onto clock time. 

The way we live our lives today in industrialised countries is ruled by mechanised time. And clock time, industrial time, or historical time, as it has been called, is linear and progressive. We are immersed and socialised into clock time. It is the prevalent mode of experiencing and narrating time. It is so obvious and naturalised that we don’t even question it: time is something that has a beginning, middle and end. It is structured in our language and in our narratives.

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Breastfeeding in public: discomfort matters

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Breastfeeding is not the norm in the UK, and breastfeeding in public can be especially daunting to a new mother. The anxiety that many women face shows that. In the last Infant Feeding Survey, 45% of mothers said they felt uncomfortable feeding in front of others, and most acutely so in public spaces*. But considering that being out and about is our right, and part of women’s daily needs and practice, this makes it a big deal. If breastfeeding cannot be folded easily within women’s daily lives, then it is likely that it is a practice that will either not be taken up, or be carried out for very long by the majority of women, which is what we are seeing today.

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Connecting through stories

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Connecting with others, sharing stories, finding a role model is crucial to breastfeeding. Because breastfeeding is in crisis. Because it is highly idealised, but devalued in practice. And that can make you feel lost, lonely and unsupported. I felt like that. But myths, images and stories helped. They helped because they made me feel accompanied, made me feel valued and understood, gave me perspective, and also other ways to see myself and what I was doing. They made me feel part of something bigger....

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Building Belonging

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The arguments for breastfeeding in terms of health are already won, but breastfeeding statistics remain impossibly low in the UK. How can this be? Because the barriers to breastfeeding are cultural, not medical but the majority of information about breastfeeding comes from the medical community. This viewpoint says that women should breastfeed, without acknowledging the personal and emotional struggles involved in doing so.

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