Thoughts on ONCA

Over the past few weeks I have been at the gallery every day. Sometimes I just sat on the beanbags and enjoyed the quiet. Other days I had others to join me: Lucila came almost every day. Many mothers came with their children. But also quite a few fathers. And others who had never had children; young women interested in the subject with their boyfriends, mothers whose babies had grown, mothers who had not breastfed, mothers who were still breastfeeding their four year old, mothers with newborns still struggling with the adjustment to motherhood.

In every case we sat or stood and held the conversation open: this is not an exhibition about how to breastfeed, or why you should breastfeed, or condemning those who do not...

A visitor reads her poem during a conversation at the gallery

I had some criticisms. For example, why no suffering women? When the cultural landscape is so empty, with so little work on this subject, what is there becomes a beacon and needs to fulfill every demand: to promote breastfeeding, to speak for those who could not breastfeed, to address the social inequalities, to represent every class. Although I had gone to some lengths to ensure the portraits were representative of a broad population of the UK, I recognised the impossibility of fulfilling such demand.

 

For example, it was very difficult and time consuming to recruit successful breastfeeders for the project. Those in great pain, in the early days of breastfeeding were off limits to me. I promised to represent their experience through the interviews.

I am certainly lining up interviews with women who have struggled, as I did, to breastfeed. They are closest to my heart. It is the struggle that started this. The struggle that both Lucila and I had in the first instance, to manage to feed (see Mother stories) and then, later on the struggle to understand the place of breastfeeding, both within motherhood and within society.

Mother and child participating in an interview during the exhibition

We hear from so many women that their struggle felt lonely, they felt abandoned. The question over why one woman would continue alone, when another went straight out to buy formula is a complex one. Some women were pressured to do so. Others were pressured to continue trying.

There is anger on both sides.

Some felt they had amazing support from the hospital, the health workers, the midwives. Others complained of poor advice: GPs failing to understand the basics, midwives advising unnecessary processes, being constantly asked if they were 'still' breastfeeding. Being left alone for hours after delivering their child with no advice or help, being unable to fathom an avalanche of conflicting information from different sources.

The lack of a single authorative active voice seemed a constant. Those who struggled, either paid for a Lactation Consultant or gave in. There was nobody who had overcome their struggle alone. Everyone who had problems and eventually found their way through them had access to a trained source of help via a LC at a drop in, or by paying a LC.

The social pressures of breastfeeding and motherhood were equally expressed across the days. In particular, pressure from mother in laws, their own mother, or close family members to leave a baby to cry, to cover up more when feeding or to stop feeding before the mother or child was ready.

Pressure to stop feeding also seemed to come from GPs. Who had little awareness of the benefits of ‘full term’ breastfeeding.

Superstition around this area and sleep was rife. Women talked of their fears about babies developing excessive dependency as a result of being picked up, sleeping in the same room or being breastfed beyond six months. Women were overwhelmed with unwanted and unnecessary pointers from well meaning family, friends and strangers. Regardless of their choices they felt judged, accused and tried on an hourly basis - on the bus, at home, at the library, everywhere except for baby centred places such as play groups and get-togethers.

The prevalence of advice seemed in exact inverse proportion to the amount of accuracy, based on current research. Authors like Gina Ford came up over and over as a source of extreme anxiety and frustration. Fathers talked of their confusion at the minute by minute instructions; the bewildering threats and promises of a bad or good baby depending on their ability to follow these instructions.

Notes from the workshop Breastfeeding in Public: This Discomfort Matters

At the Breastfeeding in Public workshop, Lucila and I were interested to discover that the social pressure of the immediate family and friends was far greater than the anxiety about breastfeeding in public. Most women spoke of struggling more with overcoming the taboo of breastfeeding in front of in in-laws, parents and siblings. Once this had been mastered, the act of breastfeeding in public was merely seen as a step into the unknown. Nobody had a negative story or experience about a stranger, only about family and friends.

 

It may be that this is peculiar to Brighton, (an overwhelmingly accepting and liberal place) but the idea of breastfeeding as taboo rang clear. Women’s struggle was largely with their kith and kin. Their experience of breastfeeding felt as though it was in opposition to social norms that they had always, otherwise obeyed. They experienced conflict around this: struggling to reconcile their certainty of the benefits of breastfeeding with the determination of others to maintain the status quo.

 

Education of the older generation: specifically those aged 55-75 seemed relevant. It was noted that many older women in their late seventies and eighties were extremely supportive and vocally so. We guessed these were the last of the generation who breastfed before the wholesale introduction of formula in the 1960s. For those who had children later, and who experienced the full impact of the formula take over of maternity wards in the 60s there was a sense of affront: to insist on breastfeeding, even when it was a struggle was an accusation that they had not tried hard enough, or had made the wrong choices.

 

Women came to the exhibition and expressed their gratitude for being shown and honoured with such beautiful pictures. They stood and looked, they sat and watched the film, then went downstairs to watch the videos. Many returned at least once. Some didn't have time to see everything but took a card and promised to go to the website, to stay in touch, to tell their friends. The exhibition was shared widely on Facebook, by email and WhatsApp. Most women had heard about it from more than one place. Many said they had been sent details from a friend who thought they would find it interesting.

Paul Carter and the Breastfeeding Support team from Hampshire

Many professionals also came. Zoe and Claire from the NHS support team in Brighton came, the Post Natal ward manager of the local hospital, a party from the NHS support team in Hampshire came along with photographer Paul Carter who has done a wonderful project with them called , ‘We do it in Public'. Many midwives came. One commented that the abstract concepts behind the work were too complex for ordinary women. Another, from Spain invited me to bring the work to their newly created birthing centre.

 

A GP working on better training for GPs came to watch the videos twice. Another doctor, one of the mothers photographed, told us of discovering the inaccuracies in doctors exam questions regarding breastfeeding (how long does the who recommend breastfeeding? Answer: 1 year - the correct answer is at least two years) and we despaired at the levels of medical ignorance and absence of proper training for GPs on all aspects – not just breastfeeding but infant feeding generally and other issues such as sleep issues and weaning.

 

The weeks flew by quickly and were intense from start to finish. It was the first time Lucila and I had worked so closely together, the first opportunity to test out a safe space for conversation in this way. The gallery noted that the audience numbers grew during the exhibition and that the demographic was broader than usual. I was particularly struck by the broad demographic, the draw of the work across society and professions. I revised my assumption that this was a project made for women. I realised that motherhood is a universal theme and the broad reaching ideas concerning Time and Motherhood make this work accessible to everyone.

 

The animated film of Holding Time plays all night in the ONCA window

 

 

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