It would be tempting to refer to this morning’s announced voucher incentive plan for breastfeeding as the “scheme that launched a thousand tits”, but it would be inappropriate and wrong, not least because “scheme” comes nowhere near rhyming with “face”.
It’s still tempting, though, because behind all of it lies an assumption that there are bosoms full of milk, waiting and ready to be deployed, if only we can find a way to stop their lazy owners selfishly refusing to use them. It implies that breastfeeding is a simple choice of yes or no; a decision made once and for all; a triviality that new mums can be lured into with the promise of some free retail therapy.
I haven’t written about breastfeeding or birth very much in this blog. Partly because it all feels a while ago now, partly because I wrote and talked it all out of my system in the early few years. Strangely, for something for which I felt an immediate passion for quite a long time, it is a little bit “other” now.
My eldest child was born almost eight years ago. My husband and I dewy-eyed our way through pregnancy: books, classes, earnest and heart-felt discussions about how we would parent. We were the most diligent of sailors, navigating our way to the end of our known world, and, shell-shocked in the immediate aftermath of a conventionally difficult birth, falling clean off the end of it.
I don’t think anything can prepare you fully for new parenthood, especially not in our age of small nuclear families, living apart from the messy, humdrum miracle of babies until the stork delivers one and you are left wondering if it’s a malfunctioning model or you’re not reading the manual properly. I remember, tearfully, drawing the unoriginal analogy that learning to parent in the immediate aftermath of birth is like learning to ride a bike after a car crash. You’re sore, you’re knackered, your body is leaking and undignified and you’re in the thrall of hormones which – at the very best – turn small obstacles and adversities into tear-worthy traumas.
Of course I was going to breastfeed. I did the antenatal breastfeeding classes. I had a mum who had breastfed, and a mother in law who’d done the same. I had a lovely, supportive husband; a warm, safe home; plenty to eat; nothing else really to worry about. Was I affected, subconsciously or otherwise, by the expectation that it was the naice middle class thing to do? Yes, almost certainly. Was I sincere and earnest in wanting to do it? Yes, definitely.
And, of course, it was hell. He was big and he was hungry. All the mantra-like phrases I’d learned beforehand went out of my head. I wanted it, really, to stop. There were tears and there was blood. Lots of blood. There’s nothing like the sight of red running from the mouth of your precious newborn, vampire-like, as he wails with an empty tummy and seems to shrink visibly before your eyes to shatter the Rubens-like image of beatific nurturing you’d carried with you to this point.
Stopping, at this point, wouldn’t have been giving up. It would have been rational, sensible, and almost certainly in the immediate best interests of both of us. I didn’t know how to do it. I couldn’t make it work. I felt, quite simply, if irrationally, that I had failed.
And that would have been the end of that particular chapter, had not the midwife visiting me at home when things reached this point asked if I wanted to go to a support group and, when I sobbed that I couldn’t drive and there was no-one to take me, rang a SureStart volunteer who appeared with car to take us to a drop in session in town.
It wasn’t a happy ever after. We mix-fed for a long time and we went on to stamp our breastfeeding card with most of the problems that can befall. But I breastfed him till he self-weaned at 15 months, and I fed his younger brother and sister in due course with far less trauma. I don’t think that I would have been any worse a mother had I stopped feeding when things got so bad. I do, however, know that it wouldn’t have been a “choice”.
I am just an interested and involved observer, not an expert. So much work has been done to promote breastfeeding rates; so much study goes on into the whys and wherefores of its low prevalence in the UK. I don’t know why it’s the case. I just know from my own experience, and from thousands of pages read, and dozens of other mothers spoken to, that the decision not to breastfeed, at whatever stage, is emotive and upsetting for many.
I think breastfeeding is fantastic for all sorts of reasons, but I don’t think it’s the hallmark of good mothering. I don’t think that a woman who makes an informed choice should ever feel or be made to feel that she has let her baby down in any way. But for every one of those women, I suspect there are hundreds who wanted to, who tried to, but who felt forced to the conclusion that they couldn’t, or were told that they shouldn’t, continue. For them to see praise – and money – being given to someone they may perceive as having had a much easier time, surely will do nothing to improve take-up rates overall?
A cash incentive seems a strange ingredient to add to the toxic brew of guilt, struggle and conflict that surrounds breastfeeding. Perhaps it could be useful as a tangible explanation of continuing feeding in an environment where it’s not the norm; a way of rationalising it to the Cassandras around a new mum who croak that that baby’s never hungry again, or who suspect that time spent sitting and feeding is time better spent doing other things. Even this, though, and certainly the implication that mums wantonly disregard health and other considerations not to breastfeed – and that the promise of a shopping spree is all it takes to pull them back into line – feels insulting and infantilising.
Breastfeeding takes commitment. Primarily from the mum, of course, but not in isolation. The most committed mother can’t continue against a backdrop of feeding problems, lack of information, lack of support and lack of normalisation of breastfeeding in our culture. I will watch the results of the trial with interest, but at this stage, it feels suspiciously like laying sweeties on the finishing line while we continue to tie most of the runners’ shoelaces together.