A Breastfeeding Journey by Denise Sumpter
What a journey I have had since I started breastfeeding over 7 years ago – in ways that are difficult to even quantify! And, society has come some way with regard to breastfeeding, too; where once feeding a child of 2, in the recent decades, seemed a radical and questionable act, the media look to children over 5, now, as beyond some prescribed “norm”.
Of course, I didn’t think for a minute when I nursed my small baby, that I would be triumphantly breastfeeding a child beyond five years; it is a gradual realisation that one’s child is still very young and in need of all of the things that nursing can offer, so that six months then appears as some odd purely medical signpost for the very minimal and basic requirement in terms of breastfeeding duration, and the child on your lap of six months and a day has his/her milk the same as yesterday.
This is the case at one year, and then at two, except that by then it is possible to have two hands free to chop vegetable for dinner and not need to nurse in a carrier simultaneously. Looking back, those changes are so gradual, so natural in their unfolding that we need do nothing – and that is such a wonderful thing. Instinctive parenting needs little intervention or active imposition.
Children grow older by days, by increments, and cannot regulate their lives according to arbitrary schedules delineated by latter-day science’s fads. Mama milk is the elixir of love that bonds, binds, and sutures until our young outgrow its need, and forget to ask as their bodies no longer signal a requirement. We can trust, believe, and follow these instincts with a clear conscience and happy heart – this is absolutely the best thing, but I probably don’t need to exhort that, as you are feeling it anyway! One finds patterns and ways that one’s life fits easily around and can be adapted to nursing (I type these words into my phone in the dark, while feeding my two year old back to sleep).
What We Have Always Known
Many western societies and cultures are busy relearning and rediscovering what we once knew. For over a hundred thousand years, humans have been nurturing their young, breastfeeding them until they are developed sufficiently as stand alone beings, and able to survive from remote food sources alone. We all need a hug and closeness, nonetheless, whatever our age!
However, since the coming of agriculture, to a much lesser degree, and to a much greater extent with the event of fast-paced social and cultural development, along with industrialisation and technological advancement, people have sought to modify, commodify, and circumvent the biological norm, such that breastfeeding, in some cases, can be altogether absent from parenting models.
Statistics show that in the UK, less than 1/3 of children are breastfed in any amount by 6 months of age. We can add to this the incredible fact that some no longer are even aware that breastfeeding is something above and beyond a simple foodstuff that can replaced without detriment.
Humans With The Same Needs…Then, Now, and Always
The point is of course that despite the speed of development in agriculture, society, industry, and technology, we are still the same species that we were more than a hundred thousand years past. We are part of the mammalian class, and one of many within the order of primates.
Traversing many ages, we have walked the earth, breastfed our young in the same way that other primates have and still do today.
This biological, neurological, immunological and nutritional necessity cannot be circumvented by a century or so of nothing more than tin pot chemistry, patriarchy, and cultural practices. One thing is for sure, if breastfeeding rates were the same at the time when humans were in their infancy as a species as they are today, we would have died out and been replaced with some other hominid more able to successfully nurture their young.
The History of Inconvenience
At various points in history, societal models have found biology and the need for nurture an inconvenience; the perception of natural and instinctive human mothering as being incompatible with a civilised and developed or modern society has forced children and mothers apart, and seen the advent of harmful and detrimental practises.
Victorian society saw corseted mothers literally straightjacketed into “decency” and “modesty”, pass on the perceived ‘animalistic” and ‘savage’ act of breastfeeding to wet-nurses, bringing about the notion of breastfeeding as an option for those less acceptable in polite society and a base act not suited to ladies of standing.
Wet-nurses and nannies became desirable and a sign of status, whereupon manufacturing and industry made commodification of infant feeding even more possible, and the perpetuation of the then current aspirational model easier for those of less affluent means. Mothers bowed further to the new order, and further passed over their maternal prowesses in the name of progress and modernity.
Seeing Breastfeeding is Insurance for Future Generations
So, I have learned so very much since my daughter was born, because prior to that my breastfeeding knowledge was probably the same as that of other women; I recall having seen breastfeeding about twice in my life at that point, and the whole notion was barely on my personal radar. This shocking state of affairs in terms of visibility of mothers in general, and nursing more specifically, did not do anything except marginalise mothering and render it invisible and verging on the taboo. I think we are a little further forward today, but with human mothering skills being learned by practical interaction and viewing, as with other mammals, the separation of mothers from the mainstream causes our abilities to wane.
A Way To Go…
Indeed, women have clawed back a good deal of their own, but mothering is still on the periphery; mothering is marginalised and sidelined as a pause from the norm, a time where women are advised to “wait out” the time where one’s body isn’t one’s own and hold out for “getting one’s body back”. These latter are damaging constructs that encourage women and all of society to view mothering as “other”, and opposite to a norm that is being a women aside from and despite of being a mother, as a temporary state mutually exclusive from womanhood in all other sense.
Be A Renegade! Swim Proudly Against a The Tide!
A woman who can nurse her children, nurture, love, and at the same time be visible and present in all of this and more is perceived as renegade and dangerous indeed. Which is why I believe that breastfeeding is sought to be controlled; breastfeeding is overtly empowering and sisterly and nurturing, and altogether beyond the bounds of commodification, and outside of the grasp of multinationals that seek to take over every aspects of our lives and even in some cases monopolise and lay claim to the water that we drink bestowed freely by our planet.
Breastfeeding is Indeed a Feminist Issue – whatever sort of Feminist You Feel You Are.
So when what has become known as “biological feminism” talks about breastfeeding as a feminist issue, we can look back to points in history where women looked, and were pushed to look, to other alternative ways of nurturing their young and using their bodies.
We can count fashion, and status, among the cultural pressures that had women seek out alternatives to breastfeeding. Restrictive dress, and the changing perceptions of women’s roles, and the narrow boundaries newly perceived as acceptable for ladies of civilised societies all took their toll upon infant feeding. And quite literally, with artificial feeding contributing massively to infant mortality; feeding vessels and the concomitant bacteriological contamination as well as the unsuitability of foodstuffs caused many otherwise healthy-born infants to die before their first birthday.
The Proof Is Out There…
With modern chemistry what it now has become, we know that breastfeeding is much more than food. We have understood the chemical exchanges that take place at the breast that make for optimal nurturing with every single nursing session. Immunologically and developmentally, neurologically and psychologically, breastfeeding is both a lifesaver and a life changer.
Long term studies conducted have proved that for every day a child breastfeeds, the benefits are lifelong. We know that as fact.
We also know, but some try to deny, that a century of chemistry has not learned how to manufacture a dynamic cover-all living commodity that perfectly mimics what we can codify as ‘Mother Nature’ has been doing for many millennia.
Two add Two Is Five!
But, more importantly, we as mothers know that the symbiosis of nursing dyads and triads and beyond is more than it is possible to quantify.
Through the ups and downs, the cluster-feeding, the bumped knees, the trauma and elation, and the triumph that is a breastfeeding success story in spite of the common modern “norm”, we know that it is altogether worth every moment of elation and angst.
Techno Mamas Have Power in Numbers
One thing that is absolutely fantastic about modern technology is the way in which it has enabled women to share stories about breastfeeding, to empower themselves in collective protests, and has meant that the latest scientific studies and understanding can be shared, and can fortify us by showing us that we are doing the optimal nurturing thing for our children.
We can exchange pictures, discuss common nursing issues and worries with the result that many come forward to support us. We can also disseminate long-held knowledge that is in danger of being forgotten – the joys of feeding children through pregnancy, the changes in lactation at this time, the ways that children beyond two or three years old tend to feed, can all be shared widely. So, with technology comes solidarity and sisterhood.
Feel The Love
Just by doing what we do sets the next generation on an optimal path; we may squeeze forth a tear when we see our children hugging and kissing their toys, and lifting up their clothes to feed them. In a time where playmates, schedules, daycare, after-school clubs and sleepovers bring for a busy and fast-paced childhood, it is all we can do to catch our breath to sit and quietly talk, share a book, snuggle in the sofa, bake together, or sit in the park listening to the birds and admiring the trees and flowers, their colours and aromas.
Time for nurture is precious – and possibly more so in a world that is intent on speed and efficiency. Loving, laughing and daydreaming are for free, not for profit. They enable wellbeing and a lightness of living not offered by material wealth. Happiness is glimpsed and grasped in moments strung together as beads on the necklace of life’s meandering path.
Follow Your Instincts
Mothering has a value that needs no justification. Recent conversations have shown me that mothers have been made to feel wrong in their commitment to nurture, strange in their enjoyment of affections and their patience for the gradual developments that happen at various paces between the ages of, say, two and seven years.
It is sad indeed when committed mothers are branded “weird” and “undesirable”, such is the culture of separation. This is a fashion, lately. Mothers are feeling that they must become covert about the fact that they care, their children are attached, and about the fact that they have a close and well-forged bond with their children – they feel guilty for bucking the trend that requires a child be prised from one’s skirts, lap, and breast, and put into school uniform at an age as young as two years, in some cases.
Mothering is being devalued to such an extent that loving and attentive parenting is met with furrowed brows and a shaking of heads, and is still in some quarters being squeezed into a box labelled “anti-feminist” by those who still wish to brand children as an inconvenience and blame them for the sins of patriarchal society and its inability to accommodate a biological necessity and mammalian societal norms into modern culture.
I feel it a feminist duty to defend motherly love, compassion, and presence, for the sake of the next generations. Being there, nurturing, loving, nursing, caring, should not be a twelve-month pause from the norm as standard; women deserve choice and respect as do their children, so that each individual family’s life can be optimal and come without a downside. We should not be forced into parenting in a way that feels wrong for us – whatever that way might be.
Visible Mothering is A Gift For All
We can empower ourselves and our children by following our hearts and being the change. Mothering starts from the act of birthing itself – something that women are in the process of reclaiming back for themselves and future generation. Being free to birth wherever one wishes has been put into question in the last five or six decades, but feminism is now working hard to regain women’s own ground. Birth is no longer acceptable as something that happens to us, and we are as the observer. Attachment begins with an open, positive, accepting and informed mindset during pregnancy, a belief in the physical, and a mind entranced by the celebration of life and potential, no matter how one is bothered by nausea and fatigue.
A birth in this mindset is one of choice, of power, of ecstasy, and strength; a time of blissful presence that emanates and erupts from a firm feminine core, and relies on the support and patience of those present. A family birth is an intimate gift to one’s children that is embedded in the memory and informs the subconscious. I can rest easy that my daughter will not fear birth, after seeing her little brother fly across the bathroom after a few hours of fun and birthing!
Do as We Do
Normal human behaviour is about mimicking and modelling the same basic biology that happened way back several hundred thousand years ago. Peel away all of the societal angst and rhetoric of parents who may be “tigers” or “helicopters” or “free-rangers” or “hothousers”, and whether we did enough reading, baking, and lego and jigsaws, and we start to see that laughing, hugging, nursing, and simply being are incredibly important for parents and children.
So when we birth freely and relaxedly in our backyards, bedrooms and bathrooms, surrounded by family and support, when we nurse our babies, toddlers, and schoolchildren, and when we all pile safely into one family bed at night, away from the bears, wolves, and hairy mammoths of the twenty first century, we know we are just more Homo sapiens doing what we have always done to keep the species going as best we can, one day at a time.