Breastfeeding a toddler – sexist reactions

by Ruth Moss

My toddler is nearly twenty months of age and I breastfeed him. Mainly during the night and at weekends, but also before and after work and in the evening.

Already I’ve started getting comments, which I want to explore further. But first let me explain why I am “still” breastfeeding.

A difficult induced labour, episiotomy and blue baby recusitated and sent to special care almost immediately did not get me off to the best start, it has to be said. I also did not get good support for a long time, and suffered with sore, cracked and eventually bleeding nipples and a perma-crying perma-hungry baby. For a while I even expressed practically every feed. It was only due to a chance meeting, in fact, that I eventually found a good support group where my baby’s poor latch was improved almost immediately and pain free feeds became possible.

As a result I decided to become a breastfeeding peer counsellor myself, although the reliance on the voluntary sector to support breastfeeding when the people whom you expect to know their stuff (midwives, doctors, nurses, health visitors) more often than not have very little training in breastfeeding and perpetuate myths, still angers me sometimes. But that’s another story!

Anyway, I was lucky to be able to breastfeed, and aside from all the health reasons, for both me and my child, to continue doing it, there is one huge reason I don’t want to stop.

It would be more effort to stop than to continue.

By this stage, breastfeeding is easy. He is now happy to eat foods and drink water when I’m not there, so no more pumping in work. It’s not painful and now he has most of his milk teeth there is no more experimental biting. I don’t have to worry about whether his cry is for milk or for something else because he can now tell me (“ilk!”) or show me (pulling on my top). He can also now tell me when he doesn’t want milk. Breastfeeding in public I will cover later, but it doesn’t happen as often, because outside is now far too interesting.

The good stuff is still there though; it still acts as a sleeping draft when nothing else will get a tired toddler to sleep; it calms a tantrum, and of course it still contains antibodies that soothe the many colds at this time of year; still has all the fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals he needs in the right order and still enables lots of “stealth cuddles” (he’s not the cuddliest toddler in the world; sometimes this is the only chance I get!)

Again, I know I’m lucky to have this at my disposal. I know the vast majority of women who do want to breastfeed do not get to this stage for a variety of reasons.

So given all of that, why on earth would I put effort into weaning, when eventually there will come a day anyway when my child turns to me and says “no thanks, I’d rather have an apple / have a glass of water / play cricket / watch telly / tidy the house from top to bottom”?

Because according to commentors on any story about “extended” (or full term) breastfeeding, there are various reasons why it’s just plain wrong. These tend to be along the lines of:

1. After a certain age, there’s no nutritional benefit and it’s just for comfort

2. If you don’t stop at this time, you’ll never stop

3. Various reasons around social embarrassment for the child (e.g. if her/his schoolmates found out) and the “school railings” analogy

4. It’s more about the mother than the child

5. After a certain age, he might actually be old enough to remember it, how much would that fuck him up!?

6. What does your husband think (or, “I wonder what her husband thinks”)?

The first two are not the most relevant to a feminist blog but I’ll cover them briefly anyway:

1. Just plain incorrect. Can you name me any food with “no nutritional value” anyway? Even water is needed as part of a healthy diet. But the milk doesn’t change to water, or poison, or malibu; it maintains nutritional value and its composition even changes slightly to make it more appropriate for your toddler, not less. And besides, what’s wrong with comfort anyway?

2. This ties into the “rod for your own back” theory behind many of the more pernicious methods used in childrearing. And yes, it’s incorrect. Children wean themselves. Some earlier, some later. In the end, nature intervenes; once a child has their permanent teeth, it becomes more difficult for them to extract the milk and eventually they have to stop.

3. The urban myth of the mother putting her boob through the railings is just that; a myth. In reality a school-age child would probably nurse before and/or after school. I could see how it could potentially “slip out” to the child’s peers during conversation, but with careful handling such a situation needn’t become a big issue.

However the “boob through the railing” also gets to the heart of one of the issues here; the reason this myth has passed into our consciousness is because we find something inherently disgusting, but also sadistic in the thought of a sensitive part of a woman’s body squashed and trapped by metal. Women’s bodies are perceived as a bit yucky anyway, especially when they leak a fluid; and the glee with which this myth is related I personally think is partly due to this distaste.

4. This is where we really start to see the inherent sexism in the issue.

Let’s examine the phrase: it’s more about the mother than the child.

Before we even get into whether something being more about a mother than a child is always a bad thing let’s look at what else this throws up. The idea is that the mother is trying to curtail the independence of her child by encouraging baby-like behaviours; why? Because the mother prefers a baby to a child in this scenario. But why would we believe that mothers prefer babies to children; where have we got this from?

The younger a baby, the more needy and dependent it is. The less it can do for itself and the more has to be done for it. And because all mothers just love doing absolutely everything, they must love younger babies. And younger babies, though adorable, are less interesting than older babies and children. They can do less; they can’t even smile until they’re a few weeks’ old; they certainly can’t walk or talk. And because mothers actually prefer less interesting to more interesting, they must just prefer younger babies and stop at nothing – even, shock horror, breastfeeding – to keep those children from growing up and being independant.

It’s true some mothers prefer younger babies. Some prefer older. Some prefer toddlers. Some children. Some have no favourite age. It’s almost as if mothers are all individuals with their own preferences!

Anyway. The myth needs debunking; it’s not physically possible to force a child to breastfeed. If a child doesn’t want to nurse, he or she will refuse. The child sets the tone, rather than the mother.

And anyway, even if it was “more about the mother”, is this always a bad thing? Sometimes my need for peace is more important than my son’s need for The Tweenies. We reach some kind of compromise where we’re both happy. Perhaps the mother’s need to reduce her risk of breast cancer is even more important than her child’s need for a natural protection against type 2 diabeties, just as an example.

And besides, it’s circular logic. We see breastfeeding as something for babies, only because we don’t see toddlers and children breastfed that often. And we don’t see it happen that often, because (amongst other things) it’s not done, because it’s seen as something only for babies. If more people did it, it would become normalised, and we would lose this myth.

5. The child might remember!

This is a curious one as I’ve only ever heard it applied to boys who breastfeed into childhood. What if he remembers? Won’t it ruin his sex life (or sometimes I’ve even heard ”turn him gay”?)

You barely need to scratch the surface of this one to see the sexism. The idea is that grown men have a right to see women’s breasts as purely sexual objects and by creating a memory of breasts being used as something other is removing that right.

Well, personally I would hope my son does decide to nurse long enough to form a memory of it. Maybe then he might be able to avoid this absurd fetishisation of the female breast, which contributes amongst other things to eating disorders, unnecessary plastic surgery, painful bras and breasts not to mention fear of breastfeeding in public.

I’ve also heard the “but after a certain age they get sexual feelings” which is along the same lines. Again, I’ve only heard it used for boys. This ties into those “oedipal” fears that somehow the mother is engaging in an incestuous relationship with her son, and again ties into the “more about the mother than the baby” myth but in a more dangerous way.

It is possible to enjoy a thing for sensual rather than sexual reasons but our “raunch culture” struggles to understand this. If a mother is enjoying breastfeeding, there must be something sexual in it, because it involves breasts and nipples. And besides, mothers aren’t supposed to enjoy themselves!

The sucking that a baby does on a breast is different to that which an adult does (the permanent teeth, remember) and is highly unlikely to cause arousal. However, even in the very rare event that it did, surely the mother, if she did want to continue breastfeeding, could distinguish having the feelings from acting on them?

6. This ties into the idea that somehow the breasts are the man’s property and the man gives his permission for them to be “loaned” to the baby. However, after a while, he will want “his” breasts back!

Sadly, there is an element of truth in this with too many men being unsupportive of breastfeeding because they feel that “their” breasts are being taken from them. This is unfortunate, because a father’s support can make a big difference.

Not to mention the fact this question also makes the assumption that the breastfeeding mother has a husband!

The fact is, the breasts don’t belong to the baby, though she may choose to offer or refuse them to him/her. They don’t belong to the father. They belong to her.

When you next come across a post about full-term breastfeeding, analyse the comments, not just for myth, but also for sexist assumptions and misogyny. Sometimes you need to look deeply but you’ll find it.

Just a note on public breastfeeding. I have found myself recently trying to distract my son, or offer him water / food instead of milk, in public, now that it is easy for others to see he is clearly a toddler and not a baby. Writing this has made me realise that I’ve been doing this out of fear of people’s perceptions; I never shied away from nursing in public when he was a baby; and I’m going to notice next time and examine my motives, and nurse him.

Wimminz disgusting milky nipples! Teh areola! Teh b00bize! Oh noes! (or, Facebook, grow up!)

By Ruth Moss

Over a year ago I wrote a piece for The F Word about Facebook removing pictures of breastfeeding mothers on the grounds of “obscenity”.

Well, nothing’s changed. Facebook still insists on removing pictures of breastfeeding mothers.

Recently, I attended a virtual “nurse-in” in protest about this. It was called MILC which stands for Mothers’ International Lactation Campaign (but also sounds a bit like milk, which is what comes out of a lactating breast). Actually the name is a bit misleading as to join in you neither had to be a mother, nor lactating. All you had to do was put up a picture of a breastfeeding mother; whether that was a photograph or painting – didn’t even have to be human; any mammal would do, and change your status to “Hey, Facebook! Breastfeeding is not obscene!”

It was fun to take part, and much discussion was had on various groups and boards. It seems as though it didn’t make any difference though, as Facebook continues to remove photographs.

Q&A

But surely Facebook has to draw the line somewhere? I can see their point – after all, they’ve just decided to remove all photographs that show a nipple or areola, not just breastfeeding ones.

No, not all photos. Just female nipples / areola.

Oh well, fair enough, but female nipples / areola are the ones that are sexual; male ones aren’t!

Hmm, I know a few men who’d disagree with that.

Well, culturally speaking, I mean. Our culture says female nipples = sex and therefore facebook is right to ban pictures of them.

Yes, but female nipples don’t = sex do they? Actually female nipples and areola are designed with one purpose, one primary purpose anyway, that is, to lactate and suckle young.Lots of things are found sexual by some people – quite a few people are really into feet, for example, but we don’t go around banning photographs of them unshod, and tell people to walk discreetly, do we?

But I heard that female breasts evolved to resemble buttocks so that men would find them sexy! So they are sexual! Nature made them sexy, not like feet! Foot fetishists are, like, weirdos, but breast fetishists are only obeying nature! So there!

Hmm. But even if that is the case, and I’m never totally sure I agree with everything the rather sexist Desmond Morris says, aren’t you forgetting something?

What?

Buttocks don’t have nipples.

And?

Well, even if breasts themselves are designed as secondary sexual characteristics, the nipples aren’t. Facebook isn’t banning pictures of breasts where the nipples are covered (although actually some have been removed), just the ones where they aren’t. Just because some cultures have sexualised the nipple doesn’t make it any less of a fetish. Nothing wrong with fetishes, but who decides which fetishists not to offend?

Well whatever anyway them’s the rules and facebook is free so abide by them. It’s too difficult to police images.

Well, flickr manages it; breastfeeding pictures don’t contravene their policies. Really it’s actually pretty simple. Is there a breast in the picture? Yes. Is there a baby in the picture too, either about to feed, feeding, or having just finished a feed? Yes? Keep. No? Ban. Actually I’m not convinced that pictures of female breasts should be obscene full stop, and the law is with me. Indecent exposure actually only applies to the penis (whether that’s right or not is another matter). But if facebook really wants to ban breasts, but not piss off breastfeeding mothers, then yes, it is simple actually. And it’s a person who decides whether or not a picture is obscene, not a computer programme. A person who can say “that breast has a baby attached, even if you can see the areola, therefore no ban” or “that breast has a penis ejaculating on it, therefore ban”.

And as it happens, actually, facebook has been removing pictures of breastfeeding that don’t contravene its made up policy on areola/nipple exposure. Why would that be? Surely not lactaphobia?

Well, whatever, anyway, why do you want to put these pictures up in the first place! You exhibitionist!

Well, why would anyone want to put a picture of anything up on facebook. Come to it, why take photos at all?

Eh?

Well, personally, for me, I know breastfeeding won’t last forever. It’s a part of my life with my child that I want to remember long after it’s gone, so I take photos of it.

Come on, secretly you’re a bit smug about it, aren’t you? You’re showing off, when there are so many women out there who wanted to breastfeed, but couldn’t.You’re making formula feeding Mums feel bad. And you’re showing your privilege. I mean, lots of Mums can’t breastfeed because they can’t afford to eat enough to produce a milk supply.

I know I’m lucky to be able to breastfeed. I got the right support at the right time. Many don’t. But there’s lots of things I can do because I am lucky, or privileged. I can read, for example. Should I not put up a photo of me reading a book because others don’t have access to education? And as for eating – actually that’s a bit of a myth. A woman would have to be literally at the point of starvation before she couldn’t produce milk. Yes, some women do have a problem with milk supply, but it’s not normally about calorie intake. And anyway, should I not post a photo of me tucking into my xmas dinner because others in the world don’t have enough to eat? Your logic just doesn’t hold true!

And besides, the more we see something, the more it becomes “normal”. At the moment, we just don’t see enough breastfeeding images or breastfeeding mothers in real life. A few more photographs and it might make it a bit more acceptable. Not to mention that the “technical aspects” can be quite difficult to get a hang of at first. Pictures can help!

But… but… I don’t like breastfeeding. I just don’t like it, okay? Because only women (with a few rare exceptions) can do it. And that reinforces gender stereotypes. It puts the majority of the childcare onto the mother. It forces the mother to stay home. It is the tool of the patriarchy! It hurts! It punishes women for having children! It keeps them barefoot and pregnant! Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s right! Formula feeding = equality! Men can get involved! We don’t want the men to be left out! And this stuff about prolactin – – the “mothering hormone” – well isn’t that a teensy bit essentialist anyway?

Or…

I just don’t like breastfeeding, okay? Those breasts are mine! Mine I tell you! I don’t want to see a baby on them! It reminds me that actually they’re not mine after all!

Oh, okaaaaay… so you’re saying, you personally dislike breastfeeding because you’re suspicious of it?

Yes.

Because you don’t like the fact only women can do it, or because you feel you have ownership of the breasts?

Yes.

But this is nothing to do with facebook is it?

No.

So shall we have this discussion another time?

Yes.

And agree that actually, facebook shouldn’t be censoring these photographs?

Pregnancy and smoking – do we have the right to choose for other women?

I’ve been a bit grumpy since I got home from the doctor. OH assumed it was from the speculum prodding, but when I growled at an old man who gave me a funny look, I got asked ‘What is the matter with you anyway?’

I didn’t want to tell him because it was embarrassing. Eventually admitted that a rather nosey middle aged woman outside the doctors surgery had said something that had got my back up. The gem I got from her, as I was smoking a cigarette was ‘You shouldn’t smoke when you’re pregnant’.

This had the quadruple whammy of being OFFENSIVE, JUDGEMENTAL, WRONG and also just plain NONE OF HER DAMN BUSINESS.

I gave her a withering look and informed her that actually, I’m not pregnant, just fat. It will forever irritate me that some people seem to have the idea that women cannot possibly be allowed to be fat unless they are pregnant. I also told her that I have two health conditions which cause my stomach to be bloated, and that comments such as hers didn’t particularly help. I then continued on to say that in fact, it was none of her damn business even if I was pregnant and smoking, because she’s a complete stranger and it has nothing to do with her.

I don’t think people should smoke when they are pregnant. However, being pregnant was a very stressful time physically and emotionally for me, and it would be been quite understandable for me to have a cigarette, which I still didn’t do. I may have the occasional wibble when I see a pregnant woman smoking, but I remind myself of several important facts.

-Firstly, it really is NONE OF MY BUSINESS. It’s not up to me to tell strangers what to do.

-It could be her only cigarette of the day. She could be quitting or cutting down. Maybe she’s decided that one cigarette a day is a good compromise when she’s previously been smoking 40 a day and the one that she has stops her wanting to put peoples head through windows. Both pregnancy and quitting smoking make you want to do those things, combined isn’t going to be much fun.

-I have no idea what stress she’s under, what her life is like, if her pregnancy is easy or if she is suffering. It’s not up to me to judge peoples coping mechanisms.

I would much prefer people didn’t smoke when they are pregnant. However, your lungs filter out most of the toxins as does the placenta, so I’m not going to begrudge someone a cigarette, no matter how many people turn their nose up at this. Women who smoke FREQUENTLY AND REGULARLY are at risk of complications with themselves and a baby. But one cigarette is not frequently or regularly, and you cannot assume this from a chance meeting on the street. Even if you can see someone smoking a lot, maybe sat in the garden of a pub or a club, it still remains none of your damn business (as well as all the other points above).

Above and beyond this, I am amazed and horrified at the absolute GALL of some people. I would never presume to comment in this fashion because my delicate sensibilities were offended by something they were doing, unless it was extremely dangerous/immoral/unsanitary/illegal. I accost people that let their dogs shit on the floor and make no pretence that they are going to clean it up. I take issue with people being violent to each other in public. I get annoyed at people that pee in alleyways or puke in the street when they are drunk.

But people, whether or not YOU like it, a pregnant person still has her own mind, her own personality, her own body and her own choices. She still exercises control over these things and she doesn’t become a walking incubator, subject to the whims, orders and opinions of others when she decides to bear children. Smoking when pregnant is not illegal. So if you see it and get your frown on, remember it’s none of your damn business and walk away.

The only person whose choices you control are yours. Don’t want to smoke when you are pregnant? Fine then, don’t. But you’re not such a special snowflake that you get the deciding vote over what other human beings are allowed to do.

Call For Experiences

This is a guest post from Rebecca Asher, who has asked me to post her call-out for experiences of lesbian couples with children.

Writer would like to talk to lesbian couples with children about their expectations of parenting – and the reality

How did you expect to manage the childcare in your household before you had children? And how has it worked out? How do you combine looking after children with the other things in your life? Are you happy with the amount of childcare that you do or do you feel that you do more than your fair share – or too little?

I am writing a book for the Random House imprint, Harvill Secker, about how parents balance raising children with other aspects of their lives; how child care is shared between parents; and the extent to which this has changed in recent decades. I have been speaking to parents around the UK about these issues and I would be delighted to hear from you if you would like to find out more. It would involve a chat on the phone and what I write will not identify you. I am a professional journalist with over fifteen years’ experience and am happy to answer any questions you might have.

Please email me at rebecca DOT asher AT hotmail DOT co DOT uk with your contact details and I will get in touch. I do hope to hear from you soon.

Department of WIN: Polarn O. Pyret

What a slogan!

Not for girls.

Not for boys.

We make clothes for children.

I love this slogan. It sums up everything I want in a clothing store for my child. We gender children’s clothing way before there is much in the way of difference between body shapes, to the extent that even clothing that we might describe as “neutral” (no bows and ribbons; no skulls and crossbones) is gendered by the colour it is (olive green for boys, pale yellow for girls, for example; even blue clothing, for example, has a “girl” shade and a “boy” shade), and vice versa (and orange top, for example, will be marked as “girl” or “boy” by either a subtle puffing up of the sleeves or a small car motif, for example). And it will be gendered, in most shops, by actually putting clothes in different aisles according to gender. (In my local Asda, for example, “boy” and “girl” clothes are even separated by the service counter!) And I’m sick of it and have been sick of it for a long time. (Also, lest we forget, “boy” and “girl” are not the only two genders in the world; we also don’t know for certain that our female assigned child is a girl, and our male assigned child is a boy, until they tell us, which relies on them having the words and us listening. So talking about “children” makes much more sense!)

So in terms of slogan and the idea behind it, Polarn O. Pyret gets my vote. Also in terms of placement within online store; clothes are sorted by type (trouser, dress, top, etc) rather than by gender. This is exactly how I want to search for clothes for my child; does he need a new pair of trousers? Let’s look at trousers then; rather than having to sort by boy or by girl, I can get the full range and choose for myself.

The clothes also look to be of a good quality; outdoorsy, rough and tumble clothes rather than decorative (actually, I don’t have a problem with decorative, and most children enjoy self-adornment; it’s when it’s limited to one gender that I’ve a problem).

The only drawback? The price. And here’s the thing; once again, being able to afford to support a shop with such important ideals, being able to dress your child in good quality, ethically sourced clothing, is very much the privilege of those with a certain amount of money. For example, should I want to buy my child a pair of trousers, I’m looking at over thirty quid. I couldn’t even justify spending thirty quid on a pair of kecks for myself, let alone a child that’s going to grow out of them in about a year’s time.

I do understand why places like this are expensive; it’s not cheap to be ethical, it’s not cheap to care about who makes the clothes you sell and it isn’t cheap to care about where the material in your clothes comes from. I get that; I’m glad they exist even though they’re way out of my price range. I hope parents (and anyone who buys clothes for children) with money will support this store as much as possible.

What doesn’t cost a company money, however, is having a unisex slogan like Polarn O. Pyret; it also doesn’t cost money to sort clothes by size and type rather than by gender. I hope the kind of companies I can afford to shop at follow suit. I might even add one or two bought pieces to my child’s lovely pre-loved hand-me-down collection then!