Presentation at BFN Conference 2019

I was delighted to be invited to present a breakout session about the Holding Time Project at the Breastfeeding Network Conference in London this month. The conference brought together many of the influential thinkers in the UK breastfeeding ‘scene’ and it was a great opportunity to hear presentations on science, policy, psychology and racism amongst others.

For this event I put together a slideshow, beginning with the story of my own struggles to breastfeed, then the rationale for the Holding Time still images, how these lead to the animation and installation. Finally I talked about the project website, the breastfeeding Hubs, the YouTube Channel interviews.

Putting the project into a concise one hour presentation, helped me consider the learnings I gave gained over the course of the project. I explored the imagery I was exposed to in childhood, in pregnancy and after the birth. I talked about how narrow the stereotype of a breastfeeding mother was, how little it portrayed of the variety of mothers, of ages of children, of moods and expressions on their faces.

I also wrote down many of the insights I had gained along the way, with titles like: Breastfeeding is a Feminist Issue because…and Normalizing Breastfeeding means….

If you’d like to listen to the talk, you can click on the link below. I will also be presenting this talk again at Liverpool University in a public seminar series in the School of Psychology on Friday June 26th 2020.

Breastfeeding Network Presentation, 2019

Thoughts from 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.

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.

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 authoritative 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.

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.

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 from the GP Infant Feeding Network 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 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 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.

Why Now?

Breastfeeding has become an issue of public concern and a target of policy at international, national and local levels. Breastfeeding is held as best practice by organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN).

The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and UNICEF shows how making this happen has

‘the single greatest potential impact on child survival, with the potential to prevent 1.4 million under-5 deaths in the developing world’ (Black et al., 2008).

The short term and long term benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies are immense. Studies have shown a link between breastfeeding and a reduced likelihood of babies suffering from gastroenteritis, respiratory and ear infections and of developing asthma and eczema (León-Cava, 2002). Adults who were breastfed as babies are said to be less likely to develop risk factors for heart disease such as obesity and high blood pressure, and mothers who breastfeed also benefit by having a decreased chance of postpartum bleeding and a reduced risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer and hip fractures and osteoporosis in later life (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2005). And there are many other, less quantifiable physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding, let alone that it secured our survival for millions of years!

In the UK, breastfeeding has been recognised as having a major role to play in public health and in reducing health inequalities, and has been translated into policy programmes such as the Baby Friendly Initiative that accredits health care facilities that adopt recognised best practice standards for breastfeeding. However, less than 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life (Bolling et al., 2007). Not only that, a comprehensive review series on breastfeeding in The Lancet, published on 30 January this year, gave a clear signal of what is needed to be done and pointed at Britain as having “the worst breastfeeding rates in the world”. Even if this is maybe not a fair picture, as rates of starting breastfeeding are relatively high, they do point to a rapid drop-off rate, and most mothers state they stop breastfeeding earlier that they would have wanted to. As others have mentioned, and as this importantopen letterstates, the breastfeeding crisis in the UK is a crisis of lack of support. This crisis comes at a time when the UK is going through a moment of profound cuts to breastfeeding support services.

“The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman. Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programmes in the community.”Dr Nigel Rollins, one of the co-authors of The Lancet report

We firmly believe we need to move away for thinking about breastfeeding solely as a women’s individual choice, to thinking about it in terms of a collective responsibility. This project originated with this aim in mind, to contribute by creating spaces where breastfeeding women can find cultural, social and emotional support, and thus, to plant seeds for cultural change. 

Addressing Inequality

This project grew out of conversations we had as breastfeeding mothers in Brighton. In Brighton, breastfeeding rates are higher than the national average, but these statistics hide inequalities. In the UK, mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to breastfeed than women that higher socioeconomic status, which increases inequalities.

Currently young women from disadvantaged backgrounds have breastfeeding rates of less than 29%, whereas richer areas the percentage of women breastfeeding to be at 80% [1]

There are approximately sixty newborn babies born at Sussex County hospital each week. Of these, a high proportion will be new mothers with no experience or understanding of breastfeeding. Much funding for Health Visitor run baby groups and drop ins throughout the city has been cut in the past two years due to budget constraints. This has lead to increasing social isolation of new mothers. There is a wide disparity between the emphasis on breastfeeding in culture and the support for mothers attempting to breastfeed for the first time. Young mothers in particular may not have ever encountered another breastfeeding mother, given that the last generation was largely encouraged to bottle-feed. One of the greatest challenges new mothers face is overcoming the dominant negative attitude towards breastfeeding in public [2, 3]. Until cultural attitudes towards breastfeeding change, it is unlikely that this will be improved.

Bringing About Change

Holding Time is a project that continues to grow. Beginning with conversations with breastfeeding mothers, it now includes a set of twenty three portraits, an animated film which can be shown as a single screen or multi-screen installation, a series of podcasts with breastfeeding mothers and the professionals who work within the field of breastfeeding and a series of blog posts written by Lucila Newell. Through our YouTube channel, exhibitions and events, a community of people worldwide is growing commited to making a positive change in the cultural perception of breastfeeding.

[1]https://www.jfhc.co.uk/Who_wants_to_eat_in_a_toilet_20947.aspx: “The prevalence of initiation of breast-feeding varies between neighbourhoods from 28% to 80.6%.”

[2]45% of mothers reported that they felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in front of other people, and this was most acute in public places (43%) http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB08694/Infant-Feeding-Survey-2010-Consolidated-Report.pdf

[3]https://www.jfhc.co.uk/Who_wants_to_eat_in_a_toilet_20947.aspx

The Ecology of Breastfeeding

by Lucila Newell, May 2nd 2018

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.

Kate Boyer, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Cardiff, explores the meanings of breastmilk as a secret substance in an article where she examines the emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public (2018)*. She follows philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, in their analysis of secrets and links it to secretions: both leaking and oozing, fluid and out of control; secrets and secretions are not meant to be seen, but escape their confines. In the UK, as Boyer (2018) states, human milk is a secretion that feels like it is meant to be secret. Breastfeeding in public is something that feels like it is meant to be hidden, and when it is brought out in the open, it can thus produce discomfort and embarrassment, for strangers and mothers. Boyer (2009*) also shows how this taboo flares up in work places, as for instance, controversies arose in the US about storing breastmilk in the shared office fridge. The breastmilk produced disgust, while cow’s milk was not considered offensive. And it is curious how one one liquid can be more offensive than another. And this is related to the comfort that formula feeding can give women.

I am not interested here in analysing the political economy of formula milk. The history of how formula milk companies have expanded their markets has been well documented (see for instance Palmer, 1988, new edition 2009; Baumslag and Michels 1995; Grayson 2016; Seals Allers 2017*). This ground work is still being done in developing countries, such as China and the Philippines, as we saw in recent news coverage. What I am interested in is how bottle feeding has become part of the culture, of women’s daily practice, and how it works. To continue railing against bottle feeding without an understanding of bottle feeding culture and pressuring more and more info on mothers to breastfeed without the support to make this happen has only alienated women, and made them feel ashamed: shame if you do it, shame if you don’t.

My purpose here is to see what are the infrastructures in place that make bottle feeding part of our culture. And this takes me to the way we are used to consuming in this society. There is often a distance between our food and its provenance. We are used to buying food from supermarkets, which most of the times comes clean, packaged and with a price. The process of food production is hidden, its provenance, more often than not, obscure. Formula feeding in a way works with these other practices of food consumption. Many people don’t realise that formula milk is altered cow’s milk, for instance. The use of the term ‘formula’ make it seem more scientific, and hides its contents.

Part of the comfort of using formula is that it conforms with our cultural expectations of how we feed ourselves, and it ties in with our everyday practices of consumption. Formula milk, comes packaged, powdered and with a price tag. It is bought in supermarkets or other retail centres, where we buy our food. It is accompanied by a marketing strategy and media adverts, like other food products we consume. It is mediated by plastic bottles and teats, and prepared using technologies, like microwaves and sterilising equipment. All of which require energy to produce and to dispose of. These rely on certain infrastructures, such as potable running water, electricity, and transport, which ties in with other practices in our everyday lives.

We are also used to having distance between our consumption and our waste. Waste is nothing more than a gesture of displacement, putting things where they will be taken away, where we cannot see them, smell them, feel their impact. For a moment, let’s shrink the distance. The waste of formula feeding, as much other waste in our everyday food consumption, is problematic. The process of manufacturing creates waste; the plastic bottles and teats, oil products themselves, produce waste. Most of which takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, and even as it does, it contaminates and creates other problems for wildlife and soil. Not forgetting the the packaging, marketing material and transport, which also produce waste.

Breastfeeding, on the other hand, is different from this cultural norm. It cannot be more close to the source. And, as I already stated above, this is part of the discomfort too. Cause it comes straight from breasts, which, are considered sexual objects, and not one part of the body that can be many things, as the mouth can eat and kiss. And if we add its place in food production and consumption, breastfeeding is the ultimate local, renewable, food source. You cannot get more local than this. There is no transport required. No labs. It changes with the seasons, with the needs of the child. It changes depending on the need to quench thirst, fight illness, enable growth. It is also sustainable, and zero waste. It does not require extra resources. But this creates a feeling of discomfort too. There is less control. The baby demands what it needs, the body produces what is needed. And its immediacy makes this process invisible. But we find this hard to trust. To trust this process would mean to trust women’s bodies, and to trust babies and children, and this is countercultural too.

I recently watched a documentary by Bruce Parry, called Tawai: a voice from the forestTawai, as the documentary explains, is the word the nomadic hunter gatherers of Borneo use to describe their inner feeling of connection to nature. In it, Parry asks the nomadic hunter gatherers of Borneo what the forests means for them, and one of them answers in this way: ’that is why I feel Tawai about the forest; because it will provide for me like a mother breastfeeding her child […] When you first go to the old forest during the fruit season, it’s like when I’m with my mother, I know I can rely on her to breastfeed me.’ This struck me. Not only because of the parallels between mothers and mother nature, but also because the message is clear: as humans, the mother by breastfeeding, provides all the baby needs. It is food, it is love, it is feeling safe, nourished, provided for. There is no need for anything else. No packaging, no money, no transactions, no transport, no waste. In many ways, breastfeeding is as old and traditional, as it is radical.

And this feeling is one that I have felt, and have heard many women try to articulate: the miracle that our bodies have created a baby, and fed it, made it grow, just with our own bodies, without much volition, just letting it be. The work is more on getting others, and often our own cultural expectations, out of the way; the discomfort of others out of the way. In a recent workshop on breastfeeding in publicwe discussed how sometimes the internal battle, the struggle to make space for yourself and your baby, the battle with others, is much more tiring than the practise itself. In those moments it might be perhaps useful to remember, to tune into this old and radical way of being in the world, and try to let go of the weight of the outside voices and the world.


* References


Baumslag, N., and Michels, D.L., 1995, Money, Milk and Madness: The culture and politics of breastfeeding, London: Praeger

Boyer, K., 2018, The emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public: The role of strangers in breastfeeding practice, Emotion, Space and Society, 26: 33-40, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2016.09.002

Boyer, K. (2009) ‘Of care and commodities: breast milk and the new politics of mobile biosubstances’, Progress in Human Geography, 34(1): 5–20.
Palmer, G., 2009, The politics of breastfeeding: when breasts are bad for business, London: Pinter and Martin.

Grayson, J., 2016, Unlatched, The evolution of breastfeeding and the making of a controversy, New York: Harper.

Seals Allers, K., 2017, The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Photo credit: Photo from Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project, 2014, Ashley Marston Birth Photography

Taking our Time

by Lucila Newell, 27th February 2018

Birth and breastfeeding are an invitation to enter into another domain of time. Or more accurately, to be intime, 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.

Having been born and socialised in societies were linear time is prevalent, we automatically narrate and construct our experiences through this lens.If we are used to control and divide our time and use it productively to achieve and cross things of our to do list, mothering and breastfeeding just turns everything upside down and inside out, and we can end up deeply frustrated. I can’t count how many times I would have given a lot not to have to sit still and try to sleep a baby, or stop to breastfeed, and instead be able to tick something off my ‘to-do’ list. There is a lot of satisfaction that comes from that. I am not discarding the importance of having a sense of control over our time, or the sense of reward that getting things done give us. What I am saying is that it is important to have the vocabulary to think about or to narrate or for that reason, to value, what is going on our lives, and maybe also to communicate this in a way that could be understood and valued to those who continue living, predominantly, in linear time. I think that is why the letter to her husband that this woman wroteabout why she didn’t clean her kitchen, resonated so much. It describes an everyday experience as a mother that is hard to narrate, as there is no satisfying beginning, middle and end.

Linear time became prominent and took hold in earnest with the industrial revolution, with the need to control production and enhance productivity. This model and mechanised narrative of time has been translated and has traveled to most arenas of our lives, including birth and breastfeeding.Fiona Dykes, a Professor of Maternal and Infant Health at the University of Central Lancashire, has written a seminal work on the experience of birth and breastfeeding in hospitals in the UK*. She notes how bodies start to be understood with the language of machines, and thus, how women, with their unique and changing body cycles, including menstruation, pregnancy and birth, become pathologised when our bodies don’t conform with this vocabulary and narrative.

Dykes notes how the model of the production line and the vocabulary of mechanised time filtered and shaped the experience of women in the hospital wards.Birth needs to conform to a certain trajectory, and if it doesn’t, then there is intervention. And breastfeeding is tied with time, productive time. The medicalisation of birth and breastfeeding has meant that generations of women have been told by ‘experts’ to time and control feeding according to clock time. And even now, as Dykes shows, when practices are changing and the advice is to feed on ‘demand’, or on cue, there is a residue of these practices that shape the way feeding is perceived, experienced and done. Breastfeeding was described by the mothers and health workers in her study as something that takes time, that can be too demanding, too messy, and as an in between stage until things go back to routine, to ‘normal’.

When I did my breastfeeding peer support training, we were introduced to the work of a Swedish nurse-midwife, Anne Marie Widström*, who spent years observing and researching the behaviour of newborn babies. She described the behaviour of babies that were placed skin to skin with their mothers straight after birth, and allowed them to spend time undisturbed. She described nine distinctive stages that the baby naturally goes through: the birth cry, relaxation, awakening, activity, resting, crawling, familiarisation with the breast, suckling, and sleeping. If uninterrupted, this stage lasted around 60-70 minutes. This was fascinating for me in many levels, not least for the instinctive capacity of babies to slowly adapt to the outside world and look for the breast if given the time. But what struck me, was that if the process was interrupted, the baby had to start all over again. And if this process was rushed, it often meant problems with latching on, as the baby was not yet ready to do so.I remember getting really upset at this point, because with my first baby, we were not given the time. I understand the many reasons why this cannot perhaps happen when babies are born, and that more and more, women are left undisturbed. But this is still an issue in hospitals today. This is about how we perceive time, and how we are not given or not give ourselves or others, the necessary time. About how we need to take our time.

There are different ways in which this entering another domain of time has been understood. Some studies on contemporary breastfeeding have understood breastfeeding as a liminal time, a time in between, that disrupts linear time, before getting back to ‘normal’. Before we get back to a routine, back to being productive, to work.But other thinkers, such as Alison Bartlett*, a Professor in English and Cultural studies at the University of Western Australia, have questioned this understanding as it can be a way of not giving substance or lived reality to this period of time. To understand it in this way devalues and constrain it to the margins of ‘normal’ life.Bartlett shows how breastfeeding cannot be solely confined in this terms, and that for many women, if they have more than one baby especially, this time of life can mean years of their lives and fundamentally changes the way their lives are structured. But if we live in societies where linear time predominates, this creates tensions.

So if we want to follow this invitation into a different dimension of time, we need a vocabulary for this, and stories and images that capture these different experiences of time. Robbie Pfeufer Kahn is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Vermont, who has written extensively about birth and breastfeeding. Kahn* describes three different understandings of time. She calls these: generic, mythic and maialogical.

  • By generic timeshe means ‘the time of all things on earth and the universe’ (23), and cyclical time is included in this. Before industrialisation the emphasis was on cyclical time, of time as we experienced it in nature, in the changing of the seasons, in the changing of light and shadows, in the rising and falling of the sun. Cyclical time follows the experiences of life cycles on Earth. It is one that was prevalent in agricultural societies, but we can intuit is probably more ancient than that too.
  • By mythic timeshe refers to a return to origins, and this is part of most creation myths. She states that mythic time ‘is felt most dramatically during pregnancy, birth, and lactation, but it is also present in any moment of love and healing, which re-establishes the connection to origins’ (26). It is a way of reconnecting with the transformational and creative energy of life. Mythic time is expansive and nourishing but, and this is important, it does not take us away from the cycle of life, it is grounded in life.
  • Finally, maialogicaltime is a term Kahn created to stand for the period of the woman’s life where she gives birth and breastfeeds (Maia is greek for mother; it’s root from ma, a child’s cry for the breast). It is the founding moment of the relation of self to other, grounded in the body; it is a time that is interactive and reciprocal. Maialogical time is slow, is a time to pay attention to the small things, to the non verbal, to gestures, to signs, to changes.

All these ways of perceiving and experiencing time ground us in life processes rather than taking us away from them.

Breastfeeding invites us to live along these different understandings of time. By making us stop, and be still, or be on the move but connected, breastfeeding pulls us into cyclical, mythic and maialogical time.While breastfeeding, I felt, at times, as if time slowed down and expanded. New ideas and connections emerged. It was a moment to take a breath. One of the mothers we interviewed said it felt ‘like a meditation’. In many of the interviews, when asked about their experience of breastfeeding, many of the women talked, then paused, and with a dreamy look, said, ‘brilliant’, ‘a miracle’, ‘incredible’ ‘great’. Like an untold secret. And something that words could not quite capture.

Apart from finding a language, other ways of representing time are needed.Lisa Creagh, in her work ‘Holding Time’, has tried to capture this with her images of women breastfeeding in sync with a timepiece (see pic above and her interview here). Before clock time, time was represented in shapes, as in the cosmatesquedesigns of the floor of sistine chapel. She used inspiration and insight from these designs to calculate time in shapes that grow as time passes. In this way, Lisa give us as an image of time as growth, by creating a timepiece that grows as women take the time to breastfeed.

These thinkers and artist do not proclaim that we should all be happy earth mother types. They do, however, highlight the need to recognise that we, humans, are connected to the rhythms of nature, and that to forget that is to lose something important.In this sense, the invitation to enter another time given to us by birth and breastfeeding means that we can take maternity, as Bartlett proposes, as a ‘radical alternative to standard life trajectories which revolve around transitions from school to work to retirement’ (227).

But we don’t necessarily need to choose between linear or cyclical time, we can live astride these different understandings and experiences of time.As Kahn reminds us, ‘uncorseting our maternal bodies does not have to be incompatible with living in linear time, providing that this time move forward more slowly and with more digressions’ (Kahn 31). But for this to happen, social values, and thus, formations and institutions such as work, also need to be transformed.

Dykes, Kahn, and Bartlett, all show how the language and images we have to understand time is important for our experience of it.By giving it a name, and its place in history, we give these experiences ontological substance, instead of placing them as something in between ‘normal’ time. To create a language and images, for these experiences, or to re-member these old ways of experiencing and representing time, is to make room for them. It is a way to see the time of birth and breastfeeding as a time of reciprocity; as affecting in a positive and expansive our relations, instead of unproductive time, of something that takes time away.

When I was reading these articles, I found a sense of peace, as in someone was articulating something that I knew and experienced but hadn’t quite had the words for it. There is a playfulness in the language, and a lack of judgement that is utterly refreshing. What these thinkers make the case for, and I want to do here, is to think time differently, to widen our lenses as to what time is and what is of value, and thus change our experience of it. To recognise the potential here for joy and pleasure, and to share it widely.

And, thus, to extend the invitation.

References

Picture by Lisa Creagh: Holding Time

*Bartlett, A. (2010). Breastfeeding and Time: in search of a language for pleasure and agency, in Bartlett, A., and Shaw, R., Giving Breastmilk: body ethics and contemporary breastfeeding practice, Toronto: Demeter Press: 222-35.

*Dykes, F. (2006) Breastfeeding in Hospital: Mothers, Midwives and the Production Line. London: Routledge

*Kahn, R.P. (1988). Women and time in Childbirth and During Lactation, in Forman, F.J. with Sowton, C., Taking our time: Feminist perspectives on temporality, New York: Pergamon Press.

*Widström, A M ; Wahlberg, V ; Matthiesen, A S ; Eneroth, P ; Uvnäs-Moberg, K ; Werner, S ; Winberg, J (1990) ’Short term effects of early suckling and touch of the nipple on maternal behaviour’, Early human development, 21: 153-163.

Breastfeeding in Public: This Discomfort Matters

by Lucila Newell, December 22nd 2017

Washington DC, USA – June 20, 2016: During a visit to Washington DC, a mother nurses her child on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

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.

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.

At the start of my breastfeeding journey, I felt I was required to arm myself, at a moment where I was most disarmed, most attuned, and when my boundaries had blurred to include another being. When my first baby was born, it took me about 7 weeks to breastfeed out and about. I remember how the unsaid hurt. Stares and comments, as Holly McNishbrilliantly puts it, cut like a knife. The shuffling, the discomfort of others. I felt it. Just the anticipation that it might be like this made me anxious. I remember how comments and looks and criticisms, positive or negative, veiled or not, felt like they went right in. I never had a thick skin, but it felt especially tenuous then. I have since read that women, when they have given birth, are flooded with a cocktail of hormones that attunes them especially to the non-verbal, the non-linear, that they absorb the emotional atmosphere, much as babies and children do. Some argue that this is because we need to attune to our babies needs, to their slight changes, to their ways of communicating needs, that are obviously non-verbal. Not forgetting that we just experienced opening up in a radical way: our boundaries are fluctuating, open, porous. So at this point, when we are arguably more attuned to atmospheres, to others, we found ourselves in an environment where breastfeeding makes others uncomfortable.

There is a geography to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in public is about breastfeeding in front of others, and it includes many different spaces, not those most obviously public like park or street benches. It can be private but public spaces such as cafes, restaurants, shopping malls. It can even in your own living room when others are around. Kate Boyeris a geographer that has studied the spatial aspects of breastfeeding. She has shown how anxious breastfeeding in public can be for mothers, as they were concerned about embarrassing others. Women often felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, ashamed, and could sense that they were embarrassing others, and that was of concern. As well as those that had negative experiences, Boyer notes that just the anticipation of a negative reception made mothers anxious, and suggests that these emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public prove to be a barrier for breastfeeding duration rates. Many times, breastfeeding women who were struggling, see and take to formula feeding as a way to avoid the difficulties faced while breastfeeding in public*. This discomfort matters.

This geography is not even. The attitude towards women breastfeeding in public varies within different parts of the UK, within regions, cities, and in different pockets within the same cities too. It is interesting to note that in Scotland, where legislation that makes it illegal to ask anyone to leave a public place for breastfeeding, was passed earlier the rest of the UK, was were women were more comfortable breastfeeding in public. Overall, in the UK, it is more common to see it in the South, than in the North, in richer areas of cities than in poorer areas. A cultural shift takes time. For a law to change or to be put into place, there had to be some energy and movement behind it. Changing the law is one step, but for change to be long-lasting, practices, stories and beliefs need to change too.

I often wonder why people react so much to breastfeeding, why it ignites so much passion, one way or the other. The sexualisation of breasts is one of the issues. This is seen in comments about how it is ‘indecent’ to breastfeed in public, or how women should do so ‘discretely’. In many cases, women have to resort to arguing their legal right to breastfeed in public. At a time when women’s bodies, and especially breasts have become so sexualised, women end up having to argue that what they are doing is not obscene. This is the case in real and virtual spaces such a social media, where photographs of breastfeeding women are taken down, for instance. But there seems to me there is also something else at stake. I sometimes wonder if it is because it is an act so representative of love and nourishment that it triggers different things in people. Are these old and powerful memories, and maybe old wounds? We are all of women born, and we all have mothers: absent, loving, dead, cruel, nourishing, all types. We were all once very needy babies and children. Our experience of that is inscribed in our bodies. Seeing a woman breastfeeding seems to bring some of that up. It is sometimes useful to know that it is not about us, breastfeeding mothers, but about people’s own stories. It doesn’t hurt less but it can bring some perspective.

Beyond the uncomfortable emotions that breastfeeding in public can provoke, there is practical element that makes breastfeeding in public challenging. There is not much provision for breastfeeding in public spaces. In one sense, we can breastfeed anywhere: walking, talking sitting, doing. But I would also argue that there could be more thought and spaces that suit and fit us, the bodies of breastfeeding mothers and babies. And I don’t mean public toilets, or private ones for that matter. Spaces and places where we are welcome, where there has been thought and effort to make it a welcoming space. Bernice Hausman, a professor who has written thought provoking pieces on feminism and breastfeeding, argues that this lack of provision shows how breastfeeding is excluded from public life and how maternal practices are shaped by spaces (Hausman 2014: 279)*. Breastfeeding practice is shaped by the spaces we are in, as much as we shape these spaces.

More welcoming common and public spaces are needed, not only for mothers but for other users too. Public spaces express many of the values and needs and prevalent uses of the spaces. If we are in spaces of consumption and circulation, like urban city centres, the shapes of these spaces favour circulation, movement, ability to access products and services. But breastfeeding requires, sometimes, to be able to sit down, take our time. To have something to entertain another child perhaps. To feel safe. To be able to accommodate our bodies and the things we carry.In this context, it includes buggies and changing bags, and for it not to be to cold and wet, or too hot and exposed. To have shelter.Sometimes women prefer more privacy, sometimes having company is good and being part of the action. It depends. I am ambivalent about building separate breastfeeding spaces. It seems to give the message that we need a separate space, away from others, to breastfeed. On the other hand, it is sometimes nice to have a separate space. Though the spaces I encountered seem to lack imagination, they resemble a hospital, sanitised space: staring at a blank wall, the lighting is bad, no windows. A kind of toilet without the toilet. But I don’t think there is one way of creating a space for breastfeeding mothers that would suit every woman, every time and every situation. In the same way that adding more accessible toilets and spaces to wheelchair users helps open public spaces for diverse users, taking the above elements into account in varying localities around town would help breastfeeding mothers: different types of sheltered spaces to sit, without the need to rush or consume, a nice view preferably. Changing public spaces would alter our breastfeeding practice.

At the same time, breastfeeding practice shapes public spaces. It makes something visible that wasn’t and makes it more likely for other mothers to do it too. I think it asks a lot of women, who are many times feeling overwhelmed already and in a more vulnerable place, to act strong and change the culture. But it matters that we do it. There are many ways in which women have been trying to change and challenge perceptions. Breastfeeding in public is one of them. Each mother counts. Mothers create their own maps and new ways of using spaces, and can unwittingly give courage to other mothers. Seeing other women breastfeeding is encouraging. Other ways are through breastfeeding sits ins (check out and join us at our own breastfeeding sit in at ONCA!), protests, lactivism, sharing images through social media, which help in making things more visible, in asking for change, in imprinting new ways to use spaces. The more we see it, the more it starts to normalise breastfeeding.

In a sense what is needed is to envision a new kind of equality. If women and children and babies, especially those breastfeeding ones, are not welcome in public spaces, then we are excluded from public life. Hausman argues that ‘proclaiming an equality with men that mandates the ability to act as men in the social sphere (that is, to be autonomous individuals without physiologically dependent others) is to impoverish our expectation of what sexual equality should be’ (Hausman, 2004: 28)*. The lack of provision, the uncomfortable feelings around breastfeeding women, are not only issues mothers have to overcome, but are political, they are about equality. A new equality would have to challenge the myth of independence, and its underlying belief that we are strong and powerful if we don’t need anyone and do everything by and for ourselves. And that public spaces are just for independent able bodied individuals. The thing is, we all need each other, we are all interdependent. Not accepting this has damaged not only our human to human relations but also our relationship to our planet and fellow non humans. Breastfeeding mothers represent this interdependence in a stark and clear way. Making space for women and children, as well as other diverse needs, in public spaces, not only would make breastfeeding duration rates higher, but it would also be a step towards a more equitable society.


I am curious: What do you think would make spaces more welcoming for breastfeeding? What would these look like? 

Lucila x

* McAndrew, F., Thompson, J., Fellows, L., Large, A., Speed, M. and Renfrew, M.J. (2012), Infant Feeding Survey 2010, The Health and Social Care Information Centre.

* Boyer, K. (2016) ‘The emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public: The role of strangers in breastfeeding practice’, Emotion, Space and Society: 1-8.

* Hausman, B, (2004) ‘The Feminist Politics of Breastfeeding’, Australian Feminist Studies 19 (45): 273-285.

* Image from: LEILANI ROGERS http://ow.ly/d3Ss30finnv #breastfeedingart#breastfeeding#motherhood#normalizebreastfeeeding

Connecting Through Stories

by Lucila Newell, October 30th 2017

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….

On the 8th of November, 2016, the day Trump was elected, I was in Bristol, at one of the ESRC Breastfeeding Seminar series. That day of gloom, where everything that I value, that I think is important seemed to be symbolically shoved aside by this election, I took comfort in being in a room of women doing this slow work, the work of nurturing, of helping others, of trying to understand and find ways to generate social change. In this case the work was to support breastfeeding mothers, against all odds really. The collective grief made it more bearable. It made me feel less alone knowing that someone else also felt that this was important, that it mattered, that it counted. Of course, this goes well beyond breastfeeding. It is just that breastfeeding is such a powerful symbol of nurturing, of the encounter of warrior gods and mother goddesses. 

The Mother Goddess, Mother Heaven, Mother Earth, in all its incarnations, as Joseph Campbell puts it in The Power of Myth*, is a personification of the energy that gives birth to forms and nourishes, and it is a female energy. And if the goddess is the creator, her body is the universe. 

‘The human woman gives birth just as the earth gives birth to plants. She gives nourishment, as the plants do. So woman magic and earth magic are the same. They are related.’  (Campbell, 1988, 167). 

I still remember the pleasure and relief of having a full breast emptied. My baby rolling his eyes while feeding as in some kind of ecstasy. And after, the satisfied pulling away and falling fast asleep. In those moments, I did feel like a goddess, like my body was all that this baby needed. That I, by just being and having this body that could create, grow, and now feed another being, was just magic. And these moments, along with giving birth, gave me at times a sense of timelessness, of being connected to the fabric of this world, to my body, and to other women who have done this throughout history, and were doing this, right this moment, in near and faraway lands. There is a sense of sacredness to these moments that feels attuned to the way that breastfeeding has been represented, the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth. 

Of course, this pleasure and fleeting goddess-like feelings did not happen all the time. Breastfeeding was not all soft lighting, roses and lace, far from it. Establishing breastfeeding was painful and hard. There were times when my first child had colic and feeding seemed like I was torturing instead of nurturing her. And my second baby would projectile vomit after a feed almost every time for the first six months, though that became almost funny in itself. Breastfeeding was everything from painful to pleasurable, boring to meditative, frustrating to relaxing. Or nothing charged with much significance: just something I did, while I went about our day. Breastfeeding for me was both timeless and mundane, goddess-like and very, very human. 

All stories, myths and images are products and makers of their times. The mother goddess figures were especially prevalent in agricultural societies. At times when nomadic hunter gatherers came into collision with these societies, the mother goddess myths were subsumed under warrior gods, and more male oriented myths became dominant. These days, there are not many prevalent images and myths of mother goddesses. This lack is significant. It is not surprising that this happens at a time when we are deep into a breastfeeding and environmental crisis.The dominant values that enhance the warrior gods and devalue those of creation and nourishment are at play here. But, as always, there are undercurrents. There is resistance. There are people just doing things differently. And women like those I met through the breastfeeding seminar series, that just keep at it. And many many women who breastfeed. In this space, we want to contribute to, and swim with these currents.

We want to write and gather stories, as well as create and share images of breastfeeding mothers. The images Lisacreates and shows here, attempt to link to our past, to a sense of timelessness, taking the thread from the goddess myths. Inspired by the timelessness and sacredness of ancient models of Isis feeding Horus in Egypt, then reworked into the Madonna and Childin the Roman Catholic Tradition, Lisa beautifully photographs mothers feeding their babies, but plays with it by paring it down and making it both iconic and mundane at the same time.  

We may not create new myths here, but we want to go deep into the different everyday experiences of women breastfeeding. To create more complex stories. To share more dimensions to breastfeeding than that of the medical community and the behavioural nudge that informs us that breast is best, but leaves us to navigate the challenges alone and make our struggles feel like private failures. But we can’t do this alone. We really want to reach out and make this a space for sharing stories, so please do. It is likely that someone out there can connect with it and feel less alone.

* Campbell, Joseph (with Bill Moyers), 1988, The Power of Myth, New York: Doubleday.

Image also from this book (p. 164)

Building Belonging

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.

Breastfeeding in public is a major obstacle. The official channels acknowledge this without offering any help, so women have set up their own support networks to name and shame publicly those who humiliate them whilst breastfeeding publicly.

But not all women want to participate in this process of throwing themselves into the unpredictability of public breastfeeding. Many simply turn to formula at six weeks so that they can get out of the house with their baby.

In my travels as a mother, first a bottle feeding (tongue tied baby) and then a breastfeeding (post cut) mother, I found there was one thing I needed more than anything else: company. I mean the company of other breastfeeding mothers. I wanted to sit down and feed my child whilst swapping notes with others facing similar struggles – be they breastfeeding related or general concerns over the transition to motherhood.

Being a mother for the first time can be very isolating. So many times women trade breastfeeding for very practical reasons that need to be properly addressed. In the early stages of breastfeeding, there can be a lot of breast revealed as the child learns to latch. Women really can feel uncomfortable showing this, even to their best friends. So breastfeeding is sometimes abandoned because it is just deemed too impractical. Often women breastfeed their second child for longer because by then they have set up established networks. The Parlour is about helping women set these connections up more quickly at the beginning.

The transition to breastfeeding involves a complete about turn in terms of your breasts and how you see them. After all, none of us are immune to the objectification and sexualisation of our bodies. To suddenly ‘bare all; even infront of trusted family members is too much for some women and this should be understood and properly acknowledged before we move forward in understanding what women actually want in terms of support.

When I started breastfeeding I had only ever seen one other women do so. I think this is not uncommon. I had no idea how to hold a baby, what her cries meant, how to feel relaxed about motherhood. It was only when I met other mothers who were also breastfeeding that I got these crucial tips. The midwives were great but many of them had never breastfed. That’s like teaching someone to swim when you’ve never been in the water. You want someone IN the water swimming with you. Because much of the journey of becoming a breastfeeding mother is about feeling comfortable in your own skin. That can only be possible if you feel normal. And feeling comfortable and normal is about seeing breastfeeding as the norm and spending quality time with other breastfeeders.

Women need the solidarity of other women, to build a sense of identity, of Belonging.

In truth, the only place I ever really felt relaxed was in other mother’s houses or my own. I started to realise that this was the place we need: a home. Here nobody is staring at you or expecting you to buy another latte.  You can talk freely and feel supported by those in a similar situation to you. This is the place that is safe, comfortable, open all day and full of other breastfeeding mothers.

Women have used their houses to sit and talk, support eachother and come together for centuries. In fact there is a theory that it was the Victorian Parlours that brought about the women’s Suffrage movement. Get women together, get them talking and Stuff Happens.

Holding Time advocates for more breastfeeding support generally from the national and local government so that the drop ins and playgroups that were cut can be reinstated and public breastfeeding taken into account in the planning of public spaces.

We building an offline network of women who will support new mothers facing the same paradox of needing to socialise whilst also needing to be somewhere private to breastfeed.

We want women to see breastfeeding as a way to have a healthy baby and a happy self. By socialising with other mothers in the same position, women can feel supported not just as breastfeeders but as mothers and mentors, helping eachother along the path of motherhood.

by Lisa Creagh, September 20th 2017