BREAKING: Breastfeeding is totally normal

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Recently the actress Alyssa Milano had a baby. In the throes of motherhood, and keen to introduce her little one to her army of fans, Milano uploaded a “selfie” onto social media . Cue thousands of comments – and I mean literally thousands – some applauding Milano for ‘normalising breastfeeding’, but also plenty of negative responses, many of which adopted the faux-supportive stance of ‘I’m totally on board with breast-feeding but seriously, cover up’, which by the way should only ever be uttered by those who have endured, and enjoyed, eating their meals with a tea-towel over their head.

As with any pro-breastfeeding post, here comes the inevitable disclaimer: I am not against formula feeding, and I have no issue with Mothers who choose to give their wee-ones a bottle. While I did breast-feed, my kid did occasionally have a bottle, and he occasionally had formula. The most important thing is the child is being fed, right? And as I see it, formula is the optimum alternative to breast-milk as developed by very clever scientists, and I trust scientists, for the most part anyway. The way formula is marketed however, and the companies that produce it… well, that’s a whole other blog post (Edit: Screw another blog post. I totally go off about this near the end of this post).

I digress. Yesterday a twitter storm blew up when a mother tweeted a picture of this sign in a cafe in Dorking:

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Aside from the fact it’s illegal to ask a breastfeeding mother to stop feeding, or move from a place she has every right to be (for example, a cafe), the sign also begs the question – where are disabled people supposed to go to the loo if it’s full of breastfeeding mothers? (The cafe owner claims the sign has been misunderstood, and they were only ‘suggesting’ mothers might like to feed in private’. Which is fine, except that’s absolutely NOT what the sign says…)

So I started thinking about breastfeeding, and how difficult it can be, even without having to worry that any minute a helpful so-and-so is going to tap you on the shoulder and tell you to put a tea-towel over baby’s head for the sake of ‘discretion’. While it’s great that celebs with huge numbers of Instagram followers are attempting to normalise breastfeeding, it struck me just how depressing it is that they even have to bother. How have we reached the point where breastfeeding is not seen as the norm? Why is it seen as more normal to give our children milk from another animal rather than our own? Again, I’m not bashing formula feeding here, I’m just struck by the language used in this debate, particularly the use of the word ‘normal’ – because for breastfeeding to need normalising suggests that the majority view it as ‘abnormal’. Yet it’s how we humans have evolved to feed our young. How can that be abnormal?

Here are the problems, as I see it:

1. The sexualisation of the female body is now so widespread, so mainstream, that we (and that’s a grand ‘we’ – I mean ‘we’ as a society) have lost the ability to separate breasts for sexual pleasure, and breasts which swell with milk for our young. One now trumps the other, and breastfeeding is the loser by a long way. For many, the issue appears to be not that a mother is breastfeeding her child, oh no – they’re totally cool with that – they just don’t want to see it. So while Alyssa Milano is urged to be more discreet and not post pictures of her sucking baby, it’s completely fine for Kim Kardashian to strip for Paper Magazine in an attempt to ‘break the internet’. One is for titillation, which is fine, and the other is just a bit yuck. Got it?

2. Breastfeeding support in the UK can be a bit pants. Every five years the NHS Information Centre carries out an Infant Feeding Survey. The last results, published in 2012, are promising in that they’re better than the results of the 2005 survey, but they still don’t make for great reading. 81% of babies were breastfed at birth, which is great, but just three months later the figure has dropped to 17%. Come the six month check up, and just 1% of babies are still being breastfed. So what’s going wrong? Well here’s the thing about breastfeeding – it can be bloody hard (and sometimes literally bloody).

When I emerged from the drug-fueled haze of my emergency c-section, breastfeeding felt like an impossible skill me and my little one were destined never to master. The midwives, who were great for the most part, just didn’t have time to sit with me and guide me through it. They were understaffed and overwhelmed with a full ward of new mothers. Eight weeks later, when I thought we’d finally got the hang of it, more problem emerged. Frantic with worry, sleep-deprived, and about to blow my lid from the stress of spending an hour trying to get my screaming newborn to latch every time he needed a feed, I turned to my Health Visitor for support. She wasn’t interested, because he wasn’t losing weight and therefore there wasn’t a problem – even though it was taking so long to get him to latch that we were both a frazzled mess. She brought a Breastfeeding Peer Supporter with her but didn’t let her get a word in edge-ways  – because there wasn’t ‘a problem’, before ushering her out of the door after about ten minutes. Luckily the Peer Supporter came back, sat with me, and talked through the problems. This is purely anecdotal of course, and in fact I’m lucky that my local NHS Trust even had a team of breastfeeding support workers – the service is staffed mainly by volunteers, and it can be a bit of a postcode lottery as to whether the service is available at all.

A report in 2012 found that breastfeeding could save the NHS £40 million a year, by reducing breast cancer in women, and gastroenteritis, respiratory infections, middle ear infections and necrotising enterecolitis (NEC) in babies. It’s in the Government’s own interest to provide adequate support for nursing mothers, as this is the only way rates will rise. There’s also the issue of just how breastfeeding is promoted. Right now the strategy seems to be to pile a whole load of pressure onto new mums by constantly reminding them that ‘breast is best’, so that the whole endeavor is tinged with a huge amount of pressure to NOT FAIL because if you FAIL you are a BAD MUM. Breast might be best, but I’m not sure how helpful it is to keep going on about it in that manner.

And finally…

3. Formula Companies still market their products aggressively, despite the law supposedly preventing it. While I’m absolutely not against babies being formula fed (Disclaimer! Disclaimer!), I do take issue with the way formula is marketed (and come on, we all know about Nestle). It is in the interests of formula companies to promote their products, however, because of the way certain companies were framing their adverts, many parents mistakenly believed formula to be better for their kids than breast milk. So the Government took action, banned the promotion of formula for children under six months, and banned formula companies from positively comparing formula milk to breast-milk. However, clever as they are, the formula companies sniffed out a few loopholes in the 1995 legislation, developed ‘Follow-on’ Milk for ‘older babies’, and carried on advertising as before. Let’s be clear, follow on milk is just formula. It’s pretty much exactly the same as regular infant formula. A survey conducted by the NCT, Save The Children, and Unicef found that 60% of mothers had still been exposed to advertising by formula companies, despite the Government tightening the legislation. The NCT continues to argue that any promotion of formula milk undermines breastfeeding.

I don’t know how to normalise breastfeeding – because to me it is normal. It angers me that we need to keep having this debate. All we can do is keep reminding ignorant cafe owners of the law, nag politicians to provide appropriate support for new mothers on the NHS, and try and claw our way back to a situation in which breasts aren’t just for titillation. Easy, right?

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BREAKING: Breastfeeding is totally normal

Why Iain Duncan Smith fails his own ‘Family Friendly’ test

I’m going to begin with a confession. When it comes to Iain Duncan Smith, our apparently untouchable Work and Pensions Secretary, I’m about as far from being a fan as one can be. It’s not that I dislike him, more that I utterly and unalterably loathe the man. If I have the misfortune to catch him on the Today programme of a morning, it can colour my mood for the rest of the day. If I turn the page of a newspaper to see his faux-earnest face gazing back at me, I’m overcome with an almost uncontrollable urge to rip the paper up into hundreds of tiny pieces. Do consider yourselves warned.

IDS recently unveiled his ‘family friendly test’ – a series of five questions every civil servant must consider when drafting policy, as a safeguard to ensure policies are conducive to a strong and stable family life. The questions are broad (“How does the policy impact families before, during and after couple separation?”) and the test is not binding, but IDS believes it will ensure the Government puts the support of families at the heart of it’s domestic policy. IDS claims his ‘family friendly’ test will look at how policy effects families without claiming a preference for any type of family (although to use that well-worn piece of Government rhetoric, they of course have to be ‘hard-working’).

So there you have it, Iain Duncan Smith, our self-declared champion of families. Except I’m not sure, given his record, if Iain Duncan Smith is actually very family friendly at all. Perhaps he even fails his own test which, given he’s in charge of family policy is a pretty awful state of affairs. Perhaps he should resign or be sacked for either being so incompetent he can’t understand his own safeguards, or so enthralled with his sense of moral triumphalism he’s blind to his own actions. Given we’re talking about a Minister who was found to have lied on his CV and stayed in his job, champions his ‘beliefs’ over actual, you know, facts and isn’t laughed out of office, and who’s Universal Credit project could see £500 million of public money written off, I won’t get my hopes up.

Two years IDS published a report which found that 28% of children in lone-parent families lived in relative poverty, compared with 17% for those living in two parent families. The report suggested that “children tend to enjoy better life outcomes when the same two parents are able to give them support and protection throughout”. So great, provide relationship counselling so parents stick together, rather than providing support, be it financial or otherwise so that parents can provide for their families whatever their circumstances (for example by providing affordable childcare, or paying a living wage across the board,  or ending the uncertainty and instability created by zero hour contracts, and that’s just off the top of my head). Two years on, and IDS is still singing the same tune. And yet, Unicef recently reported that one in four children in this country now live in poverty, and claim the number is increasing sharply due to the Government’s austerity measures. The majority of children effected live in homes with working parents on low wages. (DWP disputes the reports findings, claiming the apparent increase is due to nothing more than a change in the way the figures are collated).

Two years ago the charity Save the Children warned that the introduction of universal credit would see working single mothers lose up to £68 a week, and families with ‘second earners’ – the majority of whom are women – facing a loss of up to £1800 a year, pushing an estimated 250,000 children further into poverty. The charity also reported that mothers already struggling to support their children have suffered cuts to childcare support, child benefit and tax credits. In March the Government announced details of it’s Tax-free Childcare Scheme, due to begin next year, which the IFS reports is far more generous than first thought – however paying for the extras in this scheme will mean further cuts to universal credit next year, meaning families may suffer in other ways. Yesterday the Government announced it was considering cuts to ESA, the replacement to incapacity benefit which is currently paid to 2 million people.  Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, told the Guardian: “The proportion of people in absolute poverty in families living with disability has gone up each year since 2009 and now stands at a shocking 22%. Any cut in support would make it very much harder for families already reeling from austerity blows and would surely fail any credible family test.”

The Local Government Association estimate that the income of households claiming benefits will be, on average, lower by £1,615 a year – or £31 a week – in 2015/16 as a cumulative result of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms – a huge burden for any family already surviving on a low income to tolerate. The Child Poverty Action Group recently reported that families in which both parents work full-time on the national minimum wage now have only 82 per cent (couples) or 87 per cent (lone parents) of the minimum income required to meet their needs – so I suppose DWP can claim here it isn’t showing a preference for any one ‘type’ of family – both single and two-parent low-income families are now struggling to afford a fair standard of living. And yes, you have read that right – in 2014, the majority of low-income families on benefits cannot afford to meet their basic needs. What a badge of honour for the Government.

If Iain Duncan Smith truly believes that a stable family life is key to tackling child poverty, and should be central to this Government’s domestic policy, it is perhaps time he gazed long and hard into the mirror and considered his record. Removing a family’s ability to meet their basic needs is not ‘family friendly’, punitive sanctions are not ‘family friendly’ – they breed instability and a sense of desperation, as does forcing people to work for no pay, or allowing them to be exploited by large corporations more than capable of paying them a living wage. Likewise, threatening to further cut a  safety net relied on by 2 million people already struggling to cope with a disability is hardly ‘family friendly’.

The ‘family friendly test’ is laughable from the off, but when the result is the misery of countless families already struggling to make ends meet, who’s laughing?

Why Iain Duncan Smith fails his own ‘Family Friendly’ test

Having It All

I was reading something the other day about ‘having it all’ (and marveling at having the time to sit and read something. And drink a cup of tea, a whole cup. It hasn’t happened since, btw). Yup, that old chestnut. You know the one, the idea that for women life is just one big balancing act as we attempt to manage the inevitable tension between motherhood and career, while also daring to try and have a life. It is a problem that the media would have us believe is very rarely encountered by men who apparently, implicitly, already ‘have it all’, just by way of being men. Lucky bastards.

I digress. What struck me was just how different this particular person’s concept of ‘having it all’ was to mine, and how much my idea of ‘it’ had evolved over the past few years. I suppose it’s pretty tough to conceive of juggling kids with your job until you actually have them and need to, you know, juggle.

Flashback to three years ago and I was on a proper career path, earning good money, and dating the man who’d finally convince me to stroll up the aisle (except there was no aisle and the wedding was essentially just a massive party, as all wedding should be), something which had never really interested me before. And even though I was pretty unhappy in my job, I felt secure in where I was going. I worked in politics – a world in which women are still just as likely to make it into the papers for their outfit choices, as they are their opinions, a world in which informing a women she should ‘calm down, dear’ is still seen as appropriate. It was a world that challenged me daily.

Feminism is a very important part of my life. It gets a bad press these days, but if you agree that men and women should be equal – which is what feminism boils down to, remember – then it’s hardly the bastion of radicals. It’s difficult to see why anyone would have an issue with it in this day and age unless they’ve completely got the wrong end of the stick. Like these guys.

When I imagined myself with a family the image I conjured in my head looked pretty darn similar to the life I had, just with a kid squeezed in. I imagined myself continuing to work full-time (although not necessarily in the same field. I’d pretty much had enough by this point), sharing the parenting equally with my partner, and yeah, ‘having it all’. Then stuff happened, as it has a habit of doing, and pretty much everything I thought I knew about the way I wanted my life to go turned upside down.

Here’s one example – the wedding? I thought it would just be a massively enjoyable way to celebrate being in love, because it’s pretty ace, and have a huge party. Which it was. I was very certain about what I didn’t want – no church, no ‘giving away’, no overwrought vows and meaningless traditions. What I hadn’t counted on was just how special it would feel to say those special words to my special person, and to really really mean them. It was one of the best days of my life and I loved every second of it, not just because everyone got rip-roaring drunk and had a wonderful time, but because I love every little bit of him and it felt amazing to celebrate that with my favourite people. I even changed my name. Yup, what a bad feminist I am. Don’t get me wrong, I agonized about it. I even blogged about it for the online feminist mag Vagenda. In the end my decision had nothing to do feminism/or ‘signing’ myself over to a man, and everything to do with a fresh start. The few years before I met my partner were, in terms of my personal life, completely bloody awful. The wedding, the entire relationship in fact, felt like a chance to start again. And I liked the idea of building something with my partner, of creating something from new – a family – our own exclusive club.

Then along came the boy and all hell broke loose. As my maternity leave ticked on by and the day I had decided to return to work drew ever closer, it began to dawn on me just how impossible I would find it to leave my little bundle of joy and occasionally vomit, and get back into the swing of things as a full-time commuting working woman. I didn’t want to spend ten hours of my week on a train, when I could be with the kid. I didn’t want to spend hours and hours trying to solve the latest ‘crisis’ in the office when in my head a voice was screaming ‘I don’t care’ on repeat. But here’s the thing, I didn’t want to stay at home and be supported. I didn’t want my son to grow up with little respect for me because I didn’t have a career to be proud of (although if he turns out to hold the title on a business card in higher esteem than a person’s moral and personal qualities, I think I’ve gone seriously wrong somewhere). As you’ve probably gathered by now, I don’t like to make things easy for myself.

As a new mother I’d gravitated towards a gentle/attachment style of parenting, and try as I might I just couldn’t square that with the inevitable pressures of a full-on career. So I made a decision. I’m lucky I even had a choice. I stepped off the ladder. I have a job – it’s nothing to write home about (although I love it), and it’s certainly never going to buy me any swish holidays, but I have enough of an income to cover my share of the bills. I’m also able to be there for my son and continue to parent in the way that feels best for us. I suppose my point, after all that, is that there’s no template for having it all. It is whatever you want it to be.

This blog is going to grow in a few ways – as a means of charting my attempt to align my feminism with my new role as a mother, and as an outlet for the anger I quite often feel towards the world around me. Apologies for that. I hope it’ll be a stimulating read, and I hope it allows me to contribute something to the debate that still rages on around issues of equality, even in a minor way.

Hold onto your hats, folks.

Having It All