I volunteer in a breastfeeding drop-in clinic in our local hospital and as a 'thank you' we have a volunteers' Christmas dinner each year in the hospital restaurant. I actually like the food at the hospital, which I had as an inpatient some years ago, and obviously at the dinners that I've attended at Christmas, and I like the head chef, Gary, who just oozes professional pride and confidence as well as looking a tad fierce. His loyal staff all work beyond their normal hours on the volunteers' dinner night, and we are waited upon by them, and the chairman of the Trust comes round to all the tables with wine. Everyone dresses up, there are crackers and a little quiz for each table to break the ice, because we all work in different areas of the hospital.
I sat with a pleasant bunch who were all a decade or two older than me, and as is usual at this do, we all asked each where we volunteered and what we did. A couple of the women worked in the orthopaedic office, one on the ward, and another in A&E. One collected a long-service award for 5 years, and another for 10. Mine is a unique role among the volunteers, and one for which I have had a 16 week specialist training.
As is always the way when a group of women are together, and the subject of birth, motherhood and breastfeeding comes up...all the personal stories come out, and the women were fascinated by the fact that we actually have a clinic to support breastfeeding mothers. After the personal stories came the opinions.
"It's so hard for mothers to make enough milk, I mean, they have to rest for long periods and eat very well every day or that milk just won't be made."
"It was impossibly hard, very painful, just impossible. I don't see how anyone could do it"
"What really revolts me is when mothers are still feeding their children at four and five, I think it's disgusting actually"
And all this before the first course. (Filo pastry wrapped around brie and cranberry, with seasonal vegetables) Nice, ordinary, good people, and all of them grandmothers. All of them at that stage in life where they might traditionally be expected to be a fount of knowledge and wisdom in the realms of family life and parenting. All of them with their own stories, all of them unequipped to support a member of their tribe through the common challenges that arise for mothers who are feeding babies in the biologically normal way. It would be nice to just let them get on with their out of date beliefs and their Christmas dinner, but I am perfectly placed to answer these points and why wouldn't I? Deep breath, big smile, nice as pie, here I go...
"Mmm, yours is a very common belief that women do not easily make milk, but so interesting to reflect that over the course of human history very few mothers would have rested, but would have been working hard, on a sparse diet, and yet, producing wonderful milk ensuring the survival of our species. It just causes me to wonder who might profit by our mess of negative cultural conditioning around breastfeeding and the abilities of a woman's body to nourish the entire human being she just grew in her body without any help?"
A genuinely sweet lady, with that look of 'oh god why did I start this' on her face. I don't want to spend the evening educating people, but the opportunities are few and far between, and working in clinic has taught me to get the salient points across succinctly so fuck it I'm just gonna say it.
To the poor lady who found no one to support her:
"Challenges like the ones you suffered not uncommon because we've lost our way culturally and forgotten our mammalian natures. Nature's design was that care of new mothers and the nurturing of our young would be a top priority for everyone, we would grow up with breastfeeding happening all around us, all the time. There would be a wealth of knowledge and support on tap to overcome any of the common challenges before they become problems."
And to the really sweet, devoted grandmother who volunteers as a counsellor: (I still get shocked that otherwise lovely people can be so negative and frankly, horrid, about something so pure and beautiful as a breastfeeding mum and child. Christ knows, it sometimes feels like there's not much that's pure and beautiful left in this world.)
"That's so interesting that some of us humans do experience a strong visceral reaction to seeing children being nurtured naturally. I'm genuinely shocked by the reality that some people would be less perturbed by the sight of a child carrying an AK-47 than by seeing him being nurtured and held and loved at his mother's breast. Not to mention receiving a mini-immunisation along with all the other wonders that we haven't discovered yet. The World Health Organisation recommendation concurs with breastfeeding older children. It's so interesting to ponder on why we are so keen for our children to grow up and away from that special bonding time way before nature intended. I always ask the question, who benefits from this? Because it sure ain't the mothers, or the babies, or our species."
Mince pie any one?
You can read about last year's dinner here :Among the Grandmothers