It puts me in a difficult position – emotionally, professionally, sometimes physically – when a friend asks for my advice about breastfeeding.
This is largely because any knowledge I have on the topic is of the theoretical kind – the product of fieldwork for a PhD that explored women’s accounts of breastfeeding in London and Paris. Having studied the public policy around it, evaluated the science behind it and spoken to dozens of people about their actual experiences, I worked towards a cultural analysis of quite why infant feeding has become such a Big Deal these days. But I have never actually done it. I feel that I know both too much, and at the same time, absolutely nothing at all.
I certainly know nothing of that raw, fresh motherhood a friend recently conveyed in a desperate series of late-night texts: ‘A bit of a rough weekend, cracked nipples led to a double dose of mastitis. Shivering fever for a day or two, now hopped up on antibiotics and probiotics, chugging green tea. The latch, at least, is much better and I am on the mend. Breastfeeding man, who knew it was such a thin line between the land of milk and honey, and hell?’ This was followed a week later by ‘another dose of mastitis – or the old one never healed? Has knocked me for six. Back on antibiotics, hopefully clear in a couple of days… Are you around at the weekend? Meeting some lactation consultants. If you have any ideas, let me know. Thank God the boy [her two week old son] is cute.’ Thank God, indeed, that he is.
With the modicum of knowledge I have on the subject, I have suggested a range of things to my friend – sending over the contact details for helpful ‘lactation consultants’ in her area, suggesting good books on the subject and emailing useful YouTube videos on how best to position the baby at the breast (yes, really). For all the talk of breastfeeding being natural, it certainly doesn’t come naturally to all people. Like other ‘techniques of the body’ the sociologist Marcel Mauss describes – walking, swimming, having sex – this is something that must be learned.
There are two reasons this state of affairs makes me uncomfortable. First, because my friend is just one of many, many women I have met during the course of my research who is in this situation. She is told by a range of stakeholders (everyone from the NHS to the Daily Mail to well-meaning people on the street) that she ought to breastfeed, and that she risks her child’s health, wealth and future happiness if she does not. Amongst other reasons, she takes this on and decides that she really wants to breastfeed. Yet, after a brusque and perfunctory demonstration from a harassed midwife, she is discharged from hospital the-morning-after-the-night-before, and left to get on with it, with little practical support to perfect the technique. Many of her problems, it sounds like, could have been solved with some basic information about how best to position the baby at the breast (which, in theory at least, means the breasts get drained properly, and the blocked ducts which lead to the mastitis infection don’t develop). The lip service to ‘breast is best’ does no one any favours; patience, kindness and care are what is needed, but ‘actioning’ that in a busy institution is another matter.
So is the answer simply more support? Along with a raft of policy measures, a range of services do exist to support breastfeeding women in the UK, largely operated by the third sector or voluntary organisations, and a lot of people I’ve met – admittedly, largely of the informed, proactive middle-class kind like my friend – are profoundly grateful for the help they have received there. But this in itself is a tricky balance to get right: some recent sociological work has explored women’s accounts of feeling pressurized into breastfeeding whilst in hospital, or by these very voluntary groups themselves. Where is the line between supporting people to do what they want, and influencing those wants themselves?
So this leads me to my second point, and this is the point that really stings. By offering my friend this advice about breastfeeding I fuel an ideology I feel profoundly uncomfortable with. In truth, what I want to tell her is that there is more to being a mum than how you feed your baby, and that when you really look at the evidence, the outcomes for breastfed babies in developed countries are much more marginal than a lot of the advocacy literature would have you believe.
Of course, I don’t say any of this, because it threatens to create a cleavage (forgive me) in the complex blend of micro and macro forces that shape individual desires, not to mention our friendship. My friend wants to breastfeed, and I want to help her. But I am also acutely aware that the reason she wants to breastfeed is a product of this larger culture which ties breastfeeding to ‘good motherhood’, itself a cultural construction – or, as Eric Hobsbawm might put it – an invented tradition at a specific historical juncture. (The feminist in me is tempted to point out how curious it is that this latest ‘intensification’ of mothering has happened at the very point that women are now wholesale part of the labour force, but I digress).
Part of my discomfort is a product of my discipline itself, of course: the fundamental tension within anthropology is that it is equally reliant on interpretive representation and ethnography, hence there is always a distinction, as Timothy Mitchell has written, between ‘the need to separate oneself from the world and to render it up as an object of experience, and the desire to lose oneself within this object world and experience it directly’. So at the same time that I can objectify and analyse, I can also recognize that one day it will be me sending the frantic 3am texts, desperate for some help in ‘achieving’ the right kind of breastfeeding experience. In my own case at least, ‘affective’ desire (to breastfeed) seems to run deeper than potential clinical outcomes (knowing it’s not the be-all-and-end-all). I suspect that in all areas of social life these different modes of accountability – how we explain why we do what we do – jog along in uneasy tension with each other as we go about trying to create a coherent narrative about our decisions.
But do I say any of this to my friend? Of course not, especially not the part about the differential outcomes, for fear of ‘undermining’ her choice (itself an interesting paradox). My positions as a friend, and as an academic, feel in triangulation with her own. I try to help her as best I can with attaining the breastfeeding she desires. Telling her she’s doing incredibly, that the perseverance will pay off, and that one day, she will look back on our conversations and laugh. Will she? She might. Will I? I don’t feel qualified to say, quite yet.