… make me feel like a natural woman
1. The Lactation Room
By our fourth day in hospital it was clear to the ward midwives that harvestbaby’s combination of jaundice and sleepy prematurity meant she wasn’t getting all that she needed to thrive from feeding at the breast alone. I was as a consequence introduced to the order and rituals of the Lactation Room, the kitchen-sized space on the ward in which were stored the breast pumps (mounted on caster-bearing tripods), the sterilisation kits (each with a customised list of the owner’s requirements) and the drawers of storage bottles, feeding cups and single-use teats. On one side of the room were the doors in which milk formula was stored; these could only be unlocked by a staff member. A fridge with a buzzer that rang each time it was opened contained the named and labelled bottles of expressed milk, with the smaller labelled bottles of the darker-coloured formula on the shelf above them. A label on the fridge door forbade more than four bottles of formula being stored inside at any one time.
Harvestbaby’s jaundice and sleepiness got worse before it got better and we graduated as a result from the tiny feeding cups that held no more than twenty millilitres of milk to the disposable teats, soft and flimsy, and the storage bottles, of which I was allowed one more than the usual maximum of two. On one particularly bad night I signed the waiver allowing my daughter a feed of formula milk. It put her to sleep and got her over the hump of curtailed nutrition but it felt like an admission of failure as I continued to get up throughout the night to collect and wheel in the pump for supplemented feeds.
The Lactation Room was the best place in which to meet other mothers, most of them recovering from a caesarean or in that shadowland in which their own milk supply hadn’t yet come in. They had a shared shuffling walk, these young women, and that strange posture that I recognised from my own recent experience of their bodies no longer occupying the space to which they had become accustomed. Most were on the ward only for a day or two, as my stay rolled out longer. We held the door open for each other and followed a standard pattern in conversation, clipped and polite in the same way as one might speak to a person sitting adjacent on a long-haul flight. How is your baby? Is it a boy or a girl? How are you? Congratulations. Isn’t it strange?
Partners came into the lactation room too (including the señor, who quickly learned how to sterilise and which were the newer electronic pumps) and sometimes family members visiting. A young Chinese man gave his parents and sister a tour of the area, speaking Mandarin quickly in a low voice as he outlined the features of his wife’s tenure in that space. The parents nodded with the seriousness of those attending an exam lecture; their eyes swept the ceiling-high doors and the rows of kits — the smooth, benign running of a public institution.
We had plenty of time to internalise the rituals of pumping and sterilising with our extended stay to the extent that when the three of us came home, I quickly went out again with the harvestdad to acquire, on the hospital’s recommendation, the necessary tools to keep it up here. The rules about what to do and when, and where, fitted into our much smaller and more cluttered space without too much difficulty, carrying the harvestbaby through her continuing mixed success at nursing directly. It occurred to me only after we were settled in at home that it was in part my level of comfort in a large institution such as a hospital — one of the few in this city that surpasses in scale yet mimics in function the operating of a university — that combined with the head-spin of early maternity (and my own tendency towards compliance with instructions) to make getting on the expression wagon relatively straightforward. It meant that I regarded the instructions and the rules through the filter of best practice and systemic necessity, rather than as the kind of affront to the free spirit that fuels the occasionally-heard stories of non-compliant, or “naughty”, mothers on the ward.
2. The Feeding Gap
It was on all this I reflected when I came across this story, via Spilt Milk, in which a member of the editorial team of a parenting magazine wrote a confessional essay in which she described her decision to formula-feed her baby. Her reasons were personal, and not altruistic: she couldn’t make the mental (and emotional) transition from breasts-as-pleasure to breasts-as-food-source (to the point of recoiling at the sight and thought of an infant nursing from her) and she wanted to reclaim her own body to the extent of being able to drink more — to get “tipsy” — again. Her use of the phrase “even the convenience and supposed health benefits of breast milk couldn’t induce me to stick my nipple in a bawling baby’s mouth” made me think, with my tiny experience, that she hadn’t persisted much with nursing at all, since the one thing I know is that the baby goes to the nipple, not the nipple to the baby. But what the widespread and undoubtedly predictable reaction from commenters of all persuasions highlights is that discursive gap I noticed was closed in myself, in the hospital-as-institution. What I mean by that is that this mother was unable to cross the space between her own matrix of identity and the best practice of the mother as public health subject.
Into the vacuum comes ideology, of course. On one side, the two-part hardening of that best practice into opprobrium, whereby it is reified first as natural and normal, and then vitriol heaped on those who reject it, making them unnatural and abnormal and — the maternal double-whammy — selfish and uncaring. The other side is looser but at times equally ideological: the lauding of that mother’s decision as emblematic of a free choice, and the vilifying (often with misogyny) of the first group of ideologues. What fascinates me, and to which I keep returning in my thinking, is the many gaps, the many steps, that these conditioned responses elide, the way in which it’s not just the facts, but the thinking, that make something so or not so.
3. Thinking Room
These very gaps were coincidentally under forensic examination in a Tiger Beatdown post highlighted both by Ghetsuhm and MeganWegan recently. The curious volume under review in the original post — a memoir called I Love Dick – is not the focus of the post so much as the self-examination, and self-explication, into which the reading of it throws the author. This reflection has been widely cited, and this post is no different:
That outraged, righteous, upright, know-it-all person who has compassion for all the right people and scorn for all the wrong ones, who’s on the right side (your side) of all the issues: I think she’s dangerous, and I think she’s at least partially false. The falseness is the root of the danger; [the] problem with Internet Feminism, or any politics of identity, any system that purports to help you get your life and problems understood better, is when it sets up a too-easy, pre-packaged narrative for your own life. When it gives you the language, the rules for engaging and discussing, but doesn’t help you to look with any greater or more dangerous honesty at what you’re thinking, or how you’re acting, or who you are.
This, it seems to me, is also how it is when we attempt to talk about how we feed and nurture our infants, and particularly when the confessional mode of (post-)feminist disclosure meets the ideology with which the optimum choice of breastfeeding one’s baby is promulgated. Look at how those metaphors turn on themselves in a kind of auto-misogyny: one kind of nurture is natural, the other unnatural. The challenge of establishing breastfeeding requires commitment and a kind of selflessness to persist, making it easy to label the shirker or the quitter uncommitted and selfish and to impugn them accordingly. What this misses is that while a choice to formula-feed does not and cannot negate the facts of the benefits of breastfeeding, neither must it necessarily generate these “rules for engaging and discussing” the question of nurture more generally, and yet it almost invariably does, along the lines of division I identify above.
I write all this as someone who is thinking as well as feeding my way into motherhood, dwelling in the halfway house of feeding my daughter exclusively on breastmilk, but largely at present via expression. This is not the situation I would like even in the short-term, but it is what is working at the moment and I hope it will change as she continues to grow. (I acknowledge the encouragement of my Twitter-friends, as exemplified by Isabel’s comment in the last post, in keeping me positive in this.) I write it too in response to the sense that grew and grew throughout my pregnancy that somehow in all our discursive sound and fury about children, childbirth and childcare, that we are so often talking past each other, in all directions. This feeling has been intensified by the experience in the last two weeks of how so much of what is written and said about labour and early babycare is more like a series of ciphers than any kind of universal account.
There is too much that is personal, that is primal or at least pre-verbal, in all of this, and I understand better as a result the policy documents (the local hospital’s breastfeeding policy ran to several pages), the lists of state-sponsored facts, and, arising out of this beyond the walls of the ward, the consolidation into ideological tack-spitting of all kinds. In between feeds I remain however too tired, my daily focus too narrow, to make pariahs of most other mothers — even those whose choice of the confessional mode is ill-advised at least — and I hope (for a while) to be spared the same.