Over the weekend I came across an article on SBS Online titled “I’m lucky I could afford to pay $200 for breastfeeding support”. It was a couple of months old, published during World Breastfeeding Week 2019, in the wake of the Australian government’s announcement of $10 million of federal funding to increase breastfeeding rates in Australia.
The author (who I’m not naming here because my comments are in no way directed at her personally) relates a story which will resonate with many. At home with a new baby, suffering from bleeding nipples, mastitis and holding a crying baby, she rang a breastfeeding support helpline one morning before dawn. On hearing a recorded message triaging overnight calls before putting them through to a volunteer counsellor, she tearfully interrogates whether or not her situation is important or can wait until daylight hours.
By the time she picked up the phone, this mum had already sought help from her local maternal and child health centre (no appointments for a week), and the hospital where she gave birth (never returned her call). She describes her phone discussion with the peer counsellor as “lovely, but couldn’t provide any more than cheerleading. She couldn’t offer practical support”. She also describes feeling unable to turn to her mother (who did not breastfeed), or her breastfeeding friends, as “in our western culture, it was not ok to observe and take notes”.
Faced with what she sees as a choice between weaning her baby or paying for professional help, the author handed over $650 for a private lactation consultant and ultrasound therapy sessions. She argues from this experience that the $10 million government breastfeeding strategy should be focused on ensuring that women who wish to breastfeed can access “free, timely and practical care”.
This article has been generating a lot of discussion in some breastfeeding groups where it was shared. Some of the hottest debate has centred around the author’s representation of peer breastfeeding support as well intentioned but ultimately useless compared to the ‘practical’ hands on service offered by medical and allied health professionals. With community clinics under increasing pressure and lactation consultants not covered by Medicare, and $10 million up for grabs to increase breastfeeding rates, is it worth funding volunteer organisations when we be directing resources towards services which give proper help?
I know from bitter, breaking experience what it is like to reach out to a breastfeeding helpline and hang up disappointed when the counsellor’s suggestions all sounded exhausting. I know what it is like to ricochet between health care professionals, watching as the cost of overcoming breastfeeding issues closes in on the cost of using formula. I know what it is like to turn up at the maternal and child health centre only to realise that the fortnightly drop in session was yesterday. I know what it is like to drown in a sea of online searches and conflicting advice, devastated that this is what breastfeeding has turned out to be, wondering how much longer I can keep going.
But I am increasingly unconvinced by claims that mothers aren’t breastfeeding because ‘the system is broken’ – actually, I think the system is working pretty much as it’s meant to. What I mean by this is that in neoliberal industrialised economies, it is necessary and routine for mothers and babies to be dehumanised and disenfranchised in order to maximise our compliance in our own exploitation. This is why women and girls are groomed from infancy to be obedient and nice and view each other as frenemies. All of which gathers momentum in fertility and pregnancy, a time when women’s inescapable biology reveals the extent of the sex-based oppression under which we exist and are now expected to raise our own children.
It is in this context that, in the name of life preserving gold standard care, we end up pregnant and birthing under surveillance – our agency slowly stripped away one appointment and routine test at a time. Pee in here. Don’t eat that. We’re just checking this. We’ll allow that but only if, sign consent here, push now, at least you have a healthy baby. Are we really surprised that on being handed babies birthed on the basis of policy and permission, so many mothers lack trust in our own instincts and skills? Is it really coincidence that mothers might find the information and suggestions provided by other women lacking, compared to the reassuring authority of a paid professional?
In a society where women are systemically denied agency and taught to treat each other with suspicion (remember, ladies, it’s not ok to observe or take notes) the idea that mothers might actually be, or be able to become, legitimately skilled in the physiology of instinctive and normal mothering is easily dismissed. When other women share information and experience about breastfeeding, it may well seem ‘not practical’ to fit suggestions based on connection and nurture into lives and homes which are structured around economies of separation. In a world tailored to the bodies and desires of men, when we talk about ‘breastfeeding’ we seem to be increasingly referring not to a mother-baby dyad but to lactation management dependent on a complex series of products and technology. Basic skin to skin contact and time are simultaneously too simple and too inconvenient. And they certainly don’t make much money for anyone.
Obviously as a trained peer breastfeeding supporter I have skin in the game here. I won’t lie – it stung to read the work I do represented in mainstream media as pleasantly impotent. And I am certainly not going to stop demanding increased breastfeeding education for health care workers and improved access to medical and professional care when mothers need it (and far too many mothers do end up needing it). But it’s not just pride or blind organisational loyalty speaking when I say that I think that it’s a serious mistake to walk away from stories like this thinking that the reason more mums are not breastfeeding is because there aren’t enough paid ‘experts’ around to ‘enable’ us. We are already surrounded by skilled breastfeeding experts, women who are working in their own lives to reclaim breastfeeding as a social norm and who are ready to pass real power on to the next generation of mothers. And the best part? It’s not just free – it’s liberation.