Recently, here in the UK, there’s been all sorts of controversy around breastfeeding – and in particular, breastfeeding in public.
It seems strange that this is a country so obsessed with women’s mammaries that many of its best-read newspapers stick them on their third page (and I’m sure they would put them on their front page if they could get away with it), and yet every time someone dares to feed their hungry baby in a public place it causes uproar.
Okay, it’s obviously not that bad – otherwise we’d be in continuous uproar, the number of babies there are needing to be fed around the country on a daily basis.But sometimes it can seem that way when you read yet another story about a poor new mum being told to feed in the corner of a restaurant or drape herself with some massive, attention-seeking piece of cloth in order not to offend the clientele of that particular establishment.
Luckily for us, they very often aren’t “poor mums” at all – in fact, they are often very indignant, as well as social-media-savvy mothers who make sure that whoever told them to put themselves and their baby in the corner soon learns to regret it. Especially when the supporters of that mum turn up outside the restaurant/pub/café for a sympathetic mass breastfeed just to make their point.
Anyway, all of this is my way of saying that we seem to have a slightly weird attitude towards breastfeeding in this country and it’s a shame because we also have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe. I’m all for women making their own choices about how they feed their babies, as long as they’re given all the relevant information, but it’s sad when I know so many people who wanted to breastfeed but gave up. And many more women who found getting out and about with their newborn was just too traumatic due to what they felt was the prevailing negative attitude to breastfeeding (whether it’s true their actually is a negative attitude is a moot point; we just hear so much about it, it’s hard not to be swayed by the loud media voice. Especially when you are a tired, hormonal and vulnerable new mother).
However, when I had my first baby in 2005 it didn’t even occur to me not to breastfeed – including in public. And this was partly because I was pregnant with her in Jamaica – a country (like so much of the developing world) where breastfeeding is much more normalised, and where women are much less likely to feel stigmatised because it’s just what women – and baby’s – do.
I will admit that, having been breastfed myself as a baby, I was brought up with this being the normal choice. But because I wasn’t in the UK during my pregnancy, I found that my feelings weren’t swayed – by the media, by the general non-portrayal of breastfeeding on television, by friends or family. In fact, I was particularly lucky in that the couple of friends with babies who I managed to see when in the UK during my early pregnancy were breastfeeding – one in particular, who confidently took her new baby son to the coffee shop with us and blithely fed him while we sat there drinking coffee and catching up.
So the influences on me were: what I saw in Jamaica; the couple of friends I met up with in London; my own up-bringing. I was very lucky. When my daughter was born (in the UK), I found breastfeeding far harder than I thought it would be (a common complaint!) but it just didn’t occur to me to give up. And when we went out for a meal or a drink, or round to friend’s houses, and she wanted feeding – I fed her. Again, I hadn’t realised I was meant to be embarrassed.
Fast-forward two years and it was a different story. We only returned briefly to Jamaica, where I finished the job I was doing at the time and did my handover. After that, we lived in the UK until I was pregnant again. By this time, though, the influences on me were far-wider. As well as the positive influences of my friends who breastfed and my upbringing, I was now surrounded by different views. I heard that breastfeeding was a bit weird. That doing it in public was disrespectful. Hippyish, even. And I didn’t see that many women doing it – not in restaurants, not in pubs or cafes and certainly not on popular tv programmes.
I did breastfeed again, and I did persevere again through all the same problems as I had the first time. But I found going out and about far harder than I had with my older child. I was much more conscious of what people might be thinking or saying. I covered up or I went into the toilet (I am ashamed to admit), or sat in the car.
However, I still think that the early influence of spending time in Jamaica during my first pregnancy, totally unaware that breastfeeding (especially in public) was in any way an issue, helped me even the second time. It was ingrained in me: this is what you did.
I won’t have any more children so it’s hard to know how I would feel now. I think attitudes to breastfeeding in this country are changing – just as so many things are changing – thanks to the power of social media. But it would be interesting to know how differently I would have felt about doing it had I been in the UK for the full duration of both my pregnancies.
Have you been pregnant or had a baby in a country with a different attitude to feeding than your own? How do you think it affected how you fed your baby (if you think it did)? Do you think you would have done anything differently had you been pregnant in your home country?
Born an expat, in Cuba to British diplomat parents, Clara Wiggins has travelled all her life, and has lived in 11 countries on 5 different continents. She and her family are currently preparing for another overseas move, to South Africa. Clara has used her extensive experience of living overseas, as a child, as a diplomat and as an accompanying spouse, to write a book The Expat Partner's Survival Guide (due out Spring 2015). You can find out more about the book and read her blog at expatpartnersurvival.