Breastfeeding After CSA

Breastfeeding Awareness Month 2018

The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but in the US, the United States Breastfeeding Committee has declared the whole month of August Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In honour of that (not in the least because I didn’t blog about the issue during the first seven days of August!), I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding after child sexual abuse (CSA).

While so many of us want to breastfeed, and spend our pregnancies imagining doing just that – and, indeed, preparing for it, it’s not always that easy. Aside, altogether, from the issues and difficulties that many women without a history of CSA encounter, there are additional difficulties that may manifest if the new mum such a history.  I’ve enumerated a few of them here:

  • If our breasts were a focal point of our abuse, we may be reluctant to offer, or share them, with anyone else – even our own babies. The physical contact may be just too much.
  • Dissociation is something I’ve discussed on this blog before – it’s often a huge part of our experiences when we are being abused. Dissociation, sadly, can also be part of our experiences when we’re breastfeeding – which can effect the mother-child bonding that is a much-mentioned positive element of breastfeeding. This, in turn, can lead to further shame and guilt around our bodies.
  • There are three kinds of touch that can be difficult for a woman with a history of CSA: self-touch, touch of another, and medical touch. Breastfeeding is, often, comprised of all three: The touch of the mother’s own hand on her breast – before, during, and after, a feed; the touch of the baby on the mother’s breasts; the manipulation of the mother’s breasts in order to assist with a latch etc.
  • Bodily fluids – even her own breastmilk – may be disgusting to the new mother who associates such fluids with abuse.
  • The shame that CSA visits on a woman, on her body, on her sense of self, can be mirrored in the shame that attaches to ‘bodies on display’ in many parts of the world. Then, there is the fact that  many societies visit shame on women who breastfeed in public, so this adds to the difficulty.
  • The mouth of her child on her breast can be triggering for the new mother with a history of CSA. It may remind her too much of her abuser/s slobbering all over her breasts.
  • If her birth didn’t go how she planned, the new mother may well have the old tape of ‘I can’t do anything right’ playing in her head. This may mean that she is convinced she can’t breastfeed her baby, either – so she may not even try.
  • If breastfeeding is difficult – or impossible – for the survivor of CSA, it can add to her feelings of guilt, and of the fact that her body is ‘failing’ her.

It’s not all bad, though. For many women with a history of CSA, managing to breastfeed successfully can be an hugely healing experience for women. It is a(nother) example of her body ‘behaving’ properly; of her body doing what it’s supposed to do.

If you are supporting a new mother who has a history of CSA, there are things you can do to help:

  • Reassure her that her choices are valid.
  • Reassure her that she is not being judged.
  • Reassure her that there are myriad other ways to love her baby.
  • If she really wants to breastfeed, discuss using a pump and expressing milk for her baby to exclusively feed breastmilk to her child.
  • Help her to see her milk as a ‘good’ / ‘useful’ fluid.
  • Remind her that she birthed beautifully, and that she can breastfeed beautifully, too – with help and support.
  • Encourage her to attend La Leche League, or Cuidiú meetings while she’s still pregnant.

The transition to motherhood is a monumental one for every woman, but it can be harder for those of us with a history of CSA. Ditto breastfeeding. Being sensitive to the possibilities can make the experience so much easier, and empowering, for these women.

The Booby Trap

Listen, can we just stop? Can we, please? Can we please stop pitting women against each other? It’s sad, it’s upsetting, and it achieves absolutely nothing.

Women are fabulous at supporting each other, at sharing good times and bad (and cake!). They are wonderful at encouraging each other, and listening to each other, and caring for each other. They think nothing of dropping what they are doing and going to be with another woman or family who needs them. Women are brilliant.

But they can also be complete fucking bitches. No one can tear a woman down quite as viciously as another woman. No one can hurt a woman quite as deeply as another woman. No one can shame and victim-blame a woman quite as effectively as another woman.

And do you know who knows this really well? Those clever folk who run advertising and PR agencies. They know this from their own lives, from a little bit of research, from focus groups and from watching what happens when you pit one group of woman against another. They have put this knowledge to good use by creating an arena where breastfeeding mothers and artificially-feeding mothers are conflated as adversaries. They are sitting back and watching the show while they and their clients (the formula companies) are making a fortune. Those who are baited by the arguments are falling into this specially-constructed booby trap. I won’t bang on about it here, but if you are interested in learning more about the business of breastfeeding, I recommend this book.

Ireland has the lowest rates of breastfeeding and – by inference – the highest rates of artificial feeding in the world. There are billions of dollars to be made from formula feeding; not just the dairy (or other) milk that is used in making the formula, but the bottles and teats and sterilisers etc.  By comparison, there is very little money to be made from breastfeeding – a few breast-pads if you need them, maybe a consultation or three with a lactation consultant, a family-sized bar of chocolate every night and a number of feeding bras in different sizes. That’s pretty much it – unless you want a pump and some bottles to store that milk in. Chances are you’ll save on menstrual products as well, because your periods won’t return for months after the birth (if you’re lucky).

But look, everyone knows that breast is best. This is not a blog post banging on about how I think other women should feed their babies. For the record, I breastfed both of mine. Except my eldest had no suck because she was born at 30 weeks so I expressed for her and fed her from a bottle. When she was ten months old, my ex-husband put pressure on me to stop breastfeeding (I was already supplementing with formula because I didn’t know then what I know now). I gave up, but re-lactated when I left him a few months later. She gave up breastfeeding at 19 months, when I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second. My younger daughter was breastfed from the day she was born until she was five and a half years old. Primarily because I’m lazy and this suited me best. Also, it was effortless (I was lucky) and free.

But that’s me – those were my choices based on the information I had, what suited me best, and what best suited my family at that time. I don’t want to try and convert other women and judge them and tell them that they are doing wrong by not breastfeeding. Women who want to breastfeed, for the most part, will breastfeed. Women who don’t, won’t.  Sadly, there will always be a small minority of women who want to breastfeed but will be unable to, for a variety of reasons. I’d hazard a guess that, for most of those women, those reasons include a lack of information, a lack of support, and pressure from family to give up at the first sign of trouble.

So, this latest stick to beat breastfeeding women with – the backlash against ‘brelfies’ – is annoying me. For a start, if looking at a woman feeding her child bothers you, look away. When a woman breastfeeds her baby, you can’t see much breast at all – you’ll generally only see the back of the baby’s head – unless and until the baby unlatches. As it happens, all of the women I have discussed breastfeeding with are more worried about people seeing their wobbly bellies, than they are about people seeing their breasts being used for the primary purpose.

How's this for a 'brelfie'?  (Kashmira's first feed, aged about 5 minutes.)
How’s this for a ‘brelfie’?
(Kashmira’s first feed, aged about 5 minutes.)

Most women see breastfeeding their babies in public as something they have to do in order to ensure their babies don’t die of hunger and dehydration, they’re not doing it to be provocative or feminist or defiant. The same as mothers who bottlefeed their babies, really. People who think otherwise need to check where their prejudice and discomfort comes from and confront them rather than women who are busy feeding their children.

How I feed my babies is my business. How you feed your babies is your business. I do believe that with more support, more information and more easily accessible help, more women would choose to breastfeed – because choice, after all, is only really a choice when it’s fully informed and all options are presented honestly and in their entirety. In the meantime, though, let’s get busy supporting all mothers because all of us need support, no matter how we’re feeding our babies.

Being Gay and Breastfeeding

In recent weeks, I’ve had a few messages from people who follow this blog wondering – variously – if I’m dead, if I’m stuck for something to say, or if I’ve stopped writing.

I’m happy to report that I’m no deader than usual, I’m definitely not stuck for something to say and I certainly haven’t stopped writing. I have been writing – I’ve done (another) final edit of the book; started volume two; jotted down a few thousand words for a work of fiction as well as a few ideas for a radio play that’s been knocking around inside my skull for a few months. I’ve been writing for the Gifted Ireland website and I’ve been doing a bit of academic writing as well (oooh! Get me! 🙂 ). There are even several drafts of posts that I’ve started, but haven’t finished for various reasons….but enough of this ‘dog ate my homework’ stuff, let’s crack on.

For the past four weeks, Ireland has been having a national conversation about homophobia. For those of you who don’t live on this island, let me give you a brief outline:

Rory O’Neill has this wonderful, funny, alter-ego; the amazing Panti Bliss. On a (fairly awful) programme on Saturday night four weeks ago, Rory alluded to homophobes in the public eye. He was pushed to name names, and he did. Within days, RTE (the broadcaster responsible for the programme) had received solicitors’ letters and decided to pay eighty-five thousand euros to those named individuals. An apology was also issued (though, so far, Rory hasn’t received one).

Later, Panti Bliss was invited to The Abbey Theatre (the world’s first national theatre) to answer the Noble Call*. What she said was stunning:

Yesterday (February 9th), Rory spoke to Miriam O’Callaghan on the radio. He spoke about what it’s like to be a gay man in 21st Century Ireland.

‘The time that I’m most jealous of straight people,’ Rory told us. ‘Is when I am with a boyfriend and I am walking down the street and the most natural, ordinary thing in the world is to hold his hand, or put your arm around him. The way couples do….the way we see straight couples on the street every single day, so often that you don’t notice…’

Rory went on to explain how, even if you’re a very out, very proud, very confident gay man in the most comfortable arena possible for being gay – the Men’s Department in Brown Thomas’s – being affectionate can be difficult:

‘Even then, it is different for a gay couple.’ he says, because even then, it still feels like it is not a normal sign of affection.

‘It feels like you’re making a political statement,’ Rory continues. ‘You’re forced into it being this big gesture. It’s not just about you. It’s not a small private thing between you and your boyfriend. It becomes this political statement. And even nice people in BT’s, who want to say “oh isn’t that nice – look at the gay couple holding hands”, they’ve turned your private moment into this public moment because they’re being supportive and nice but it just means that your private moment isn’t a little private moment, it’s on display…’

Now, I am probably the furthest thing you could get from a gay man but suddenly I understood. I knew what Rory was talking about. I was no longer sympathising – I was empathising. Suddenly, I got it.

It might sound odd, to draw parallels between a gay couple kissing in public and breastfeeding in public – but I’ve had the same experience with a hungry (or tired or generally discombobulated) baby. I’ve had what should have been a private experience politicised and commented upon. I’ve had people sit not two metres away from me and discuss that I was feeding my child as though I was deaf, as though I didn’t understand English, and as though they had every right to discuss, and have an opinion on, what I was doing.

I’ve had people gawp in disbelief – not so much when the baby was only a few months old, but definitely when she was one or two or three (by the time she was four, we no longer breastfed in public). I’ve had people (young women, usually) make known their disgust that I was using my breasts for the precise job they were created for.

Like a kiss between lovers, breastfeeding your baby or child is more than a physical act – it is an expression of love. There’s an intimacy to it – even when it’s automatic.  I’ve had people smile warmly and even give me a thumbs up when I’ve been feeding my baby. I’ve had perfect strangers go out of their way to let me know that they ‘approve’. It feels a lot better than the disgust – and it’s lovely to have people’s support and to have them being nice – but it still feels like they need to make a point about how ‘accepting’ they are of your ‘oddness’.

I now have a much better understanding of how it feels to be a gay man in twenty-first century Ireland. It feels like being a breastfeeding mother in twenty-first century Ireland. Thanks, Rory, for sharing your gift of communication and helping me understand how you feel every time you feel you need to check yourself.

 

* In Ireland, at a party a noble call is when it’s your turn – to sing, recite or otherwise entertain. You can’t refuse. You can plead neither illness nor insanity. You must perform. The recent play at the Abbey ‘The Risen People’ (which dealt with the 1913 Lockout) had a Nobel Call performed by a different person whose own story bore relevance to the broad themes of the play.

Breastfeeding Awareness Week

This week marks Breastfeeding Awareness Week – a week when we take stock of the rates of breastfeeding in our country and take stock of new research and evidence with regard to the benefits of breastfeeding.

 

 

Sadly, in Ireland, we have very low rates of breastfeeding our children. Only five out of ten babies will leave hospitals as breastfed, and fewer will be breastfed for very long. We really need to ask ourselves the hard questions with regard to feeding our babies ourselves in this country.

 

According to an article on the radio earlier this week, women in Ireland are more likely to breastfeed their babies if their husbands/partners are non-Irish. What does this tell us about Irish men’s attitudes to breasts and their being used for the reason they were invented? What does it also tell us about how easily Irish women are influenced by their men?

 

I struggle to understand why any woman who can – and that’s over 90% of women- does not breastfeed her baby. The short, medium and long term benefits far outweigh any initial discomfort. Whenever I hear a woman talk about how hard it is, I am reminded of a dear friend of mine who adopted a baby and induced lactation in order to breastfeed the infant. Her determination was fierce and it was not an easy road, but she was adamant that her child would not lack anything another child born to her might get.

 

From my own research, it would appear that Irish women believe the baby-formula hype (lies) that formula is as good for babies as breastmilk – especially after six months. This is complete nonsense as breasts are amazing things and will adapt the milk they produce to ‘fit’ the child they are feeding. Indeed, if a baby and a toddler are fed at the same time, the breasts will produce different milk for each child.

 

Apart from ignorance, I think lack of support – social, medical and familial – is a huge barrier to breastfeeding. As is mothers’ sad lack of comfort with their own bodies.

 

We need to stop pitting bottle-feeding mums against breast-feeding mums. We need to stop judging mothers who bottle-feed and make breast-feeding the unquestioned norm. If we could make child abuse normal in this country, surely we can do the same with child-nurturing?