The Breastfeeding Battleground
Hostilities between mothers were reignited last week when one mum was humiliated for breast-feeding in public at a US supermarket.
Published 15/07/2014 | 00:00
Last Monday, a group of women rallied together to protest at their local Walmart store in the US. They say a mother was humiliated by almost a dozen employees while breastfeeding her child in the store less than a week ago.
"Not only were they staring at me, they were making rude and disgusting comments about how disgusting what I was doing was, and how should I cover myself," Shawnee Coloabella has said, though the company maintains it welcomes breastfeeding mothers and recognises the "intimate and personal nature of the decision a mother makes to breastfeed her child".
"Intimate" and "personal" are just two words that crop up in a minefield of adjectives associated with a woman's decision to feed her child - whether in public or not. In the face of Ireland's rather poor breastfeeding figures, it's the single message that health organisations have been trying to hammer home: no exceptions, no excuses - breast is always best.
Those who champion this stance absolutely are often labelled harshly: breastfeeding Nazis; milk Mafia; the Breastapo. Though for the mothers on the other side of the fence, the words are probably worse still: selfish; cruel; undeserving of parenthood; inexcusably stupid.
Before she gave birth to her son Ronan last autumn, Emma Flanagan was largely unaware that breastfeeding - "natural" as we are told it is - can also be a mountainous task.
"Ronan was born in Holles Street at the end of October," says Emma. "And he latched on straight away after birth."
However, once she returned to the Dublin home she shares with her husband Eoin Kenny, Ronan struggled to get enough milk. By the time he was three days old, he had developed jaundice, had lost weight and was re-admitted back into hospital. There, he was given a bottle of formula to help him recover.
"When I saw how he gobbled up that milk, I burst into tears," Emma says. "I could see then how desperately hungry he was. I felt like a failure."
Still, she persevered. "I wanted to give it a decent shot and I just thought, even if I do it for one more day, I'll be happy with that effort."
The 29-year-old attended support group meetings and went to her local public health nurse for advice. She tried to pump, but found that too was unsuccessful.
"Your baby is unique - so no one can therefore tell you that you should absolutely, 100pc breastfeed without question. You have to judge that for yourself. And at some stage, you also have to draw a line; for me, that meant moving on to formula when Ronan was three weeks old."
But her worries sadly didn't stop there, and Emma developed blocked lymph nodes around her breasts. She then had to undergo surgery, and months later was still dressing the wound every second day. Today, she still experiences significant discomfort.
"Ronan had bad eczema until he was five months. It was only then we worked out he was allergic to the milk," Emma adds. "We swapped to soy formula and his skin cleared up immediately, but if I'd be breastfeeding, he probably wouldn't have had that reaction.
"Maybe because of that - and despite my mum and my husband thinking I'm mad for saying so - I will still try and breastfeed again if I have another child. But I'm also just sensible enough to see it's not the end of the world if it doesn't pan out."
Previously in-vogue Earth Mother celebrities such as Alicia Silverstone, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gisele Bunchen are starting to seem irrelevant to real parenting. Gwyneth has been ridiculed for her stringent no-meat, no-dairy, no-sugar and no-gluten approach to feeding her family. She has said: "Sometimes when my family is not eating pasta, bread of processed grains like white rice, we're left with that specific hunger that comes from avoiding carbs."
Meanwhile, last year vegan Alicia Silverstone launched an online breast milk sharing service for fellow meat-free, dairy-free mothers. Dubbed Kind Mama Milk Share, Alicia was only interested in including those that have "clean, mean, glorious breast milk", and who know that value of a "beautiful home birth". The actress has also said that she will continue feeding her children until they can say "no thanks".
In a snap posted to her Instagram profile, model Gisele gave insight into her typical working day: a hairdresser, makeup artist and manicurist all fawn over her - while the supermodel breastfeeds her one-year-old daughter, Vivian.
While masses came out in support, others were quick to sneer at her supposed declaration of holier-than-thou perfection.
"I like to joke that I inspired Gisele," says beauty columnist Triona McCarthy. "I Tweeted a photograph of my tiny son feeding about a month before her picture. So of course she must have copied me!"
Triona's son Maxim was born in April 2013, and she was adamant she'd feed him herself. Her younger sister Tricia died aged 30 four years ago from breast cancer and hormone-sensitive strains run in the family. Triona's doctors told her that breastfeeding would reduce her own susceptibility. "After that, I just totally embraced it," she says. "And gradually it did become really natural."
The Cork native, who is now pregnant with her second child, adds that expressing milk allowed her to return to work quickly, even if it meant pumping in unusual locations: en route to racing at the Curragh; a flight; the swanky Hotel Costes in Paris. "You just have to make it work for you," Triona says.
The percentage of women who breastfeed in this country is low. The HSE says only half of Irish mothers will actually try to breastfeed in the first place - in the UK, eight out of ten give it a go, while in Scandinavia almost all mothers do.
But some recent studies suggest the effect of these figures may not be as catastrophic as previously feared. Earlier this year, one found that the benefits of breastfeeding had been exaggerated. Dr Cynthia Colen from Ohio State University says: "Breastfeeding might be very difficult, even untenable, for certain groups of women. Rather than placing the blame at their feet let's be more realistic about what breastfeeding does and doesn't do."
Behind all the smiles, laughter and love, parenting is also hard, and we should recognise that scrutinising the particulars - when they walk and talk; what they're being fed and when; sleeping schedules; soother-use, and story-time - is of no particular use to anyone, least of all the child.
The breast is best message is still revered - and rightly so. However, a new generation of Irish women is now adding 'but not at any cost'.