Last week during COP I saw a tweet with the slogan “We are not defending nature, we are nature defending ourselves”, and it got me thinking about what it means to shift away from the anthropocentric paradigm of man vs. nature. Our fates in the Anthropocene depend on us rewiring our societies towards a collective understanding of humans being not separate but part of nature, and I’m under no illusion that this will be nothing short of systemic and radical. It will inevitably involve a dismantling of our economic model, and the creation of a completely new reality, one that looks nothing like the consuming-hustling existence of Westerners over the past century. Part of me thinks that we are so completely unprepared for what is ahead, whilst at the same time everything about our lives is crying out for change.
There are many, many different practices that we need to embrace in order to truly get to the stage that collectively, we can claim that we are indeed nature defending ourselves (as many indigenous peoples are doing, despite all of the obstacles in their way). Regeneration, circularity, co-existence; just some of the concepts I’m at the beginning of a journey of learning about. But I’d like to propose a practice, that I’ve become very well versed in over the past nine months, as one of the paths to our return to nature: breastfeeding.
In essence, it could be the most basic form of being part of nature. Much as we seem to want to forget, we are, after all, mammals. Distinguished from other life forms by our three middle ear bones, fur/hair, neocortex, and our capacity to produce milk to feed our young. In practice, it has been one of the most neocortex-blowing, humbling, and rewarding experiences of my life. For nine months, so far, I’ve nourished a tiny newborn to a babbling, moving, growing infant. I’ve followed my instincts and read her cues. I’ve given the physical gift of a healthy microbiome and the emotional gift of a secure attachment. I’ve created constantly adapting antibodies during a global pandemic. We’ve danced the dance of supply and demand that has nothing to do with market mechanisms.
This isn’t the common narrative when it comes to breast/chestfeeding, which is often an arch of pain, struggles, labour and at times, grief. Because despite all of the benefits that science already knows and constantly continues to discover, our society makes it very very hard for parents to nurse their own babies. The data on how many women cannot physically breastfeed is both poor and W.E.I.R.D., but what is available suggests that it may be in the region of 5%. In contrast, in the UK, despite WHO and NHS guidance, only 1% of women make it to the recommended minimum target of six months of exclusive breastfeeding, let alone the recommended target of two years. And I have to say this most emphatically and at the top of my voice: this piece is not to shame or berate anyone for choosing or being unable to breast or chest-feed. There are so many valid reasons for not doing so in our current set up, and only the patriarchy benefits from the ‘mommy wars’. What I want to say goes beyond individuals, and is more a commentary on the mismatch between our species and our societies.
Several structural design flaws have led us here: split-second maternity leaves and nuclear family structures, leaving mums overwhelmed with the crushing burden of having to do everything under the sun, without a ‘village’, whilst also recovering from a major physical and emotional transition. At the very beginning of a newborn’s life, mothers need a quiet, fiercely-guarded period of time in which to establish the feeding relationship. Many traditional cultures across the world recognise this through 40 to even 100 days of postpartum rituals, where new mothers stay inside and focus on healing and feeding; practices in direct contrast with the Western obsession of everything getting back to normal as soon as possible. The latter leads us on a downward spiral, where continuing breastfeeding becomes the unique responsibility of the individual, rather than the task of the community to support. Breastfeeding demands energy, more energy than an active brain, and as such enters into direct competition with all other demands on our power. It demands free time, the equivalent in hours over the space of a year as a full time job. If women already face the double burden of work (paid and unpaid), an extra full time job is unmanageable. And this is even before considering the class and racial inequalities that block access to maternity leave, financial security and professional support. So instead of society valuing breastfeeding as a full time occupation, and protecting it as the most fundamental task in the first year of a parent and baby’s life, under late capitalism, we are offered the both the problem and the solution, all in order to prioritise other forms of ‘productive’ labour.
Other design flaws include the lack of technical and medical support that new parents get on what really matters. Mums don’t need half of the material things that they receive from well-meaning loved ones, they need sessions with lactation consultants, on hand for months to provide support and troubleshooting, to help establish a skill that is both instinctive, and at the same time, novel, learnt and at times very difficult. In other cases, the support is the problem. Misinformed doctors and midwives, often know more about formula requirements than normal breastfeeding behaviours and give out outdated or incorrect advice. For example, on my first day postpartum in hospital, I was told two completely contradictory pieces of advice by two different midwives within the space of an hour. I was also told that once my baby hit 5kg she would sleep through the night without feeds. Needless to say there is absolutely no evidence base for this arbitrary number, and it was bound to make me wonder what the matter with my perfectly normal breastfeeding baby when, nine months later, she still feeds at least n times per night (where n ≥ 1).
Then there are the societal and cultural practices, especially in this corner of the world, that are fundamentally in opposition to maintaining a healthy breastfeeding relationship, which thrives on proximity and flexibility. Sleep training, cough, I’m looking at you. Oh boy, am I looking at you. It was only about seven months in to motherhood that I realised how much of the formula industry was driving both the narratives promoted by mainstream parenting doctrines and also the well-meaning but disorienting advice that is passed on through generations: “it’s time to night wean”, “offer water instead”, “formula is so much easier”. This is then followed by the discomfort that people begin to express as the baby grows older: “once babies have teeth or can walk, it’s definitely time to wean”, “that toddler is too old to be breastfed, give them some cow milk instead.” Beyond the cognitive dissonance of replacing our own species’ milk with that of a different species (and claiming that it is more appropriate), we clearly have a deep rooted discomfort with breastfeeding, left unexamined to the detriment of our own well-being. This could be partly down to the widespread misinformation campaign promoted by the formula industry, and partly due to the sexualisation of breasts (this remains speculation on my behalf…).
However, I also think the discomfort goes deeper, circling back to this idea of humans controlling nature rather than being part of it. Breastfeeding demands responsiveness, rather than schedules, and it often defies logic. It requires a certain skill set that is highly dependent on our animal instincts, those ancient wisdoms encoded in our DNA for millennia, that we have spent mere centuries distancing ourselves from in the rush towards the efficient, independent and rational human. Maybe this is why it feels jarring, and why we pay lip service to the benefits of breastfeeding, but back away for creating a fertile society for it.
Maybe it’s time we were reminded that we are first and foremost animals. Mammals. That we are just one small part of an ecosystem. That we have the instincts to coexist in this system, if we want to. And maybe connecting to nature isn’t just about putting on a pair of hiking boots and leaving the big smoke. Maybe it starts with teaching our infants how to trust these instincts. How love is always available, and doesn’t fit into schedules. How we don’t need any props for connection. How we value them more than we value our free time, or our productivity. And maybe, through doing this, we can take one (amongst many) small step towards healing from the mindsets that have led us to destroying our planet and valuing all the wrong things.
So this is how I see breastfeeding. Not just a way to feed my child, but as a big FU to capitalism. A radical act. An expression of hope.