13 Jun

Mommy Wars Much?

Yesterday the Royal College of Midwives released a new position statement on infant feeding. It includes the stunning new idea that ‘the decision of whether or not to breastfeed is a woman’s choice and must be respected.’

Inevitably there is a two-pronged kneejerk reaction to this. The Daily Mail and all radio talk shows trumpet an end to ‘Breastfeeding Tyranny,’ which is that thing where anyone remotely connected with supporting breastfeeding mothers is cast as the tyrant (or other even less savoury words); and parents who have had a difficult experience of breastfeeding complain about a) pressure from midwives, and b) pressure from everyone else.

Meanwhile the above-mentioned tyrants divide themselves into separate camps, those who criticise NCT and those who are NCT (and some have a foot in both camps). In the first camp, we have those who criticise NCT for not covering formula and bottlefeeding in antenatal sessions [Spoiler: we do! Have a look at our Infant Feeding Message Framework, which has been revised this year, but nothing new on formula in there, we’ve been covering it for years]; and those who criticise NCT for not cheerleading about breastfeeding enough (usually members of other breastfeeding charities who exempt the NCT from their non-judgemental approach).

As usual, I’m not here to speak for NCT, despite being proud to have been an NCT breastfeeding counsellor for a decade. However I do want to congratulate everyone responding to this new position statement on perpetuating the divisions in infant feeding. Nice one.

How about instead of the kneejerk reaction, we take some time to reflect on the context in which this statement and the responses to it occur. You really don’t have to look very far for reasons why women feel unsupported, whatever feeding decisions they make. We know very well that the majority of women in the UK see a number of different and busy midwives during pregnancy, and still get asked whether they plan to breastfeed or bottlefeed, without the time it would take to have a nuanced and informative discussion about this. Just asking that question frames it as an either/or choice, never mind the evidence that decision making about infant feeding is so much more intricate than that. The path women take is influenced by their family history and social context, by adverts that tell them their nipples will hurt and news stories that tell them they’ll be thrown out of Sports Direct. By every person who ever tells them not to beat themselves up if they can’t do it.

At birth, pressure does come from midwives who encourage early breastfeeding in the knowledge that the option will disappear for that mother if they don’t try to protect it; what a difficult position for those midwives to be in, within the time constraints of their workload. What would be a better way to address this at such a crucial time? There is no easy answer, because this demands cultural change and an end to society operating on the assumption that breastfeeding is difficult and women will be judged for not doing it. Locally, the well-trained volunteer breastfeeding support has been withdrawn from the wards and now also the children’s centres, because there is no longer funding to run the project, adding to the burden on midwives to handle this with sensitivity, kindness and accurate information. Within the time constraints of their workload.

And then there is the rest of the breastfeeding journey, and I know from encounters with women of all ages who tell me, when they find out what I do for a living, stories that some of them have carried for decades. Women feel guilty when they struggle to breastfeed and when they choose not to continue, and they feel angry when they don’t have the knowledge or the support to make decisions they feel happy with; and these stories matter to them. NCT is the best-known of a number of different charities that support breastfeeding mothers, and so of course it is the one that wears the sash of shame about judging and putting pressure on women. NCT is also the one that does most of the antenatal education, including on breastfeeding and on formula and bottlefeeding, and so of course is perceived as a source of guilt and judgement largely because of the impossibility of adequately preparing parents for the realities of life with a new baby. “All my friends found breastfeeding really hard, I’m not going to beat myself up if I can’t do it,” they tell me before their babies are born. And afterwards? “Why didn’t you tell me it would be so hard?” What words, what activities, what level of reflection will square this impossible circle, without changing the entire context?

And that’s why I’m so frustrated, this morning, with all the news and social media that does nothing but reinforce the assumptions and the cultural context within which breastfeeding can be hard, but breastfeeding support can be harder.

02 Feb

Do our children want to be on social media?

I cannot help wondering how the post-millennial generation will incorporate social media into their parenting. Millennials are the most transparent, the most connected to social media, parenting in a world where not putting photographs of your children on Facebook, nor offering up a commentary on your broken nights and organic craft-filled days, seems downright antisocial.

But what is the downside of this transparency? And do other generations avoid this must-share tendency? You may not see quite as many baby photographs posted by proud grandparents, and let’s not assume that’s down to technical matters: my partner’s 92 year old grandmother is as IT-literate as I am, and my mother constantly invites me to join her in a game of Candy Crush. My father Richard Hilditch, on the other hand, has been a social worker for 45 years, and says,

“However much you may want to share the adorable cuteness of your offspring, grandchildren or friends’ children, however rightly proud you may be, don’t do it!”

In school IT lessons, children are taught important principles of security, including not to divulge personal information such as their birthday, their address, their school, or the names of their friends or pets. Meanwhile their parents may be posting photographs of beaming pigtailed children in badged school sweatshirts, standing outside their own numbered front doors. Scroll down a bit to find their friends name-checked at a party, and throw in the family dog, and you have everything you ever need to hack their future email and banking passwords, never mind anything more sinister. Today a photo in my feed shows happy new parents at the register office, clutching both baby and a fully visible birth certificate. According to the NSPCC over 90% of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew. Dad says: “So an ill-meaning adult “friend” could sound pretty convincing… If there is someone amongst your friends, or friends of friends, who is intent on stalking or harming a child, how much more gift-wrapped could you make the opportunity?”

Facebook offers some layers of privacy, but when you post a status or a photograph, you grant them the license to use and display it. There is no guarantee that those layers of privacy will always remain. Even the more apparently private messenger services may not be as private as you think. Even Whatsapp, popularly thought of as a more transient and less indelible service, shares data with Facebook.

Nor do our children get any editorial rights over the comprehensive archive we are creating of their eating and sleeping habits, their first words and favourite games, their embarrassing mistakes, tantrums in shops, and a whole collection of peculiar – cute – annoying whims. Have you ever googled someone you just met? Think what future partners, clients, and employers will be able to discover about this reluctantly transparent generation. Last year an Austrian teenager sued her parents to force them to remove posts about her, citing their violation of her privacy. Under French privacy laws, parents could be imprisoned for publicising details of their children’s private lives.

Social media can offer sanity-saving connectedness and support, particularly during the isolated early days of parenthood, but I implore parents to consider carefully what information they make public. It’s true we live in a world of constant scrutiny, but there is no need to make it easy for those who might use this information maliciously. And by definition, you do not know who those people are.

[Cross posted from the Huffington Post]