Is Too Much Being Asked of Mothers? Rethinking the "Burden" of Breastfeeding
Lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that too much is being asked of mothers. Yes, we are notorious multi-taskers and play into the Supermom archetype, but when you look at the political, social and economic landscape, the expectations upon mothers, I fear, is reaching tipping point status.
What’s even more troubling is that, for many mothers that burdensome feeling begins just moments after birth, when she is expected to perform her first mom task: feed your baby. I’m not sure how we got to this place but the truth is, the experience of nursing our young has fundamentally changed. Somehow our natural instincts to nurse have gone askew, and now our views about feeding our children are more socially and culturally constructed. We no longer rear generations around a single fire, or accumulate and share the knowledge of how to suckle our young.
Instead, what should be one of the most natural experiences of motherhood has warped into a polarizing debate and a hot button issue. And what is our biological norm has, over time, become suffocated by external cultural forces. What should be a nurturing experience has instead led to frustration, disappointment and anger for far too many mothers.
I often say women don’t breastfeed, cultures do. And to spark a cultural shift we need to think local. Starting point: the community. It’s where any mother spends the majority of her early infant feeding days and it is where mothers live their actual lives—not the-always-quiet, running-through-the-meadow life of parenting magazines and some breastfeeding pamphlets, but the real life of mothers. It is from navigating breastfeeding within that reality that mothers often feel burdened.
I believe we can begin to improve that experience if we move some of this “burden” off of women and share it with others who should be equally invested in healthier babies, less obese children, and healthier mothers—all the things increased breastfeeding has been proven to promote. The community must take a stand for the health of its youngest residents.
Last year, I had the privilege of spending several months experiencing the communities of New Orleans, Birmingham, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi—my goal (with the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation) was to visit major cities in states with some of the lowest breastfeeding rates and unfortunately, the highest infant mortality rates in the country, to better understand the role of community in infant feeding patterns.
What I discovered was that, women in these communities have little more than their own will and determination to support them if they choose to breastfeed. In Birmingham, there were no WIC peer counselors to support low-income women who chose to breastfeed. In New Orleans, where the predominant source of employment is the tourism industry, we found particular barriers for women who work in hotels and restaurants and other service economies. There was also no breastfeeding support group within the parish. In Jackson, the invisibility of breastfeeding ran high. In all three locations there were striking commonalities in “lacks”-- far too many public places from airports to shopping malls did not have nursing mother rooms. Child care facilities were not properly trained in handling human milk. Many employers had no nursing room or nursing policy in place. Concerns about modesty and fear of exposure were common among the men and women we surveyed. Infant formula marketing was everywhere. Our findings show that while more women express receiving support and advice in the hospital, the majority of respondents did not have any community “role models” or local support to continue any breastfeeding efforts.
The community was a virtual desert of support.
If breastfeeding sounds like something you can’t do while on the go, while shopping, working, worshipping or sitting in your local park, why would you do it? Nobody wants to see their life reduced to the confines of their living room. No thank you.
All communities have the potential to be more supportive to mothers who choose to breastfeed. But in vulnerable communities, where black and brown babies are dying at nearly twice the rate of white infants and mothers face other economic pressures, this is even more of a health imperative. Please help me do something about it. If we can make a community change for the most vulnerable among us then we can make the change for all. It is a tide that lifts all boats.
I’m on a mission to make every community in America first food friendly—a place where all mothers and babies thrive. I need your help. Learn more about the First Food Friendly Initiative at www.befirstfoodfriendly.org. Watch the video and join the movement. Sign the petition today asking the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to take immediate steps to improve the poor state of community support for mothers who choose to breastfeed. Start a community conversation where you live about how mothers can be better supported and share your thoughts here.
We can transform the experience for mothers who choose to breastfeed. One community at a time.
Kimberly Seals Allers