Thursday, March 27, 2014

Misconceptions, breasts and all that jazz

I have been getting my rant on reading a couple of feminist books related to babies and that.

The first was Misconceptions by Naomi Woolf.

Woolf's personal story is a springboard to discuss the way birth is managed in the USA, amongst other things. I gave birth in Canada - so much better - but I read with horror nonetheless. She believes control in childbirth has been taken from women (the pregnant and their supporters) and handed to doctors and pharmaceutical companies, who tend to view birth as a risky, clinical procedure.

So, you are induced, given an epidural and get a c-section / episiotomy because the hospital wants you to give birth on its timescale and to have after-care it can manage easily; because the drug companies make more money from an epidural and the surgeons make more from a c-section; because a long labour (in the States, they do actually do interventions on a step by step basis depending on the number of hours you're taking and with no reference to your health and wellbeing) means you take up a bed for too long; because an episiotomy is easier to stitch than a tear, although the latter heals more easily. If you're in and out of hospital quickly, having experienced less pain, you're less likely to sue.

If you want to avoid all this, you end up being pushed out of mainstream care towards the 'natural childbirth' camp, which all too often has its own extreme ideology.

Then, I read Breasts by Florence Williams.

The word 'mammal' was coined by a male scientist who wanted mammary glands to be central to humanity. He disliked the (then) popularity of wet nurses.

Today, there are plenty of biologists who spend their days tracking why men find big breasts appealing. Nice work if you can get it..... Williams argues (convincingly) in favour of another school that suggests boobs are primarily for the woman and her child - not the mate. Eg, the breast is pendulous because the human baby cannot support its own head.

Breasts are at particular risk from cancers that could be caused by widely-used household chemicals and a nursing infant is top of the food chain when it comes to toxins in our air, water and food. Yet, the breast is the only organ in the body with no medical specialism. Surely banning anything that might be causing illness is better than pressurising women with medical warnings such as this?

When it comes to breastfeeding, we all have it drummed into us that breast is best. But finding accurate information and getting breastfeeding support in those intense few weeks after birth is often almost impossible. The organisations that do promote breastfeeding - such as the La Leche League - are often militant and ideological, damning women who don't breasteed in an entirely unhelpful fashion.

For my own part, I was induced at 38 weeks 5 days despite the three of us being perfectly healthy. I think the early days of motherhood were much harder for me and my babies because of my overly-clinical birth experience. For the duration of my hospitalisation, I felt like a piece of meat on a conveyor belt, rather than the person in charge.

I received next to no information about breastfeeding before my babies were born, was given contradictory and inaccurate advice by nurses afterwards and it took 3 months to see a lactation consultant. And today, there is at least as much condescension as admiration in the responses I get to the fact I'm breastfeeding twins. It must be even worse for mums who formula feed.

Women take all the blame but get none of the resources. I think that pretty much sums it up.