By Kelly Grehan
Yesterday I attended an event organised by Mums4Corbyn at The World Transformed.
It was clear that women have a lot to offer each other in terms of support. One issue that came up was that of breast feeding. The problem, in Britain at least is that the feeding of babies can often feel an issue of division rather than unification.
The UK has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. About 80% of women try breastfeeding at birth but by the end of the first week half have given up.
Lots of new mums speak about feeling pressure to breastfeed and experiencing guilt about ‘failing.’
In recent decades a newer pressure has emerged, for babies to be in a sleeping and eating routine as quickly as possible and this is largely incompatible with breastfeeding and not good for milk production. Mothers are now experiencing a sense of failure if their children are not complying with this picture-perfect experience of motherhood.
To be clear if women chose not to breastfeed this is absolutely fine, what concerns me is a society that tells women to breastfeed, fails to support them to do so and then instills guilt into them for the failure.
I’m passionate about more support and understanding for new mums, partly because of my own experience. My first child struggled to latch on, was losing weight, not sleeping. He is 10 now, but I’ve never forgotten the awful sense of failure that overtook me. It later transpired I had a tongue tie which made it hard for him to latch on. I fed half breast milk and half formula for four months, before giving up completely. Anytime I met anyone who talked of finding feeding easy or of having fed for long periods I felt jealous and the sense of disappointment hit me.
Three years later my second one fed without any issues immediately after birth and I breastfed him for over a year. My previous guilt and anxiety about breastfeeding melted away.
What the experience of having two such polar opposite experiences of breastfeeding I have been able to observe the divisive nature many conversations about breastfeeding take, with it often causing conflict, defensiveness and separation between mothers.
Then of course other issues start to take on the form of division and competition between mothers – weaning, childcare, controlled crying, discipline, clothing, diets, going back to work – discussions around all these things often feel like they end in judgement rather than support.
Is there something about our approach as a society that is unsupportive towards parenting and parents in general?
Well research confirms that if women receive support – whether it be from a friend or family member, a health professional, or volunteer breastfeeding supporter – they are likely to breastfeed for longer.
Yet, Peer Support and Drop in sessions for breastfeeding services are being cut all over the country.
In Kent where I live, the County Council was proposing to absorb the support into the health visiting service make a saving of £404,000 a year.
This week the consultation was suddenly halted until September so we await news of what will happen next. Sadly, I think we all know health visitors are too overstretched to offer the help needed.
It is a similar picture with other parenting issues. Up to 20% of women experiencing mental health problems in pregnancy or the first 12 months after birth. A Mental Health Alliance study in 2014 report found significant gaps in the detection of mental health problems in the period before and after birth, only an estimated 40% are diagnosed, with just 3% of women experiencing a full recovery.
Costs of perinatal mental illness in the UK are estimated at £8.1bn per year, or almost £10,000 per birth. Yet fewer than 15% of areas provide effective specialist perinatal services for women with severe or complex conditions, and almost half provide no service at all.
Sure Start appeared to be making some progress with a culture change, but more than 350 Sure Start children’s centres have closed in England since 2010, with only eight new centres opening over that period. Spending on the centres in the 2015-16 financial year was 47% less in real terms than in 2010.
Childcare remains a deeply expensive and stressful thing for many parents, as work and money compete with family pressures compete, causing terrible stress and anxiety for parents.
There is nothing I can find to indicate any progress has been made in aiding parents with this.
It seems that family life, feels very unsupported in this country. Judgement and pressure reign and support is hard to access and what is available is diminishing.
I think this culture is damaging family life and impacting upon the happiness of parents, children and everyone else.
The lack of support undoubtedly impacts on emotional well being across the board. We need better services, but we also need to look at our attitudes towards each other and to create more supportive dialogues and attitudes.
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