Dignity and breastfeeding

I was too annoyed with the pulling of government funding, and my own volunteer training, to pay too much attention to National Breastfeeding Week. I was also in Norway (breastfeeding rates of 90% up to six months) at the time.

However, on my return I was greeted with a toxic article by Sarah Vine in the Times. The paywall dictates that I can’t link to it, cheers Rupert.

There’s always somebody who would like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that bottle feeding a baby with formula milk is OK and a perfectly valid lifestyle choice or whatever. Vine, however, claimed that mixing bottle with breast feeding gave her back her “dignity.”

Which got me thinking about dignity, and what truly is or is not dignified.

I know what she means: that she felt that she couldn’t conform to expectations of how a new mother should be. She was tired, sleep deprived and had a baby constantly attached to her breasts. There are solutions to these problems that do not come in a tin, which are available to anyone who cares to find them. (www.kellymom.com)

But I feel her problems were not simply practical. She said she wanted her dignity back.

Her use of this word is interesting. Schopenhauer defined it as the “opinion of others about our worth and the subjective definition of dignity is our fear from this opinion of others.” The latin root is “dignus”, meaning “worthy.” So breastfeeding made her concerned about what other people might think of her: specifically that she was worthless.

It seems odd that using the same body that grew a child to nourish it could be considered worthless. Indeed, it’s even odder to try and claw back that worth by feeding the child formula milk, which after all originates from the milk of a farm animal. Is a cow more worthy to feed a human baby than a human?

Mixing up a formula feed and giving that to a baby in a bottle is something which was sold to us as being modern and, indeed, dignified. It does not seem that way to me. A woman having to pay money for a tin of powder rather than using her own milk is quite the opposite. She has delegated the ability to feed her baby over to a manufacturer, whose interests lie in their profit margin rather than the welfare of a child.

Worth in this case is entirely fiscal: the cost of the tin or carton; the cost of the bottles and teats; sterilisers and the energy needed to boil water and refrigerate.

I see no dignity in the Bangladeshi woman whose baby suffers constant bouts of diarrhea because she was duped into using formula milk she can barely afford and which she must mix up with dirty water. I see no dignity in the woman who was given the brush off by her health visitor or doctor when she came with breastfeeding problems, and told to give “top ups” rather than decent help. I also see no dignity in the celebrity who decreed that breastfeeding was icky in a magazine after being given a crate of designer bottles (thus easily allowing her worth to be calculated).

Perhaps, therefore, breastfeeding is considered undignified because it does not come with a price tag. However, I know exactly what my milk is worth in cash. £20 a scoop.

*a word about mixed feeding. A lot of women do this. Some manage to do it for a long period. However, it usually leads to a dwindling supply and the end of breastfeeding. If that’s what’s intended, fine. But it stretches the definition of “breastfeeding” and, to me anyway, seems like an awful lot of work.

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