Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy: An Autoethnographic Dialogue Between Two Women
Adele Jarrett-Kerr and Bethan Michael-Fox
Our filmed dialogue and critical commentary provide a parent-centred interjection into the fraught and moralising discourses that surround breastfeeding, in particular what we term breastfeeding beyond infancy. We take an autoethnographic approach to our own experiences of breastfeeding beyond infancy in a sociocultural context where this is not the ‘norm’. We argue that breastfeeding beyond infancy offers an important example of the second wave feminist argument that the ‘personal is political’ and insist that breastfeeding, as a diverse practice and a reproductive right, is and should be a feminist concern. Discussions about breastfeeding often centre on scrutinising women’s bodies and practices rather than engaging with their experiences. By sharing our experiences, we hope to contribute our voices as breastfeeding women and to encourage other women to share their own narratives. We assert that structural changes and cultural shifts in knowledge and understanding are needed for feminist aims relating to breastfeeding, infant feeding and parenting practices to be achieved, rather than changes in what women and families do.
**The authors would like to extend their thanks both to the anonymous peer reviewers and the journal editors for their invaluable support in developing this submission.
Why we are talking about breastfeeding beyond infancy.
Breastfeeding in Britain is a controversial practice, particularly if it extends beyond the early months or first year of a child’s life. Breastfeeding beyond infancy is often constructed as both spectre and spectacle in cultural contexts in which breastfeeding older children is seen as wrong or even perverse. This can be seen in the media coverage surrounding actor Sharon Spink, who has garnered attention across print, television and radio outlets over the past several years for speaking out about breastfeeding an older child, most recently when she talked about her daughter weaning at age nine. Media coverage of Spink and her daughter frequently references critics raising accusations of child abuse of a sexual nature (Mann, 2018: Roberts, 2018; Smith, 2014). Such accusations arguably emerge because women’s breasts are highly sexualised in European and North American contexts. The sexualisation of breasts has significant consequences for both breastfeeding parents and children. For example, Broers et al. (2017, p.33) have noted that, when women are accustomed to having their breasts ‘assessed as sexual objects’, they can then find it difficult to mentally reframe them into an infant feeding role.
By stepping outside of the cultural norm, mothers who breastfeed older babies and children risk having their breasts uniquely labelled as transgressive and their parenting practices labelled as irresponsible and extreme. By sharing this autoethnographic research, we seek to insert our own voices into dominant discourses around breastfeeding beyond infancy. Whilst we examine how these discourses have shaped our experiences of breastfeeding beyond infancy, we also seek to disrupt them by making our voices heard on a topic that is often dominated by discussions about women rather than discussions between them.
We are not seeking to promote breastfeeding beyond infancy, but rather to highlight the value of offering opportunities to engage with diverse experiences and to understand the very varied experiences of women in relation to infant feeding and parenting practices. We want to offer our own experiences and think critically about how they relate to the sociocultural contexts in which we lead our lives and raise our children. Traditionally, breastfeeding research has focused on the child rather than the mother and has been centred on medical and public health concerns, rather than on subjective experiences of breastfeeding (Wall, 2001; Shaw, 2004). Recently, however, qualitative studies addressing the experiences of breastfeeding parents have begun to emerge (Crossley, 2009; Faircloth, 2013; Cassidy and El Tom, 2015; Amsterdam, 2015; Haugh, 2016).
It is important to note here that we experience multiple privileges as cis women, with socioeconomic security, in heterosexual relationships with our children’s fathers, and not living with disability, and to acknowledge that these privileges shape and inform our experiences. Our stories are not the only stories and we offer ours with this in mind, whilst believing that stories are important (Riessman, 2002; Rosenwald and Ochberg, 1992). The different stories that we hear, read and share about breastfeeding shape and contribute to our views, just as they contribute to wider discourses about breastfeeding in society. Bartle and Harvey (2017) have focused on this, examining how vicarious experiences of infant feeding shape attitudes towards breastfeeding. Similarly, researchers have drawn attention to the importance and potentially empowering effects of sharing personal stories. Símonardóttir and Gíslason (2018), in their research questioning dominant discourses around breastfeeding, interviewed women in Iceland who had struggled to breastfeed. They found that their participants were sharing their experiences of infant feeding for the first time and valued the opportunity. We offer our experiences of breastfeeding, not as an attempt to add to the mire of moralistic discourses that position breastfeeding as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but in order to resist this kind of reductive framing and share an understanding of breastfeeding as an ‘infinitely variable and changeable’ practice (Bartlett, 2002, p.373).
How we approached our autoethnographic dialogue and why we filmed it
We chose an autoethnographic method of reflecting critically on our own experiences because we believe this is particularly pertinent to both breastfeeding and to our aims as feminists. Ettorre (2017) has situated autoethnography within the tradition of feminist narrative writing and echoes Holman-Jones (2015) in making the connection between autoethnography and the second wave feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. There is a general consensus that autoethnography is concerned with the ways in which the personal relates to the social, cultural and political (Ellis, 2004; Amsterdam, 2015). Breastfeeding is an everyday practice for many women the world over. It is also a highly political and politicised act, as Palmer (2009) makes clear in her influential text The Politics of Breastfeeding, in which she examines the global consequences of the marketisation of infant feeding. However, as Shaw (2004) has argued, breastfeeding has also been understood in relation to the body as a somatic rather than a social practice. As such, breastfeeding has been positioned in hegemonic patriarchal discourses as politically insignificant, despite being ‘subject to the most relentless moral scrutiny’ (Shaw, 2004, p.101).
Model Mara Martin inadvertently drew attention to debates around the simultaneously political and everyday dimensions of breastfeeding in 2018 when media headlines included photographs showing her breastfeeding her five-month-old daughter on the catwalk of the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit show. Martin wrote on her Instagram feed (BBC, 2018): ‘I can’t believe I am waking up to headlines with me and my daughter in them for doing something I do every day.’ The photographs were met with a wide range of responses in different media, many of them negative and implying that Martin’s behaviour blurred the boundaries between maternal and sexual, and public and private. For example, one Tweet picked up by the Daily Mail (2018) stated: ‘There is a time and place for things – a runway is for a hot model not a breastfeeding mother.’ The implication of this comment is that a woman cannot simultaneously be both, whilst also implying a particular and constructed idea of what a ‘hot’ woman is. As we will go on to discuss in relation to our own experiences, breastfeeding in public also becomes more controversial and fraught the older the child being breastfed is perceived to be. Through critical reflection on our own experiences, we want to engage in ‘complicating mundane everyday life’ (Boylorn and Orbe, 2014, p.21) and to show that, although rarely represented in these terms, for many women breastfeeding a child of any age is a quotidian practice that can be pleasurable, fun, boring, sensual, awkward, annoying, practical, impractical, intimate, embarrassing, painful, relaxing, and an important part of a mother’s identity (or not), as well as being highly politicised.
We chose to talk about this on film rather than solely in a written narrative because we think that women should be seen and heard in conversations about breastfeeding. We in no way mean to question the value of written work on women’s experiences of breastfeeding (Crossley, 2009; Faircloth, 2013; Cassidy and El Tom, 2015; Amsterdam, 2015; Haugh, 2016), or to undermine established traditions and definitions of ethnography that emphasise its literary conventions (Ellis and Bochner, 2000; Ellis, 2004; Ellis and Bochner, 2006; Ellis and Bochner, 2016; Tilley-Lubbs and Calva, 2016; Ettorre, 2017). However, we do think that the opportunity to see and hear a woman’s experience in an audio-visual format can help to humanise and give a unique face and voice to experiences that are often framed in popular discourses as transgressive and ‘weird’, or as extreme and ‘other’. Another key reason to film us talking to each other is that the media coverage of women who breastfeed beyond infancy consistently positions the mother as inseparable from her breastfeeding child or children. In part, and among a range of reasons we will go on to discuss, we think this relates to cultural and social, and to some extent feminist, concerns about women’s independence and the high cultural value placed on children’s early independence in many European and North American contexts. By filming ourselves in conversation without our children, we seek to resist the positioning of mothers who breastfeed beyond infancy as ‘unhealthily attached’.
To see and hear people sharing and discussing stories can also act as a reminder that we each have our own distinct narratives. This is the case even if our relationality to family, friends, others and the cultural stories around us means that we are ‘filled with the voices of other people’ (Church, 1995, p.5). We decided to present this as a conversation because we think that women talking to each other and communicating about their differences and commonality of experience is a central practice in how feminist gains are made. In speaking, we prompt each other to question, to think more deeply and to develop new ways of understanding. As Chang, Ngunjiri and Hernandez (2013, p.28) have suggested, collaborative autoethnography can ‘engender a deeper understanding of self and others’ because the dialogic process of engaging with each other’s stories leads collaborators to interrogate their experiences more rigorously. This can be seen in our dialogue when we utter phrases like ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that….’ or ‘I hadn’t remembered that until now…’, or when we prompt each other to consider a different viewpoint. We know that anyone who takes the time to watch our discussion will have their own unique response to what we say, and we welcome this. We are not seeking agreement; rather, we hope for engagement and to encourage other women to share their experiences too.
In our first draft of this paper, we were focused on ideas around breastfeeding and our bodies, breastfeeding and feminism and breastfeeding and sexuality because these broad themes seemed to fit best with the aims of this journal’s issue on bodies and in terms of popular discourses about breastfeeding. While completing our first draft, however, we often found ourselves talking about our experiences of breastfeeding beyond infancy. We noticed that we do not see, hear or read much about women’s experiences of breastfeeding beyond infancy as a daily practice unless we very actively seek them out. Instead, in portrayals, stories and discussions, breastfeeding beyond infancy is framed as controversial and wrapped up in sensationalist, stigmatising and moralising discourses. In an attempt to challenge this, in our second draft we focused more explicitly on our experiences of breastfeeding beyond infancy. We drafted a list of broad questions that we wanted to ask each other about this as a guide and recorded for about an hour. When editing, we prioritised the inclusion of material that communicated where our experiences diverged, how our decisions and perceptions may have been informed and influenced by those around us, and where we see our experiences sitting in the wider context of other women’s stories and the culture at large.
What is ‘breastfeeding beyond infancy’?
The term ‘extended breastfeeding’ is commonly used to denote the practice of breastfeeding beyond infancy. We choose not to adopt this term because it implies that there is a ‘normal’ time to stop breastfeeding, and that extending breastfeeding beyond an unspecified and socially constructed point is unnecessary and/or abnormal. The World Health Organisation (2019) recommends exclusively breastfeeding up to six months of age and ‘continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond’. The NHS (2019) states that ‘you and your baby can carry on enjoying the benefits of breastfeeding for as long as you like. Breastfeeding into your baby’s second year or beyond alongside other foods is ideal.’ However, despite this guidance, breastfeeding beyond a year is often portrayed, constructed and understood as nutritionally unnecessary at best and abnormal or damaging to the breastfed child at worst. In part, this is probably because it is not a particularly common practice in Britain. The last infant feeding survey in the UK conducted in 2010 (the survey has now been discontinued) found that by six months only 34% of mothers in the survey were still breastfeeding. The most commonly cited statistic from the survey suggests that only 1% of mothers were still exclusively breastfeeding at six months. However, while 1% of mothers were exclusively breastfeeding, other mothers may have continued to breastfeed while supplementing with formula or introducing solids early and therefore would not have been counted within that 1%. Those who introduced solids earlier than six months could have been doing so in line with much of the current guidance on baby-led weaning that suggests solids should be introduced when a series of indicators imply that the child is ready for them, rather than on a specific date (note that in the UK weaning typically means introducing solids whereas in the USA weaning typically means ceasing breastfeeding). Brown (2016) discusses the idea that the emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding for six months along with the suggestion to breastfeed for up to two years and beyond might actually be off-putting or seem unachievable for some women.
The phrases ‘full-term breastfeeding’ or ‘biological breastfeeding’ are also used to describe breastfeeding into the years of toddlerhood and childhood. These terms tend to refer to breastfeeding until the child wants to stop, until a mutually agreeable time for mother and child or when the child has ‘naturally’ weaned from the breast. When a mother and child who engage in breastfeeding beyond infancy might stop is highly variable. Dettwyler’s (1995) anthropological research suggests that modern children are biologically likely to stop breastfeeding between the ages of two-and-a-half and seven years. She states that 4.2 years is often cited as the average age of weaning globally but points out that this figure is ‘neither accurate nor meaningful’, as the average is derived by considering women at either end of the spectrum, from those who go on to breastfeed the oldest children recorded to those who do not initiate at all. However, she states that: ‘it is true that there are still many societies in the world where children are routinely breastfed until the age of four or five years or older’ and that: ‘in societies where children are allowed to nurse “as long as they want” they usually self-wean, with no arguments or emotional trauma, between 3 and 4 years of age’ (Dettwyler, 1995). As we discuss in the film, we are both breastfeeding beyond infancy. Beth is breastfeeding a two-year-old and Adele breastfed her two older children until they were four years old and is currently breastfeeding her two-year-old. We are aware of friends and acquaintances breastfeeding children aged between four and eight. Beth is not sure when she will stop breastfeeding her daughter and is staying open-minded about it. Adele expects to continue breastfeeding her youngest daughter until she self-weans and is open to the possibility that she may carry on beyond the age when her older siblings stopped.
What is ‘wrong’ with breastfeeding beyond infancy?
When breastfeeding takes place in sociocultural contexts in which breasts are first and foremost valued for their aesthetic and sexual functions, people might find breastfeeding beyond infancy, or breastfeeding at all, uncomfortable, unpleasant or perverse. Images that overtly sexualise breasts dominate popular culture, whereas images of breastfeeding have suffered erasure and criticism. Carathers (2017) discusses the contradictory distaste for public breastfeeding that exists alongside an acceptance of revealed cleavage in a non-breastfeeding context. Certainly, this attitude is evident in Facebook’s sanctioning of breastfeeding selfies up until recently (Moss, 2015). It can also be seen in the viral effect of public breastfeeding photos covertly shot by onlookers and maliciously shared by strangers online as something to be ashamed of (Beyer, 2014). Even if women do not personally experience open hostility for breastfeeding in public, media stories about the subject contribute to a general feeling that the right to breastfeed in public is under constant threat of sanction (Stearns, 1999). Wall (2001) found that educational material about breastfeeding in Canada attempts to counteract this by insisting to mothers and the public that breasts are not sexual in the context of breastfeeding. However, in cultures where breasts are valued as markers of female sexuality, to ignore this fact dismisses women’s experiences of their breasts (Wall, 2001). By covering up breasts in breastfeeding literature, the message remains that breasts are sexual and should not be seen when breastfeeding lest they offend or lead to arousal.
The need to desexualise breasts in the context of breastfeeding is understandable, as ‘fears of embarrassment and censure that come from defining breasts as only sexual and the act of breastfeeding as private behavior’ can impact upon whether women decide to breastfeed (Stearns, 1999, p.323). Stearns (1999, p.317) notes that women sometimes use the sexually-charged word ‘flashing’ to describe indiscreet breastfeeding in public. The need to desexualise breasts in the context of breastfeeding may be a greater priority for mothers who do so beyond infancy because of cultural anxieties that suggest they are doing it for their own sexual gratification. One famous case that emphasises this anxiety and its potentially highly detrimental impact on families is that of Karen Carter, a woman whose two-year-old was removed from her care for more than a year after she called a crisis line with concerns about feelings of sexual arousal while breastfeeding, feelings that those sufficiently informed about breastfeeding would know are, although not necessarily common, not abnormal (see Stearns, 1999, for a discussion on this widely reported case). Breastfeeding is uniquely an ongoing act between two bodies, that of the child as well as the mother. As the younger body grows, perhaps it becomes more obvious that not only is the mother breastfeeding but the child is also an active participant. In a culture where breasts are designated for ‘the other’ (Stearns, 1999, p.323), an older child may be perceived as unnecessarily taking a place that is normally reserved for a sexual partner. Perhaps the experience of breastfeeding beyond infancy uniquely highlights the complicated relationship that many cultures in Europe and North America seem to have with women’s bodies in general and women’s breasts in particular. Women’s breasts have been so routinely and consistently portrayed and interpreted as solely sexual that the notion of them also having a non-sexual purpose in mothering in and beyond infancy seems to raise difficulties.
As we explain in our filmed dialogue, we have encountered a range of responses when telling people that we are still breastfeeding, including interest, curiosity, confusion, shock, admiration, horror, disgust, respect, pride and disdain. Faircloth’s (2013, p.73) ethnographic research emphasises that the accounts she gathered from mothers about the ‘day-to-day realities of full-term breastfeeding’ were ‘far removed from the way the practice is generally portrayed in public outlets’ and points out that when explaining her research to others she often encounters ‘surprise, if not disgust’ at the prospect of women breastfeeding five-year-olds. She writes that ‘the majority of people […] do not know that a woman can lactate for such an extended period of time, let alone that so many of them would want to’ (Faircloth, 2013, p.73). Faircloth (2013) explains that there is a general sense that breastfeeding beyond infancy is strange or perverse and that the woman is breastfeeding in order to keep the child dependent on her or to satisfy some need of her own. Stearns (1999) has similarly emphasised the tendency for disturbing questions to arise about whether mothers are using breastfeeding in order to meet their own emotional or sexual needs when they breastfeed beyond infancy.
Although neither of us have been directly challenged for breastfeeding beyond infancy, we often get the feeling from others’ body language and questioning that it might be being interpreted as weird, perhaps lazy (as though we have not done the ‘hard work’ of ‘making’ a child more independent), co-dependent, indulgent and ‘only for comfort’, and of no nutritional or health benefit for either child or mother. At times, the perceived criticism takes place in public. At other times, it has come from well-meaning people in our lives, whose questioning tends to be centred on our deviation from what is ‘normal’ or on concerns about our children’s dependency. Dettwyler (2013) points out that there is a wide range of reasons why a woman might not want or be able to breastfeed at all, let alone beyond infancy, but she also emphasises that, no matter the age of the child, breastmilk does provide an excellent source of nutrition. There is no point at which breastmilk loses either its nutritional value or ‘immune factors that help build and augment the child’s own developing immune system’ (Dettwyler, 2013). She also emphasises that the act of breastfeeding, the close proximity to the mother and the act of suckling can relieve pain and stress, provide comfort and lower the heart rate and blood pressure of the nursing child. Breastfeeding also boosts the mother’s oxytocin levels, aiding her attachment to her child as well as supporting her own psychological wellbeing. This evidence challenges some of the criticisms of breastfeeding beyond infancy. However, many of the reasons that are cited as criticisms of breastfeeding beyond infancy are also problematic in that they tend to situate breastfeeding solely as an infant feeding practice, rather than a parenting practice more broadly.
La Leche League (2010), the most prominent international breastfeeding support organisation, uses the term ‘mothering through breastfeeding’ to reflect the breadth of ways in which breastfeeding plays a part in parenting for breastfeeding families. For us, breastfeeding is an important part of parenting in relation to sleep, comfort, nutrition, convenience and general wellbeing, to name just a few. We personally prefer the term ‘parenting through breastfeeding’ as this recognises the importance that the father, partner or someone else may have in the breastfeeding family and appreciates that not all people who breastfeed identify as mothers. Neither of us feels that we are breastfeeding to satisfy our own emotional or sexual needs, both criticisms that breastfeeding parents often face, according to Stearns (1999). Nor are we attempting to keep our (very independent) children reliant on us. We find these assumptions both alarming and quite amusing, given how dissonant they are with our own experiences. These attitudes also seem to us to be an example of the ways in which women are made to feel shame and guilt in relation to both their bodies and their parenting, which is a key reason why we see breastfeeding beyond infancy as a feminist concern. As Murphy (1999) has written, women experience criticism both when they choose not to breastfeed and when they choose to breastfeed in ways that deviate from what is deemed socially acceptable or ‘normal’, such as choosing to breastfeed for ‘too long’.
Popular cultural representations of breastfeeding beyond infancy both reflect and inform negative attitudes towards the practice. The image of the mother breastfeeding for ‘too long’ is often held up as a spectacle to be laughed at or as an example of mental instability. In the US sitcom Two Broke Girls, the second season’s 2012 season premiere opens with a woman breastfeeding a walking, talking child under an enormous breastfeeding cover for comedic effect. This mother is positioned as transgressing social norms for breastfeeding an older child. Similarly, in the fifth episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones, breastfeeding her prepubescent child is a symbol of Lisa Arryn’s obsessive attachment to her son. In 2014, David Walliams tweeted an image in The Sun of a mother breastfeeding her five-year-old daughter, referencing his ‘Bitty’ sketch in Little Britain in which his adult character publicly demands to be breastfed. Jamie Grumet similarly garnered public criticism and sparked widespread debate when she appeared on a now infamous 2012 TIME magazine cover breastfeeding her four-year-old son, both standing, with the provocative headline ‘Are you mom enough?’ In this cultural climate, mothers who breastfeed older babies, toddlers and older children are inevitably resisting ‘cultural norms about the appropriate duration of breastfeeding’ (Stearns, 1999, p.317). Consequently, they often employ masking tactics, such as using code names for breastfeeding so they can continue to breastfeed without public reaction (Stearns, 1999).
In our filmed dialogue, we discuss the idea that women might avoid breastfeeding in public for fear of criticism. Beth, not wanting to attract negative attention, avoided breastfeeding in public once she began to notice that some people around her seemed to find it uncomfortable by the time her daughter was about 18 months old. Although Adele also feels this social pressure, she still breastfeeds in public, feeling that, with three children, it is often easier to breastfeed an unhappy toddler than seek an alternative. Her family has adopted a code name, mentioned in the video, to avoid openly discussing breastfeeding with her children in contexts that are uncomfortable. Kleinman (2003, p.230) draws attention to the importance of attending to moments when feminist researchers might ‘live out sexist programming’, and we have reflected on the extent to which we are at times complicit in acting out the scripts of socially acceptable breastfeeding by seeking to breastfeed discreetly or by wanting our bodies to appear or be interpreted in a way that adheres to patriarchal standards of beauty and femininity, or indeed by avoiding breastfeeding in public. Yet, at other times, we seem to resist the accepted standards of ‘good mothering’ merely by breastfeeding beyond infancy in a culture where this is not the norm.
Is breastfeeding beyond infancy a feminist concern?
Carter (1995) argues that breastfeeding in general has traditionally held little interest for feminists. Certainly, although feminist support for breastfeeding has emerged in recent years, typically focused on the right to breastfeed in public, breastfeeding has not traditionally received attention from feminists as a reproductive right. Allers (2017) has accused mainstream feminism of resisting breastfeeding as a rights issue and suggests that feminist discourses often promulgate the notion of breastfeeding as a confining and restrictive practice, and an obligation that ties women to their babies and to the home, and as such something that is antithetical to feminist aims. This is a viewpoint that remains evident in popular discourses around breastfeeding. Because breastfeeding involves a woman’s body, it surfaces in both debates about equality and tensions over whether it should be the aim of feminism to ‘minimize gender differences as the path to liberation’ or ‘embrace and enhance gender difference through fighting to remove the constraints placed on [women] by patriarchy and capitalism’ (Carter, 1995, p.14). Although it might be possible to do both, breastfeeding in any case brings to the fore the ways in which women’s biology has historically been used as ‘a primary mechanism of women’s subordination’ (Hausman, 2013, p.338). We argue that the stigma associated with breastfeeding beyond infancy and with breastfeeding a child of any age publicly can lead women to experience shame and guilt about their bodies and their parenting practices. Similarly, women who choose not to breastfeed or are unable to breastfeed can also experience stigma and criticism. The shaming of women’s bodies and parenting practices perpetuated in patriarchal societies is both personal and political and should be a concern for feminists.
The fact that health-promotion initiatives encourage women to breastfeed, whilst at the same time breastfeeding is made extremely difficult for women both socially and economically, is worrying and should be a priority for feminists. Brown (2016, p.57) puts the proportion of women who want to breastfeed in the UK at 90%. However, as we discussed earlier, according to the most commonly cited data, only 1% of women are breastfeeding in any capacity by the time their babies are six months old. Hausman (2013, p.337) has argued that the discrepancy between encouragement to breastfeed and breastfeeding support is ‘a major problem with breastfeeding promotion’. Breastfeeding can pose significant challenges, exacerbated by the inflexibility of many workplaces and the competing demands placed on women and families. Many households are reliant on two incomes and around a third of women are the main wage-earner in the UK, so it is vital that parental leave, pay conditions and support for breastfeeding in the workplace become a priority (Brown, 2016). Allers (2017) and Hausman (2013) have both argued that there has been a tendency within feminism to seek to remove the barriers to women taking part in the labour market in the same way that men do. Yet, as Hausman (2004, p.281) writes, ‘proclaiming an equality with men that mandates the ability to act as men in the social sphere (that is, to be autonomous individuals without physiologically dependent others) is to impoverish our expectation of what sexual equality should be’. We contend, like many others, that feminist aims should continue to be refocused on seeking a re-evaluation of the labour traditionally undertaken by women and challenging the economic and social structures which mean that much of the labour market continues to privilege those of all genders who do not have caring responsibilities and whose bodies adhere to an idealised and masculine form of independence and autonomy.
Better understanding and more balanced information-sharing about breastfeeding beyond infancy would be likely to help to reduce the stigma of this parenting practice. Similarly, more research like Faircloth’s (2013) with mothers who breastfeed beyond infancy would support an understanding of how common the practice is and the ways in which it is played out and experienced differently by different women and families. Yet, as Van Esterik (1989) has argued, the ‘breast-bottle controversy’ continues to dominate infant feeding debates and frame them in relation to individual mothers, whilst engendering guilt and blame. This debate should be rejected in favour of a focus on the social and economic contexts within which infant feeding practices operate and on the experiences of mothers in all their variety. Improved conditions for maternity leave and pay across sectors and countries, improved support for women who are not working, and more inclusive workplaces are also all obvious places to focus attention in terms of enhancing the experiences of all families. Brown (2016) and Allers (2017) offer outlines of the actions that might be taken to support breastfeeding families in the UK and USA respectively (with the USA significantly behind the UK in terms of paid maternity leave for women, affecting all families with children). However, breastfeeding and parenting are global practices and there is much that might be learned from sharing the stories of parents from the widest possible breadth of contexts and geographies.
In our filmed autoethnographic dialogue and this critical commentary, we have explored how and why breastfeeding beyond infancy is constructed as transgressive and is tied up in fraught and moralising discourses about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parenting. We have argued that breastfeeding in general should be a concern for feminists, both as a reproductive right and in terms of bringing about a society in which diverse parenting practices might be better understood and valued and in which all families might have the opportunity for greater time and economic security if and when they become parents. Breastfeeding practices are highly variable, and women’s experiences of breastfeeding are as varied and diverse as any other aspect of women’s lives. Breastfeeding, and in particular breastfeeding beyond infancy, is tied up with patriarchal ideas about women’s bodies, sexuality and independence. We have sought through our autoethnographic dialogue, and through critical engagement with the experiences and ideas raised within it, to resist the reductive categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ infant feeding choices and parenting practices that often arise, in order to explore some of these ideas. In positioning breastfeeding beyond infancy as an everyday experience and by exploring those experiences, we have also sought to resist the stereotype of breastfeeding beyond infancy as transgressive and to add our own voices as women who are breastfeeding beyond infancy into debates that so often seem to focus on criticising women’s parenting practices rather than engaging with them.
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I am a freelance journalist, content writer and a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor. For eight years, I have blogged about family life and parenting at Beautiful Tribe. I have three daughters whom I have breastfed collectively for eight years, providing motivation for this submission.
My BA and MA are in English Literature from Cardiff University. I’m completing a PhD on cultural engagement with death and the dead at the University of Winchester. I’ve published on a range of topics, lectured at the University of Bedfordshire from 2011–2018 and now work for The Open University.