Saturday, 4 October 2014

Breast is Best

Breasts, boobs, chest, bosom, diddies, baps, puppies. And only if you must ...Tits.  There you go.  I've said it all. In this post, I am going to be writing about breasts.  Mine and other peoples.  Are you still there ? Good.                                                                                                                                          

 It's National Breastfeeding Week.  Too much time has passed for me to whip a boob out and feed my children to mark the occasion, so I thought that I would write about it instead.  Ireland has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe.  Of course there are many reasons why women can't or don't breast feed.  And of course it is a woman's right to bottle feed.  But I believe that the breast feeding rates are largely down to women's lack of confidence.   Well educated and articulate women have told me that they would have felt too embarrassed to ever consider breast feeding.

I breast fed my lovely twinnies for 8 months, until I returned to work.  How did I feed two babies ?  It was simple really when you think about it.  Two boobs. Two babies. A lot of patience.  I ate a hell of a lot of bananas.  Strategically placed scarves to save my modesty.  With the manoeuvring required to get the babies in position, I had arm muscles like never before.  It was a special time for my babies and I.  Our time.  I found it comforting.  There were no bottles to sterilise.  No winding of babies.  It was good for my mental health and great for getting back in shape too !

'Breasts' isn't a word that we are too comfortable with in Ireland.  Until I decided to breastfeed my children seven years ago, the only time I would have uttered the word 'breast' would have been in relation to 'breast cancer', whispered in hushed tones and only then because there was no substitute word for such a serious illness.  I don't think that I'm not alone in this awkwardness.

As a nation, we aren't good at talking about women's bodies generally, especially the parts that can be associated with sexual activity.   I think that much of this is rooted in tradition.  We all know of our shameful history in the treatment of unmarried mothers, not that long ago.  Even married women weren't saved from the shame of 'doing the bold thing'.  'Churching' refers to a religious blessing that women were given following recovery from childbirth.  It is thought to have derived from the Jewish purification practice, where the sin of childbirth was washed away.  People considered the purification as important as it allowed the 'unclean' woman to reenter the church in a state of grace.  It was dropped by the Catholic Church after the second Vatican Council of 1967-65.  It doesn't seem that there was any similar ceremony for men who carried out the dirty deed.

Formula milk was introduced in Ireland in the mid to late 1950's.  A pricey commodity, it soon became associated with wealth.  Breast feeding was considered as an activity for the poor.  Breast feeding was ditched, in a similar way that ceramic bathtubs were ripped out in favour of avocado green plastic.  One of my friends breastfed her daughter about 25 years ago, much to her Mother-in Law's disgust.   A woman with notions like Mrs Bucket/Bouquet in the comedy series 'Keeping Up Appearances', she would announce 'here comes the cow' when my friend called to visit, infant in arms. She actually went as far as going out to buy formula milk and bottles when my friend nipped out for a walk.  I kid you not.  The wagon.

Us women aren't really nice to each other, are we ?  Thankfully my breast feeding experiences were generally very positive.  The only negative comments  I got about breast feeding were from other women.  Women around my age.  Unsolicited comments. 'How will you cope ?', with a concerned face, as if I had a terminal illness rather than two healthy babies who I chose to feed myself.  'At least with the bottle you know how much they are getting'.  I bit my lip, looking at my children thriving before my eyes.  I found such comments hurtful.  But I never retaliated with the long list of the benefits of breast feeding.  I don't think they wanted to hear anyway.

Men on the other hand, tended to be very supportive, saying things like 'good girl yourself'.  My Dad told his GP proudly, 'all that I know is that there isn't a bottle to be seen'.    Statistics show that women who receive family support when breast feeding  have greater success.  My wide family circle were encouraging and of course thrilled with the arrivals of my twins.  It was a pat on the back that I needed.  I also had a super public health nurse who was full of practical advise.

Other statistics show that women who see others breast feeding are more likely to do so themselves.  I was very pleased that my step daughter Zara, aged in her early twenties, also breast fed her daughter. She told me that she wouldn't have considered it, had she not seen me breast feeding. I'd like to think that, in turn, she was a role model for other young mothers.
Growing up on a dairy farm, I was surrounded by mammals producing milk and all that comes with it - mastitis, calves finding it hard to feed, what happened when a cow died during the birth and the rush to find beestings (colostrum) to feed the calf.  You realised the importance of a mother's milk.  How the beestings could be life or death to a young calf.  It was natures way.      

One of my earliest memories of boobs for anything other that feeding your young, was seeing pictures of Toni, 'the exotic dancer' in the Sunday World.  She was a household name along with Fr Michael Cleary and Gerry Ryan.  You would see her there in all her glory as you ate the roast spuds and mushy peas.

Toni was a housewife from Tallaght, with HUGE boobs. Apparently she had a regular slot in The Lower Deck in a pub in Portobello.  (Queue : inappropriate jokes about the top deck. Ha ha). As far as I remember, she wore a gauze top, so she wasn't actually topless, but you could still see all that Toni had to offer.  At the time, I didn't think that there was anything wrong with Toni strutting her stuff.  Maybe it was because she looked like a mammy and her chest looked like the kind of place where you would go for a snuggle if you cut your knee after falling off your bike.  I was way too innocent to think that grown men might also have had thoughts about snuggling their bald head in Toni's chest.

Compared to the Jordan's and other surgically enhanced models of today, Toni looked pretty wholesome.  It's worrying that young girls are surrounded by so many images of plastic people, only to eager to stick their booty in our faces.  It's all the more reason for us wimmin to embrace breast feeding.  Encourage young mums.  Tell them that every single feed makes a difference to them and their baby.  If  breast feeding isn't your thing, hold your tongue in front of a breast feeding mother. She might be having a bad hair day.  Talk to your daughter about breast feeding as a natural, lovely thing to do.

Reclaim the space that only us women can.

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