Breastfeeding: radical, feminist and good for you

Kate Joester explains how breastfeeding helped her understand 'the personal is political'

Kate Joester, 24 January 2009

The first time a male hand touched my breast, I was 14. The breasts themselves were considerably newer, arriving in the sudden rush of puberty that turned me from a short, skinny 13-year-old to the round-hipped, DD-cup young woman I was that day. I hadn't really thought my breasts had anything to do with anything before then, but that moment, backed up against a wall by a predatory old man, made it clear to me: they were dangerous.

The second time a male hand touched my breast, I was 30 and the hand belonged to my newborn son. It was curled into a semi-fist as he tried with confused urgency to work out what hunger meant, and how it might be resolved. I gently persuaded him to open his mouth, take a mouthful of breast and suckle. That hunger was the first question he asked, and I was able to answer it in a way that gave him both food and a reassurance that my body was home to the baby as well as the foetus.

In between those times, I'd grown into a feminist, a queer activist, an off-and-on member of Edinburgh's lefty rent-a-crowd and also a mother. My son is my second child; it was really my daughter who taught me that I could make and sustain another person with the body I had distrusted for so long.

I breastfeed as a feminist, and I'm a breastfeeding advocate as a feminist: what could be more of a feminist issue than women being taught to doubt their capacities and trained to fail, all so that corporations can make a profit by selling us a poor substitute for ourselves?

Growing up in Cambridge, where Baby Milk Action is based, I was used to stickers on vending machines explaining which were the Nestle products to be boycotted

Feminism has always been obvious to me. I was a feminist as soon as I understood what it meant. Reading my way through the feminism shelf of Cambridge Central Library was one of the key discoveries of my adolescence. I have my disagreements with Germaine Greer these days, but to me at 15, reading The Female Eunuch was like taking my first breath. After that I inhaled everything on offer on those two feet of shelving, and went off seeking more. Susan Faludi, Shulamith Firestone, Betty Friedan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Naomi Wolf: each giving me perspectives for looking at the world, and ways to articulate what I had struggled to find the words, or even fully-formed thoughts, to express.

Yes, the boys in class did get rewarded for repeating something I had just said into dead air. Yes, there are words for women that can never be simple words for men: slut, bitch, whore. Yes, women are raped and abused as a matter of course, and taught to live in fear of violence too.

There was a 'but'. The personal is political, of course – or rather, the personal and political aren't distinct, and the word personal is often applied as a way of pretending that most of the things women have always done, and the ways we are violated, don't really matter. But that knowledge didn't really take hold for me, the way I understood it did for other women. Sure, nobody asks to be raped. Sure, no means no. But my body was different. I carried my breasts like bombs: dangerous, separate, saying something other than "no".

The politics of breastfeeding were just as obvious to me as feminism. Growing up in Cambridge, where Baby Milk Action is based, I was used to stickers on vending machines explaining which were the Nestle products to be boycotted. I was a breastfed baby myself, as were all my young cousins, and I never doubted that I'd breastfeed my own children. Formula milk is nutritionally inferior, and the corporations who produce it have been shown to work against women's and children's health in order to increase profits. I was determined that I would never touch it.

In some ways, I'm the luckiest mother in the world. I literally never heard of the idea that a women might not have enough milk to feed her own child until I was in my 20s. And, reading and learning about how breastfeeding works, that confidence and belief was the best start I could have had. Breastfeeding works, in a huge majority of cases, if you believe it's going to work. Women with no alternative rarely fail.

That blithe confidence, that family example, and that political fire got me through an early breastfeeding experience that was horrible. My daughter screamed and screamed; my nipples bled; in my bleary exhaustion, her hands and mouth demanding at my breasts caused flashbacks to that teenage assault. I was ashamed that I seemed to be failing, and afraid of strangers judging my failures, so I didn't ask for help. In the early hours of the morning, her yells from the cot in the corner caused me to hide under the bedclothes, begging that she leave me alone.

What I had, and hadn't had since I was a child, was a sense that my body was perfect for the tasks it was set

But she didn't. She couldn't. She needed to be fed, and I was her source of food; she needed to be comforted, and I was her source of comfort. Gradually, she learned how to feed without injuring me and I learned how to respond to her face burrowing at my shirt, her milk-seeking vampire lust for my bodily fluids. After my mother died, when my daughter was two months old, those long nights, sitting in the chair beside her cot, passing on the gift that my mother had given me, were the only space I had to mourn. I had my mother standing behind me, then.

I suffered from depression during pregnancy and after each of my children were born. There were days when literally the only thing keeping me from jumping off a tall building was knowing where my child's next meal had to come from. Everything else was swept from under me – my job, my PhD studies, my sense of myself as an activist and a woman with a place in public life – but what I had, and hadn't had since I was a child, was a sense that my body was perfect for the tasks it was set. While my mind needed to be rebuilt from what seemed like scratch, I was at least tethered to earth by the baby at my breast.

And while I was figuring out what it meant to be a mother in private, between me and my daughter, I was figuring out what it meant to be a mother in public. Like all the public performances of womanhood, that was something that the whole world got to comment on. Why did I dress my daughter in 'boys' clothes'? Was she warm enough? Where's her father? (Her two fathers, by the way, live 20 or so miles away, together, while I live with my female partner.)

When my daughter was hungry, I sat down in the nearest convenient place and fed her. Some people tutted, some people looked away, and some people smiled fondly. But, for once, that wasn't the point, and I wasn't being a mother for their benefit. I was feeding my child, who was growing and flourishing on the care I was uniquely able to give her. And I was gaining a new sense of myself, one which made me part of my own feminist analysis, in some ways for the first time. All I was doing was feeding and comforting my child.

So when I lifted my newborn son for the first time, and cradled him at my breast, I was already a mother, though newly a mother to this particular and glorious boy. I knew I shouldn't have to go through the physical agony I suffered feeding my daughter as a newborn, so I asked for help, and was lucky enough to find it. I encountered new problems – my son, unlike his big sister, is a biter – but I also found commuities of women who shared a vocabulary for these experiences and worked my way through them. The first thing I did for my children as babies was provide for them, all by myself. Physically, I had it in me to give them all they needed. I hate that so many women don't believe that of themselves and bemused that handing that capacity over to someone else is seen by some as liberating.

My daughter is four years old today. She stopped breastfeeding about six months ago. My son is nearing two and still happily breastfed. I don't know how much longer he'll continue, but I'm bemused by people who ask me if I "want my body back". After 28 years in a culture where women's bodies belong to pretty much anyone but them, it was only my children that showed me that my body, even mine, belongs to me to give.

About the author

Kate Joester

Kate lives in Edinburgh, where she is a part-time professional queer and full-time mother. She knits, cooks badly, and occasionally runs for election. She occasionaly blogs about being a radical and a parent at Rebel Raising

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