The piece below was written in 1943, the year before I was born. The knowledge was already out there that babies could be damaged by removal from the mother and that the damage would probably be for life. We adoptees were removed from unmarried mothers as a punishment for their ‘waywardness’, and many in my generation were breastfed because the staff in facilities knew the breaking of the bond formed and the attachment would be further punishment which might prevent the woman from ‘sinning’ in future. It was cheaper than formula and easier and mothers also had to perform changing and bathing routines to save the staff the work of ‘caring’ for us. Doctors enforced their beliefs about the length of time babies should be fed, how often and when. These rules were also enforced and imposed on married mothers who sometimes were in a position, if they were brave enough, to go against what the doctor ordered. Women like my mother were totally at the mercy of the staff in the Mother and Baby home and it seems there was no mercy – we were known as ‘the unfortunates’ and treated as if we came out of the gutter. We babies were left to cry until we cried no more and that has affected us for life. The current but hopefully now dying trend for leaving babies ‘to cry it out’ fills me with horror and concern for this generation of babies who are being treated cruelly and inhumanely. How these trends would be viewed by Mongolian parents and grandparents who are firm believers in the breast being best for everything and believe that breast milk builds wrestlers and is a cure for many things including frailty in the elderly, can only be guessed at. I expect they would be horrified, unbelieving and convinced that we are cruel, child-hating abusers. You’ll find a fascinating article on http://www.drmomma.org on breastfeeding amongst the Mongolians – a must read!
Despite the enforcement of inhumane rules and cruel practices and the strict regulation of breast-feeding, which was done for the convenience of staff and never for the benefit of babies I am grateful to have had six weeks with my mother. During that time she fed me exclusively and she too was grateful for that time, always acknowledging that it created a more painful separation and made my adoption harder than it needed to be. My abrupt weaning was given no special attention or consideration. My amother seemed unable to mix the formula correctly and I was starving, until my agrandmother, a former nurse, noticed I was not gaining weight. This was somewhat of a family joke! It has taken me many decades to get to grips with the results. Another example of my amother’s lack of skill and knowledge and her absence of empathy. She had it in spades for animals, but sadly not for this traumatised, starving adoptee!
How long before we take on this knowledge of early childhood trauma, attachment, bonding and breast-feeding and put into practise what we instinctively know to be true, right and healthy for our babies, our selves and our future? In the long ago days when I was supporting breastfeeding mothers and doing the training to become a breastfeeding counsellor, we were told that the vast majority of women could breastfeed if they chose to and that it was only a very tiny percentage of mothers who for physiological or psychological reasons could or would not. I have no reason to believe that it is any different 30 years later. Attitudes have changed and seem to have swung back to repressive and unhealthy modes, in which women are discouraged, actively shamed and stigmatised and made to feel they are doing something disgusting, unnatural or in some way shameful. In addition we hear many arguments for bottle feeding as it’s supporters attempt to ‘normalise’ it. Perhaps these beautiful images by I.Ivens will go some way to changing the attitudes of the ignorant, misguided and bigoted. When women are able to regain or achieve pride in their bodies and the healthy functioning of them and men are able to support those views, we might find the changes very freeing and parenting less disabling. I heard recently of a young woman who decided not to breastfeed well before her baby was born – reason unknown, but suspected to be that it might have something to do with her implants, that the shape of her breasts might be ‘spoiled’! Motherhood is a changing mode for all women, our bodies are never the same again, whatever we do. Maybe one day we’ll learn to be proud of those changes and the achievements of our bodies.