Long term breatsfeeding, maternal identity and risk

 Faircloth, Charlotte, 2010, ‘If they want to risk the health and well-being of their child, that’s up to them’: long-term breastfeeding, risk and maternal identity, Health, Risk & Society, 12, 4, 357-367

One of the members of our reading group sent me this article recently and I just had to read it since I inadvertently fell on this category of mothers, those who practise ‘extended’ breastfeeding (more on this to come…), which has been, let’s say it politely, a topic of conversation and discussion for EVERYONE, of which not much of it was positive or supportive.

What I particularly liked was how she combined several important and related issues: the moralisation of parenting, identity work, parenting tribes, everyday practices and forms of accounting.

Her article starts to show the ways in which the moralisation of parenting, especially heated around feeding issues, relates to the ways in which becoming a parent, and the ‘choices’ made are part of the creation of the ‘self’. This process, because of this wider climate of the individualisation and moralisation of parenting, creates and fuels the divisions between parents, and in this case, mothers, within different ‘tribes’.  However, by analysing and showing how this is done in everyday practices, and the ways in which cultures are created through the different forms of accountability (aka, the ways mothers explain their choices and practices), she also starts to show how this is more nuanced and complex than what can be conveyed by the division in tribes and I would add they ‘mummy wars’, type of analysis.

Based on her work with a group of mothers who practiced ‘extended’ breastfeeding and also attachment parenting,  from La Leche League, Fairchild shows the different ways that mothers who practice ‘extended’ breastfeeding account for their practices. Accounting for this practice becomes important as ‘extended’ breastfeeding  generates strong responses in people, such as a sense of disgust, a sense that it is somehow perverse, and that this is done only for the mother’s benefit (i.e. the ‘mother’s need to be needed’). Indeed, the implication is that by breastfeeding for longer than average, mothers damage their child in terms of their emotional and social development, i.e. not letting them be independent. Health benefits and risk reduction are used to counter-argue with their critics, as well as humour, avoidance, and invoking personal reasons (‘it feels right’). The need for validation and a counter-accounting for their practise, in view of this hostility towards their choices, build and entrenches division between parenting tribes, forming an ‘us’ and’ them’ dynamics.  This is also related to the constitutive effects of rules of behaviour, that is, in the ways that by doing certain things allows others to recognise and situate the person within a particular identity. However, the article also shows the different and complex ways in which women constructed their identities, which sometimes confirms and fuels divisions, but at others show more ambivalence, and and less ‘coherence’.

 The double bind that these mothers find themselves is one in which they can be said to have the moral high ground in terms of fitting in with the predominant health discourse (for instance World Health Organisation and UN guidelines, and ‘breast is best’), but at the same time marginalised in terms of their minority/freak status, apart from those places where they found their ‘tribe’. This resonated strongly with me with the position and debates around working mothers and stay at home mothers that Douglas and Michaels describe in The Mommy Myth: The idealisation of motherhood and how it has undermined all women, where stay at home mothers seem to be given the moral high ground against working mothers, while being made invisible and belittled in their everyday social interactions, and vice versa.

This article hits the spot for me in identifying some of the issues at stake, and the relations between a particular practise of feeding in terms of wider feeding and parenting issues. And in identifying some of the issues, critiques, strategies and feelings, which I experienced and encountered as a mother who breastfeeds a toddler. However, I finished the article feeling it needed a bit more fleshing out of these issues and relations. Her quotations and fieldwork quotes show a more complex and nuanced field of identity formation which I would very much like to see developed. Especially because I feel that many times the ways in which differences between mothering tribes is portrayed is artificially divisive, exaggerated for effect, and in turn, helps create these divisions. A more nuanced approach, which an ethnographic study can provide, might help make this issue less clear cut, and also bring about other issues that are playing a role in these forms of association and identification. Maybe I need to ask her for her PhD thesis!

Looking at her work, I came across this blog, which I need to delve into: http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/parentingculturestudies/

3 responses to “Long term breatsfeeding, maternal identity and risk

  1. Hi, very interesting topic but I can’t open Charlotte Faircloth’s! x Serena

  2. Pingback: The inmense sadness of weaning | maternalselves

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