Goodness me. I turned on my computer to attempt to write something clever and stylish about how government ministers who were educated in all-male institutions and were sent away from home by their mothers might respond to women and mothers and got distracted by a remarkable piece of news. The government is offering John Lewis Vouchers to pay women to breastfeed. More specifically the government is offering Yucky Poor Northern Women John Lewis vouchers to breastfeed, in the hope that they will bring up children who are less yucky poor and northern. I hardly know where to begin. I suppose I need some new hand towels and the tefal on the bottom of my casserole dish is wearing a bit thin so maybe I should begin by having another baby and breastfeeding it so I can have a splurge in John Lewis…no, must not be flippant.
I will begin with some insights into breastfeeding for the uninitiated. Breast-feeding is the healthiest thing for babies as we all know. It can, in principle, be nice for mothers too, so I’ve heard. It can also be torture for mind, body and soul. It can be rewarding and cuddly but most of the time it is boring and uncomfortable and the universal truth of the matter seems to be that whatever happens one is left pinned into an agonising position by a sleeping baby with a glass of water and the remote control for the telly just tantalizingly out of reach. You are not allowed to drink nearly as much alcohol as you would like, you have an endless and insatiable appetite for shortbread, and you are not allowed to eat swordfish or marlin. I went from being pregnant, to breast-feeding, to being pregnant again, I can’t tell you how gagging for a bit of swordfish or marlin I was by the end of it. Breast-fed babies can sleep just as well as bottle fed ones but they tend not to, and breast-feeding is very tying, only you can do it. If you want a break you can suffer the hideous degradation of, I can hardly even bear to type it, A Breast Pump. If you have never encountered one of these things I entreat you to type it into a google image search and then spend a moment trying to empathise: what would it be like to use such a thing? To have such a monstrosity attached to your body? How would it feel? Would you ever want to have sex again?
So while I am all for breast-feeding I am not very happy about the idea of women essentially being bribed to go through with it. I am also not happy that their seems something so inherently judgemental, that these women do not care about the health of their children, rather than maybe that they would prefer to have partners or family or friends support them and share in their feeding and caring. And that John Lewis offers the solutions to the discomforts and exhaustion of breast-feeding: they should at least pay them in shortbread.
But why would we expect the government to do anything genuinely supportive, who could possibly understand less what it is like to be a knackered young mum in a deprived area than, for example, George Osborne? No-one is less likely to value the experience of women and mothers, it is really no surprise that they get it so wrong. There is a very amusing poster in my local community centre where a lady sits breast-feeding a baby chatting to her friend who is holding a large and delicious-looking glass of rose wine. The Slogan reads “who can breast-feed? Anyone can!” What, even women who are friends with women who drink wine? Wow, how you spoil us!
It is also not surprising that the way people care for babies is bound so tightly with ideas about social position, although it is surprising perhaps that breast-feeding seems to have crossed the class and wealth divide, snobbery about breast-feeding has given way to snobbery about bottle feeding. My mother in law (he she comes!) was horrified when I breast-fed my first child, presumably because it involved cuddling, breasts, bodily fluids and general peasantish behaviour. It was also time-consuming, drastically reducing the time I had available for house-work and letter writing, indeed it seems to have had an adverse effect on my ability to do such things to this very day. I remember longing to drop it into conversation that actually bottle feeding babies was looked down on as a bit common these days…I wonder what she would make of this new scheme. Paying poor people to cuddle their children in vouchers they can spend on their big tellys to sit and watch while they don’t do their housework or write thank you letters. I just hope they have their remote control handy…