Twenty years ago when I gave birth to Tom it never occurred to me to do anything other than breastfeed. Fortunately for me I hadn’t read any books about how tricky this could be and had a wonderful midwife who stopped me fussing around, got me comfortable and latched Tom on. I was 32 years old, completely ignorant of what to do. It was as if I had expected this small creature to be born with a handbook that would tell me how to operate it, but it wasn’t. Instead it was born in pain and blood and mess and then noise, thankfully noise. A perfect thing that somehow my body had just got on and made while I got on with my painting. ( I was that naive that I took my sketchbook in to hospital so that I could work on some roughs while I was in labour. I had been commissioned to do my first children’s book the week before Tom was born. Or maybe the sketchbook was my security blanket, a kind of holding on to who I was and what I did before I became a mother. Whatever it was, needless to say it remained shut as I was busy trying to suck all the gas and air out of the hospital walls.)
Anyway, it seemed that the best idea was to get on and feed the child seeing as how I had carried these breasts around on my body for 32 years. Time to put them to good use. The idea of using formula never once occurred. And in my naivety I didn’t realise that other people might have a problem with this.
Some of my family thought I was breast feeding because as an artist I couldn’t afford to pay for the formula. They didn’t seem to notice that as an artist I had also just bought a small cottage by the sea, or rather a mortgage on one, which is not quite the same thing, so probably could afford dried milk.
There was something about the ease of feeding in this way that I loved. And also once I had really got the hang of it there was something about the sitting quietly in close bond with this astonishing creature, gentle, still, warm, peaceful, that I absolutely adored. After a time I learned to balance a book on the poor child so that I could read, and later when I had Hannah I would read picture books to Tom while feeding Hannah. Occasional helpful comments from older family members like ‘Not again, surely he can’t still be hungry?”, ” You should give that baby some proper food”, and the best ever, as Tom reached the age of one and I continued to feed him at night, ” You’ll be pushing that through the school fence if your not careful!” ( how attractive and so encouraging an image. Not) But I also remember feeding him in a cafe once and a lady coming over and whispering in my ear, “well done you, so brave”. It wasn’t bravery, it was just natural behaviour. Not an act of defiance, just ignorance on my part that anyone would object.
So, this week is the 20th annual Breast Feeding Awareness Week. It may seem unimportant to many but it isn’t. How we feed our children is a matter of personal choice but so much research points to the fact that breast is best, for giving mother and child a close bond, for giving the child the very best start in life, for giving antibodies to fight disease, for insuring correct nutrition with ease. How astonishing that in the 20th century ( as it was when I had Tom and Hannah), formula milk could be seen as superior simply because it cost money, and only poor people breast fed! And how sad that many women are embarrassed out of breastfeeding because of the idiotic attitude of some parts of society. In some places in the USA while it is legal to carry a gun it is illegal to breast feed in public.
As my children grew I realised that there were very few images of breastfeeding in children’s books. Reading so many books I also noticed how strange it was when mermaids were pictured in children’s books. They seldom had breasts, and if they did they were covered in often strange and mysterious ways. Disturbed by this strange mutilation, albeit pictorially when I came to illustrate Mariana and the Merchild ( written by Caroline Pitcher, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, a retelling of a traditional Chilean folk tale) I just couldn’t help myself, and to be very fare to my editors, both women, was more than supported in painting an image of a breast feeding mother and child.
I have no photos of me feeding my children. These were pre-digital days and I was the photographer in the family. The photos used here are of Claire and Betsi, taken in the evening as she settled Betsi to sleep. She is growing so beautifully, such lovely soft skin and tiny strong hands. I do however have a wonderful memory of Tom, aged about one and a half standing four square in W H Smiths and pointing to the magazines on the top shelf, the soft porn and saying in a very loud one and a half year old voice, ” Look mummy, MILK!” Just about sums it all up really.