[This post has been sitting in draft for about a month]
With the exception of the past hour since I’ve been here at JFK airport waiting for my connecting flight, I’ve been in (Ireland and) the United Kingdom for the past two months. I didn’t mean to stay there for so long — it sort of just happened. It was somewhat inadvertent because I meant to leave after just a few weeks, but ended up staying longer, and made my way around (Southern) Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. This wasn’t my first time in Europe: I was there earlier in the year. But this time I was in different locations, stayed much longer and was also fortunate because I wasn’t stationary: I moved around quite a bit, visiting various cities in each country and was able to experience various parts of each place, so I got a decent overview.
I also didn’t mean to look at breastfeeding while I was there but of course since my life revolves around infant feeding it was pretty inevitable. What stood out to me the most was how much breastfeeding I didn’t see — but I was duped about all of this at first. Just a couple of weeks into my trip I was in London and attended a weekend-long festival that celebrated African culture. There, I saw a couple of women nursing their infants, fully exposed. I was thinking this was my inauguration into the culture of breastfeeding and that it would only be a matter of time before I would see the slew of women doing the same. That there was a large culture of openness with regards to the body and women who nurse babies, and I’d see exposed breasts with babies attached as far as the eye could see — but I soon learned that that wasn’t the case and that the narratives from African Utopia — the event — was extremely rare. In fact, I hardly saw anyone nursing in any of the countries I visited. Women I saw with infants had bottles in hand, or nearby. And the score of Black women I saw nursing: 1.
I think it’s important to note that even though I visit locations and want to experience them in their vastness, I most often intentionally place myself in Black spaces. Still, I saw just one woman with a baby at her breast. This happened at a different event celebrating African culture and, at first, a male figure was feeding what appeared to be a 3-4 month old, a bottle. Shortly after a woman joined this duo and not too long later, gave the baby the breast.
While in Ireland I did see some semblance of breastfeeding support. Below are two images I took — I think it was at the Dublin airport, but I can’t really remember.
But while I was in Great Britain I didn’t see anything at all that reflected a culture of breastfeeding — the only other woman I saw besides the woman at the African event was at a coffee shop, and I learned about another lady’s experience during a conversation with her while I was at a store trying to mail a package.
At the end of my trip and during my last stop which was in Wales I met a lady on a bus and she and I got into conversation about breastfeeding and — who strangely enough — I found out was once upon a time a breastfeeding advocate who taught classes on the art of breastfeeding in public. When she found out about the work I do in Black breastfeeding and after I mentioned my ‘only about half of us initiate this,’ narrative she mentioned that 50% breastfeeding rate is ‘really good!’ This shocked me! Not only because I could not imagine ever thinking that if only 1 in 2 women breastfed their children then that would be cause to celebrate because it means that that’s a significant number, but also because I really had different expectations of Europe. I don’t mean to blanket the place because I was only in the United Kingdom, but I really thought that Europe was very progressive and open-minded in terms of all areas when it came to — health, infant-feeding and these things overall — that they have it so much more together than we do in the US — but that apparently is just not the case — at least when it comes to a woman feeding her baby from her body. The woman on the bus told me that ladies in Britain just don’t breastfeed.
I didn’t really get into reasons why because the bus was driving through the Brecon National Park and the views were stunning. So, there wasn’t much room for conversation at that point, in my mind. But it really raised my antenna about it and I began to wonder more about this lack of breastfeeding culture and why this exists. I wondered about the origins and where the influence came from, if anywhere? The British colonized — the world — practically — and with it, instituted a number of cultural ideas that have impacted many locations, for generations and it makes me wonder if the influence on breastfeeding came before or after. I wondered which came first. I don’t have any answers now, but it has been on my mind since.
I took the image above, two icons, one of an infant and the other of a bottle, in Manchester, England at a shopping center. Strangely enough it was located in the food courts, and near the toilets (bathrooms) — it is nearest the female location and sends the message to women that ‘this is where you go to feed your baby its bottle’. I was pretty shocked to see this and thought ‘Really, Manchester?!’ But after I thought about it some more it made sense.
What do you know about breastfeeding in the United Kingdom or in Europe overall?