I was reading Katie Acosta story “Breastfeeding Shouldn’t Be This Hard” and it made me reflect on that. Even though we don’t share the same background and live in different countries, it still resonated with my personal experience. The lack of support from health care practitioners and the vulnerable place she encountered herself in reminded me of my past circumstances and, most recently to the ordeal of some of my friends in Ireland, proving that the lack of adequate health care services affects all of us universally.
Katie described how social-economic grounds can make breastfeeding easier and doable. I would add that culture can also be another facilitator. I am a Brazilian woman that moved to Ireland 15 years ago while breastfeeding my 6 months old boy. I was staying in my then inlaws for a few weeks and was told at the time I should never breastfeed anywhere apart from the spare bedroom we were sleeping. It took me by surprise as I had come from maternity leave back home where there were nursing rooms available even in supermarket chains, special queues for nursing mothers in the banks and post offices. In my home town, a milk bank was introduced in one of the poorest city hospitals where healthy mothers donated their breast milk for premature babies in intensive care or babies of mums that were sick and/or not able to breastfeed. And it was decades ago…
Back to my first week in Ireland, I saw again my then mother in law arriving flustered at home one morning, saying she was disgusted after watching a black woman breastfeeding her 1-year-old child while waiting to be seen by the doctor at the local clinic. It was obvious that not only her religious background would find breastfeeding offensive as well she could not cope with the fact that a black woman was breastfeeding her black child. She could not cope with the fact they were there, sharing a space with her. When she got home and met me with ‘my not so white Brazilian appearance’, it was too close to home. I was only at the beginning of my journey as a young mum in a small rural Irish community. My breast milk disappeared within weeks I put a foot in the Irish soil. I felt inadequate and guilty.
10 years later I was in the hospital for the birthday of my second child. I was the only foreigner mum on the maternity ward that day and the only one breastfeeding. The night time nurse could not cope with that very well. She would come with the tiny baby bottles for all the newborns, opening the curtains around my bed and disturbing our quiet time, asking what formula was I giving to my baby. I had to keep repeating over and over he was fine, for her to check in his chart he was being breastfed.
Memories from the past came back, from a new mum in a new country feeling wrong for making a good choice. But as a 35 years old second-time-around mum, in a stable relationship, I was much more confident about the motherly skills I had. Little worried me when I heard the night nurse making little jokes, about me being the herbal tea drinker mum breastfeeding, at the not-so-private handover meeting a distance away from my bed.
Except for a visit I got from the lactant nurse before going home, I didn’t get offered any support regarding breastfeeding within the 48 hours after giving birth to my son. I had to ring my husband to bring a pump from home when my breasts got too swollen and waited for his visit to get some extra liquids as after another C-Section I wasn’t so quick back on my feet. If I was looking for encouragement from the health practitioners I was not going to get even a friendly smile.
Thankfully, I had my husband and mum waiting for me at home. If not for my level of education and cultural background, with the extra help from my mother staying with us for the first few weeks (making her lovely soups and minding my older boy) I would not have succeeded in keep ongoing.
In Ireland, there are lactation support groups available mostly in the city centres, if you have the education and the skills to look for it. However, if you are a young mum in a rural area, and especially if you are not a local woman, you will get very little support. Ireland had the lowest breastfeeding rates of the 27 high-income countries in Europe as per a study published in The Lancet last year. Its statistics also show a huge difference in breastfeeding rates between the rural and the more affluent urban areas in the country where the rates can be more than three times higher. The lack of breastfeeding support is a sign of health care deprivation
In the last 15years, I have seen big social and economic changes in Irish society. I have seen small African communities of refugees tinting the map of Ireland from the early 2000s now integrating into their communities. I have heard the Polish accent resonating in the streets nearly as the main language of the Celtic Tiger. However, the last property crash was also a social crash that bought hostility to the surface. The unwritten agreement said to the government if they couldn’t look after their own, the ordinary Irish people would make sure that immigrants would not be looked after either.
As an immigrant, someone of a different race and speaking a different language, chances are you will not be treated equally for the mere reason that you are not seeing as equal.
Being married to a local, I can assure that during bad economic times, it is a good time to use your married name. Usually, the treatment received in public settings can be different when you carry an Irish surname and pay hefty health insurance. Still, when rushed into a public AE and kept in for the night, I have seen a nurse attending to a male national first, fetching him some tea before going near a non-national woman in pain screaming for help, even if to give her a reassuring word.
It’s scary when you are depending on care to be in this vulnerable position. And it is unacceptable in terms of a developed society to continue functioning in these terms.
Breastfeeding is only a dot in a much deeper health mosaic of social-economic deprivation. The health care practitioners and services are only a reflection of a society that has a long way to go towards integration.
My country is underdeveloped in many social areas, but the poor as well as the rich, are encouraged to breastfeed. Breast milk is free and healthier after all. My country like Ireland is mainly Catholic and you can still be fined for being topless as a woman on the beach, but you can show your boobs away while feeding your child. Breastfeeding is not seeing as a sinful sexual act.
Supporting a mother to breastfeed is also supporting a child, there is no separation. Nurses that go to home visits after a child’s birth and only weighs the child, not asking how you are coping with breastfeeding or suggests your child is crying because is hungry while you are breastfeeding are being judgemental, instead of being at service.
We can not change what is embedded in peoples heart, but we can educate ourselves to shift our awareness in perspective, to learn the fundamental of equality and teach to our children. This way we can be of support, offering love and kindness to the people in our community and fighting for services that will give voice among the unheard.
We know not everybody will have the same outcome in life, but if we can ensure the right of every mother to equal access to health care services, independent of their background, we will be preserving a much bigger right, the right to belong from our first gulp of milk forward.