by Gwen Aktinson
I won’t be the first person to talk about the mixed messages women receive, and I certainly won’t be the last. But when a woman decides to have a family, these messages come thick and fast. Let’s look at the world’s most famous mother right now: the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton. After giving birth to Prince George, she was both praised and lambasted for having the courage or audacity to actually look as she had recently given birth twenty four hours after she had actually given birth. Fast forward nearly two years later and the slightly differently stage managed introduction of Princess Charlotte to the world had Kate presenting a more figure flattering image. The criticism/praise still came thick and fast.
Fed up with the multiple celebrity look at me now photo shoots showing a flat stomach mere weeks after labour, I decided to photograph my post birth baby bump, to show what a reasonably fit and healthy, but mostly normal mum looks like (don’t laugh I said mostly normal). We naturally compare ourselves and I was sick of women feeling inadequate or even considering starting the diet before the baby has arrived. A combination of genes, luck, breastfeeding and really terrible hospital food meant I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight a week after giving birth and in normal jeans a week after that. I didn’t take any photographs; in my own special way I was disappointed my body didn’t behave as expected.
My own little prince took a long time to arrive, and I had a number of health issues during that time. I was simultaneously told I was selfish for not yet starting a family and selfish for trying to conceive in less than perfect health, as well as being selfish for wanting help to get healthy and to conceive. I was told my medication for depression would harm my baby, but without it the risk of post natal depression was another danger. When finally our miracle happened conventional wisdom told me I should be unhappy with changes in my body. But this couldn’t have been further from the truth. I’d look at my expanding belly with awe and wonder knowing that something remarkable was happening inside me. Did you know that one of the first things you do is get thirstier than normal? This forces your body to make extra red blood cells so you can transport the additional oxygen your baby needs. Not even Steve Jobs could have designed something that simple to fix so complicated a problem.
Despite what the media would have you believe your body does some fantastic things in labour too. Oxytocin is the magical chemical that kicks off the contractions. It’s known as the love hormone and the huge amounts created helps you bond with your baby. But it also releases your milk and then with continued breastfeeding it helps your uterus shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size. Recent studies have shown what women should already know, that successfully breastfeeding helps prevent post natal depression, by keeping the extra oxytocin in your life for as long as possible. I am also convinced breastfeeding, or the lack of having to prepare formula through the night has meant I get a good night’s sleep. And there is a reason the Nazis used sleep deprivation as torture.
The mixed messages continue throughout the breastfeeding journey. There is huge pressure to nurse, but very little practical support, and what little there is can actually undermine the new mother. I’d like to take the time to thank Milk Matters, La Leche League and The Breastfeeding Network for the fantastic assistance you gave me. But there were countless more: friends, family and complete strangers. Your ability to maintain eye contact and smile helped me more than you will ever know.
Next up is how long should you nurse for? Well as most commercial clothing is also a combination of nursing and maternity it seems to be about the two weeks it takes for your belly to stop looking pregnant. Or maybe for years it takes to work up the energy to do it all again. Six months appears to be a landmark that many mums aim for, but any less and you gave up too soon. Any more and you are ‘strange’. But breastfeeding is a journey and like all of them there is no fixed timescale or path. Whether it lasted minutes or years, every mouthful made a difference to your child. Whether you used formula, expressed, stayed true to the boob or combined any of the above. You are amazing, and you did so very, very well.
A common reason given for stopping nursing is ‘getting your body back’. This seems to be part of western society’s attitude that mums aren’t attractive. Thank god we no longer believe that having sex causes your milk to curdle, but women are known for multitasking. If we can do more than one thing at a time, why can’t we be more than one thing at a time and rock it too? The This Girl Can campaign which went viral through its wonderful message that women of all shapes and sizes be proud of what their bodies can do. I for one am struggling to think of something more empowering of first creating and then sustaining human life.
Where do clothes fit into this story? You don’t have to be a princess to feel pressure to look good. Even if you aren’t going to be photographed or beamed across the world, clothes send a message of how you want to be perceived. Can I Breastfeed in it? UK has followers who want to look and feel good for all sorts of different social occasions; we have business meetings, weddings, music festivals and heart-breakingly sad funerals. We are political, funny and fancy that cute one from The Wanted. We run races for charity and go on holiday to far flung places. We want and need clothes that reflect these situations and our personalities, as well as coping with the demands of our little muck magnet milk monsters. Too many of the retailers think of us as a one dimensional, one size fits all, narrow group of women. Our bodies have done and continue to do something amazing, surely our clothes should support and echo this message.