Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Earth element 4: The Earth element and breastfeeding

The emotions that fly around the question of breastfeeding have always interested me since the days when I was of an age to bear children, and observed the problems people had with feeding their babies which I found I did not, and wondered why I did not and they did.  Now that I understand better the qualities of the element, Earth, which controls how we feed ourselves , and how we respond to being fed or not being fed, I have been able to find a wider context within which to place this very complex issue.  For it goes to the very root of our being, our ability to obtain for ourselves that which we need, at the simplest level merely to survive and not starve to death, and at the much profounder level to nurture ourselves by feeling ourselves cherished, enfolded by love and concern.

The food which is in mother’s milk can do both or neither of these.  In those who are starving, it may be insufficient to sustain life, though still providing love, and in the rich, it may sustain physical life but be insufficient to cherish.  In the society in which I live and for which I write, I do not, fortunately, deal with the physically starving, but I do meet, surprisingly often, the emotionally starving, and my dealings with these have helped me understand at a much deeper level the needs within all of us which the Earth element is there to satisfy, and which are touched upon at a physical level each time we feel ourselves to be hungry.

We all have our personal, often idiosyncratic, relationship to food.  From an acupuncturist’s point of view this relationship is understood to be determined by that most primary relationship of all, that to our mother.  The element we are dealing with here, the Earth element, is the one which can truly be called the mother of all elements.  As we know, this most primary relationship, that to our mother, also makes it the most complex of all, for it sets the tone for our ability to nurture ourselves and others for the remainder of our life.  This prime relationship scores deeply into all that we do, and affects all our interactions which concern the nurturing of others, above all that of infants.  This issue is made even more complex because that part of the mother created for feeding, the breast, has acquired, in the human, additional sexual functions which equivalent nourishing organs do not appear to have for other species.  We do not, for example, see bulls nuzzling at cows’ udders.

Much has been written about how or why human sexuality has developed as it has, but its effect upon attitudes towards the feeding of babies has been overwhelming, and differs from country to country.  The breast does not now simply offer the possibility of food, but much more complex pleasures as well, which are usually, although increasingly less in more open societies, supposed to be carried out in private, to the point where the breast as fountain of baby food has become entangled emotionally with more furtive, often hidden pleasures, confusing the simplicity of the breast’s original function, and often subtly downgrading it.

The picture is complicated further by the complexities of each of the individual relationships with our mothers that we bring with us into everything we do, not least, and above all, to the feeding of our infants or of those infants for whom we take professional care.  The often confused picture adds further layers to all the professional advice surrounding mothers in relation to how they should feed their babies, this advice, too, being inevitably coloured by an individual adviser’s own relationship to their mother, but rarely acknowledged as playing any part in the advice given.  Such age-old comments, such as, “You mustn’t spoil a child by feeding it when it cries”, often stem from the fact that those giving or accepting such advice are keen to deny the baby something they themselves have not experienced, the unconditional offer of food (and thus love) whenever they wanted it.  We are often disturbed by seeing others getting what we cannot have or have never had, and this is never truer than in the case of those watching a baby demand with all its being the unrestricted outpouring of breast milk, and being granted its wish.  Watch how people often look away from the sight of a baby’s uninhibited joy in receiving this boundless sustenance, and the mother’s joy, too when this sustenance is accepted unconditionally.  Do we have within us, unacknowledged, some jealousy of such a demonstration of perfect satisfaction, made no longer possible as we grow up, when our pleasures have to be tempered by more realistic expectations, and our mothers are no longer there to satisfy our needs?  And, if so, is that why there are so many books which appear to want, however subtly this is done, to deny babies such pleasures, apparently in the interests of babies’ health?

And then, too, there are all the issues surrounding our need to have our offers of sustenance accepted every time we offer something.  Mothers often feel rejected when a baby struggles to get away from breast or bottle, and continue to try to force milk upon the baby even when it indicates it is satisfied.  This is the flipside of the approach which advocates withholding food from the baby, but stems from an equal level of imbalance.  It also lies at the heart of many of the problems of obesity in babies and children, for mother (and it is still predominantly the female in a family rather than the male) can easily overfeed, particularly with artificial milk which flows much too quickly and much too uniformly richly from the bottle compared with the breast which has its own in-built filtering mechanisms, allowing it to become ever thinner as the baby’s suckling slackens.  I have watched mothers force the bottle on to a baby who is lying quite contentedly there and continue to try and coax it to drink more even when the baby turns its face away.  And on the face of the mother appears satisfaction as soon as the baby starts sucking again and dismay when the baby indicates it has enough but there is still milk left in the bottle, as though what she regards as her offerings of mother love have been rejected, rather than understanding that the baby’s stomach is full.

Different cultures have different attitudes to the feeding of babies, to do with very complex social and economic attitudes.  These include a culture’s approach to the natural functions of the body, to a mother’s place in society and obviously, too, the availability and promotion of powdered milk as a satisfactory, and apparently recommended, alternative.  Some countries, such as Sweden or Norway, for example, where breastfeeding is taken as absolutely the norm, cannot understand what they see as British mothers’ reluctance to breastfeed, having an almost 100% record of breastfeeding.  It is a pity that we in this country and in other countries, such as the United States, do not follow this praiseworthy example.

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