by Charlotte Faircloth
Militant Lactivism? is a book based on my doctoral research with women in London and Paris who are members of La Leche League (LLL), an international breastfeeding support organisation. The text focuses on the accounts of a small but significant population of mothers within LLL who practise what’s called ‘attachment parenting’. This is a style of parenting which endorses parent-child proximity and typically involves long-term, on-cue breastfeeding, baby ‘wearing’ and co-sleeping as part of a ‘family bed’ philosophy. It is a style of care which is becoming increasingly popular in both the US and the UK, and one that has recently received a lot of publicity, following a particularly provocative TIME magazine feature, amongst other coverage (here).
I attended the monthly meetings of all ten London-based and all eight Paris-based LLL groups as an observer over the course of 12 months during 2006-7. The meetings, generally held in members’ homes, had between five and twenty mothers in attendance, with children ageing from newborn to five years old. I later interviewed and conducted a survey with approximately 75 women. Mothers were in the vast majority white, aged around 34, well-educated (to university level or equivalent) and married.
Feeding, arguably the most conspicuously moralized element of mothering, was my focus. Because of its vital importance for the survival and healthy development of infants, feeding is a highly scrutinized domain in which mothers must counter any charges of practicing unusual, harmful or morally suspect feeding techniques. The WHO states breastfeeding in developed countries should continue ‘for up to two years, or beyond’ in conjunction with other foods, but the number of women who do this is minimal in both countries (less then 25% of women in the UK are still breastfeeding at all at 6 months, only 2% are doing it ‘exclusively’).
In taking their mothering practices to an extreme, and breastfeeding to full-term (for between one and eight years, though typically for around three to four years) the women here invited critical engagement with their ‘accountability strategies’ – literally, how they explain why they do what they do. What I found was that attachment parents usually validate their choice of care through recourse to ‘nature,’ (typically that it is evolutionarily ‘most natural’, ‘what science says is best’ and ‘what feels right in my heart’) thereby naturalising the gendered divisions of labour in caring. (This has become a central theme of my current research, which looks at how infant feeding intersects with couple intimacy and equality).
Full-term breastfeeding is used as a case study to explore what has been termed an ‘intensification’ of mothering. I draw on the work of numerous scholars who have shown that in this new era of mothering (and it is usually mothers) women are expected to do much more for their children than might once have been the case. Beyond straightforward ‘child-rearing,’ today’s ideal mothering is labour intensive, emotionally absorbing and personally fulfilling activity, with a strong emphasis on the importance of infant experiences on later adult life. This ideal exacerbates a ‘cultural contradiction’ between the worlds of work and home, increasing the antagonism around women’s decisions to participate in these two spheres (or not). If raising children is seen as ‘the most important job in the world’ (as one of my interviewees put it) then this clearly has implications for how one approaches other kinds of labour, paid or otherwise.
The book therefore takes a new direction in kinship studies in exploring how relatedness is understood in conjunction with constructions of the self. In particular, it looks at how attachment mothering has become very central to women’s identities, with some women styling themselves as (or being seen by others as) ‘militant lactivists’, and evangelical about the benefits of full-term breastfeeding and attachment parenting. In the book, I discuss some of the problems with this label: Many of the women I worked with belong to associations and forums (both on and offline) to support and promote full-term breastfeeding and attachment parenting, and there is an active community, or ‘movement’ to this end. Many mothers value this community – particularly where they feel marginalised by wider society – but recognise that there is a danger of slipping into a ‘tribalised’ viewpoint, bound up with moralized judgements about other forms of care. The book points to some of the (unintended) consequences of this tribalisation, at a wider social level. In looking at the role of evolution, science and affect in the creation of knowledge claims, the text also intersects with wider trends in the social sciences around risk consciousness, individualisation and identity narratives.
Charlotte Faircloth is an Early Scholar Fellow in the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent. Her book, Militant Lactivism? Attachment Parenting and Intensive Motherhood in the UK and France, is reviewed in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here.