Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Contact La Leche League International

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Esther Edith Features
Vanessa Olorenshaw, Kent, UK
Photo: Esther Edith

The connection between breastfeeding and economics and the value of mothers.

breastfeeding-and-economics-liberating-motherhoodMy journey writing this book loosely followed the one I have taken as a mother. Tentative steps. Doubt. Gradual increasing confidence interspersed with guilt and feelings of incompetence. Looking forward to the birth of my book baby, Liberating Motherhood, Birthing the Purplestockings Movement, felt like coming to the end of a very long pregnancy with an extended, intense, transition.

The book falls into four parts: our bodies, our minds, our labour, and our hearts. I discuss how our bodies do amazing things when we create and sustain life. Our emotional lives are transformed. We are simultaneously blamed and elevated to idealized madonnas. We work harder than we may ever have done in our lives, with less sleep, no holiday, no pay, and no recognition. When we find our tribe, oh, what sweet relief. I was only able to start writing the book once I had found my own village, my tribe of mothers. To be held by a circle of women gave me the strength I needed to write.

I wrote the book because I had reached the point where I could not not write it. I was disturbed by both the policies which push more and more mothers away from their children against their wishes and I was frustrated by the sort of feminism that regards mothering as regressive and irrelevant. Liberating Motherhood is the result of my need to be heard, to see the power and strength of mothers respected.

I am humbled by the endorsements the book has received, from Steve Biddulph, Oliver James and Michel Odent, to Birthrights’ Rebecca Schiller, Bare Reality’s Laura Dodsworth, former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti and Mothers at Home Matter. I was overjoyed that LLL Leader Naomi Stadlen, author of What Mothers Do—especially when it looks like nothing and How Mothers Love—and how relationships are born, agreed to write a foreword for the book. In it she wrote:

“The goal of Liberating Motherhood is not to liberate every woman from motherhood. Rather, it is to liberate every woman who wants to be a mother for motherhood. Many mothers want to spend more time with their children but cannot afford to. Vanessa wants us to recognise that it is our society that has to change, not mothers. She wants to see mothers supported, and to be given both social respect and better financial options.”

Here follows an excerpt from the book.

Mother’s Milk

“If a multinational company developed a product that was a nutritionally balanced and delicious food, a wonder drug that both prevented and treated disease, cost almost nothing to produce, and could be delivered in quantities controlled by consumers’ needs, the announcement of this find would send its shares rocketing to the top of the stock market. The scientists who developed the product would win prizes and the wealth and influence of everyone involved would increase dramatically. Women have been producing such a miraculous substance, breastmilk, since the beginning of human existence, yet they form the least wealthy and the least powerful half of humanity.” Gabrielle Palmer, The Politics of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding and economics

Breastfeeding and economics? What next? Sex and politics? Love and Wall Street? Well, yes, they are connected. Bear with me. Gabrielle Palmer laid down the gauntlet to the artificial baby-feeding industry in The Politics of Breastfeeding and Marilyn Waring paid short attention to the issue of nursing in Counting For Nothing, What Men Value and What Women Are Worth. Waring is critical throughout the book (not just in relation to breastfeeding) of the fact that the international economic system “makes no distinction between creative (or life-enhancing) and destructive production and consumption. It cannot identify what is good for us”. And this is the thing: breastfeeding is good for us and our children; yet our economic systems place absolutely no value on what we do or the process of breastfeeding itself. Breastfeeding is the ultimate demonstration of how our society freeloads on women’s labour and reproductive work. Our milk feeds human babies! It grows them! It nourishes them! It keeps them alive and keeps them growing on the most perfect, optimal, normal, natural substance. Yet, despite this, we are deemed to be doing nothing. When it comes to nutrition, our bodies do amazing work: it’s just not regarded as work. Perhaps that’s because it’s women’s work.

In the preface to the first edition of Milk of Human Kindness, Defending Breastfeeding from the Global Market & the AIDS Industry, Selma James and Phoebe Jones Schellenberg address the efforts of commerce to produce breast-milk substitutes, asking “what’s wrong with ours—except we don’t have to buy it?” And therein lies the rub. When everything has a price, our milk is not priceless but worthless. This will not do, sisters. It absolutely illustrates the way in which our caring and nourishing work for our children is devalued by our culture.

Quite simply, the issue of breastfeeding work reveals the lack of value and prestige placed on work women do when it is work that only a woman can do. We are feeding our baby for them to grow and thrive. What can be more important than that?

And choice? What about choice? In Milk, Money and Madness, The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding, Naomi Baumslag and Dia Michels address the fact that an “intimate and self-affirming life experience that is responsible for the survival of our species has been reduced to ‘just one feeding option’” at best and “a confining form of servitude” at worst. Ah, the liberation of choice, key to the modern devaluation of women and the power of women’s bodies. Yet, our milk is incomparable to powder and boiling water. It contains living cells, from our human bodies. We mothers must be able to have pride in this, yet our culture devalues it or insists that we feel awkward or ashamed about it. We do not see how it is life-affirming labour. It is intrinsically human and quintessentially female. Surely, we can take pride in that? Surely, we can demand recognition for that work? So how about we think about the economics of breastfeeding as work? For starters, it doesn’t exist. GDP [Gross Domestic Product] hates breastfeeding. A bodily process, free to mother, free to infant, nourishing, requiring no paraphernalia and providing health protection for mother and baby, is a process which takes away from money for service; money for product; money for health treatment. We could say that breastfeeding undermines the notion of economics as a measurement of value. The sale of poison, of petrol or of toxins fuels GDP: the bodily, affectionate, maternal transmission of breastmilk doesn’t even register. What does this tell us? In fact, a healthy mother-infant breastfeeding dyad is not counted in economic statistics of product and services (unlike black market drug dealing and prostitution, say). A healthy GDP steals from the mother-infant dyad, maternal and infant health and the love of a breastfeeding relationship and valorises artificial commercial feeding of infants contrary to their and their mothers’ physiological and biological needs.

So the invisible hand of economics (more on this later in A Mother’s Labour) is the enemy of the invisible breast. By breastfeeding our babies we are sticking two fingers up to GDP. We are saying: keep your bottles, keep your processing of cow/soy/whatever products, keep your packaging, and keep your greed for profit at my and my baby’s expense. Keep your over-priced probiotics and medicines. We are refusing to comply with your warped economic valuations of productivity in matters of infant feeding—for in GDP, money makes the world go round, not loving, milky, breasts.

Breastfeeding in the age of equality

When it comes to our buzz word—equality—nursing a child at the breast is a conundrum. It is a job only a mother can do. Breastfeeding is a reminder that females alone have the equipment for the natural nourishment of human babies. We are faced with the fact that we are mammals, and that babies, from an evolutionary perspective, expect to receive mother’s milk. One might say that baby’s need for mother is intense in the early years, as basic as the child’s need for food. And, my goodness, doesn’t that make us all so very uncomfortable. It is almost verboten to say it.

Recent UK Shared Parental Leave (the uptake of which has been extremely low) rules have thrown up issues which directly affect the World Health Organization’s breastfeeding guidance that babies are exclusively breastfed for six months and then alongside complementary foods until the age of two. And beyond if mutually desired.

Thing is, somebody missed the memo. Only the mother has the equipment to breastfeed, in routine circumstances. Our ability to breastfeed is, simply, inconvenient in the age of equality. In countries such as the US, where paid maternity leave doesn’t exist, let alone leave for the father, things are even worse. In The Price of Motherhood, Why the Most Important Job is Still the Least Valued, Ann Crittenden describes the health guidance on breastfeeding, a full year, at least, as a “sick joke in a country that entitles new mothers to no paid leave at all”.

Promotion of Shared Parental Leave before the baby is six months old manifestly undermines the UK’s own NHS [National Health Service] guidance—that babies should be nurtured exclusively at the breast during that time. It does so because it encourages mothers to go back to work from two weeks postpartum and leave the baby with the father or partner. It is a direct contradiction in message, let alone ignoring the fact that mothers need time to recover from childbirth and to bond with the baby that lived inside her for nine months. That is before you even consider the pervasive images of bottles on the Government website promoting the idea of the equality utopia, as though its own NHS guidance (and the compelling public health basis for it) does not exist. When it comes to breastfeeding, perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it doesn’t know its nose from its nipple.

It all comes down to this: for formula companies to make a profit, and the state to reap the tax, mothers need to fail to breastfeed their babies or believe that there is no value in breastfeeding. Policymakers know it but do nothing to improve mothers’ chances of success. I doubt we will find that printed on a tin of milk powder anytime soon.

In the age of equality, breastfeeding is at risk of being seen as a tie, rather than a bond, a hindrance rather than a womanly art of value for mother and child. That said, in our culture, the word ‘womanly’ sounds like an oddity nowadays. Only now heard in conjunction with ‘hips’ or ‘demeanour’. Much in the same way that breasts are seen as sexual, rather than as for the nourishment of children, I suppose.

For many women, breastfeeding starts out as a way to feed their babies—and over time it becomes a way to respond to their needs for food, comfort, love, sleep, warmth, closeness and reassurance. This is one of the reasons I baulk at the idea that I am somehow replaceable in the early years (indeed at all), that I am substitutable by another relative or a stranger and that I am ‘equal’ only in terms of a capitalist game and economic agenda written by non-lactating males. Having breastfed my children is something I will cherish until the day I die. Not something I say very often, but, actually, as a human experience of bonding, nourishment and sensuality between two people who love each other, it is right up there with the best.

It might not contribute to GDP, as would the purchase of commercial substitutes and paraphernalia. It might be invisible economically and politically. Yet, the milk I provided for my children for over five years was precious, and the normal and natural food produced by my body to meet their changing needs. The warmth of my arms in its delivery was priceless.

There is value in that.


Finding Your Tribe

.Who Needs WHO?

The Work of Mothering


Vanessa Olorenshaw

Vanessa Olorenshaw is a mother of two and an LLL Leader. Formerly a besuited lawyer and law reporter in London, she now rocks the ‘private sphere’ in Kent in Doc Martens. And she couldn’t be happier. She was a founding member of the Women’s Equality Party UK and is the author of the pamphlet, The Politics of Mothering as well as the book Liberating Motherhood, Birthing the Purplestockings Movement.


  1. Roxanne Thorp Says: October 14, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    Very interesting article, thank you 😀

  2. Powerful stuff. I’ve always thought this since I started supporting women to meet their beastfeeding goals. I see breastfeeding as a woman’ / feminist issue that that movement has never taken up to support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.