This post was most recently updated on February 27th, 2019
As brand new breastfeeding mothers, we can sometimes feel like Cinderella, sitting lonely in the kitchen while everyone else is having fun, feeling like we have been tasked with the impossible. But just like Cinderella, you are not alone. Even without her mother to care for her, Cinders had others around to help. Let’s have a look at the characters in Cinders story to help her work out who she can best rely on.
1.The Mice. Remember them? Friendly, full of empathy and boundless energy, they are the peer supporters, the doulas, the well-informed friends. They keep you company, love and believe in you, keep you going in the dark kitchen when you’re covered in cinders. They bring you food and drink and maybe the key that frees you when you feel locked in. That key might be a piece of information that suddenly means everything makes sense. It could be the understanding that comes from shared experience. They know what is normal and help you achieve it. And when they are stumped they often call the Fairy Godmother.
2. The Fairy Godmother. Bear with me – I’m not on a massive ego trip here. Fairy Godmother can’t help everyone, however powerful her magic wand. But remember how she listened to Cinders? Made her feel valued and worthy of going to the ball? Remember how she helped her make the best of the tools she had around her and supported her to find her own power? Fairy Godmother can, when required, conjure up powerful magic – she can sometimes tempt non-latching babies to suckle or take a mother from agony to comfort with some small, subtle adjustments to the posture of the mother and the position of the baby. Her wand is often wielded with a light touch – it might not, if you are watching her, look like she is doing much. Her magic is rarely loud and glamorous or even instant. Rather, it works delicately and leaves the mother feeling like she has found her own answers. Fairy Godmothers are often called Breastfeeding Counsellors, Breastfeeding Supporters, LLL Leaders or International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, but sometimes midwives or health visitors are Fairy Godmothers too – sometimes even because they have been to Fairy Godmother school in their own time!
3. The Wicked Stepmother. Poor woman – she has a bad reputation, doesn’t she? But remember in the story she is a victim of the patriarchy herself. A widow with 2 daughters, she has no choice but to marry again and do all she can to ensure her daughters are provided for. Wicked Stepmothers are sometimes just trying to make a living. Sometimes they are uninformed and give well-meaning but old fashioned advice. But watch out, sometimes trying to survive in a hostile world has made her mean and bitter. Maybe she gets pleasure from creating division amongst mothers and she may well make a bigger profit from dividing you from your sister-mice. She might work in Government, charged with public health, but shy away from such a ‘contentious’ issue as infant feeding for fear of losing votes. She may be difficult to recognise because she might pretend she wants to help you. But if your goal is to breastfeed and you find yourself in the kitchen washing bottles, she might not be your Fairy Godmother. Wicked Stepmothers might be working for formula companies’ care lines or appear as a media-savvy ‘guru’ or ‘expert’; a nanny with her own TV show or parenting book. She might be a blogger or active on social media – you will recognise her because she spends a lot of energy calling Fairy Godmothers names like ‘lactivist’, ‘nipple nazi’ or the ‘breastapo’ and spend a lot of time telling you your milk is “not all that” and certainly no different to formula. They often have a large following of Step Sisters (see below).
4. The Step Sisters are often wrapped up in their own pain, disappointment or grief from their own feeding journey. They might have swallowed stories about breastfeeding being no different to formula feeding to salve their own hard emotions and share these opinions in a misguided attempt to make you feel better. They may love you and wish the best for you. They might feel terribly triggered by the way you want to feed your baby and these emotions might spill out in ways you find difficult to understand. Just like in the story, it is their actions that can appear ugly, not their hearts and faces. Like Cinders, they are victims too.
5. The Coachmen. Wearing their smart uniforms they look like they should know all about everything, we assume they can help us with our breastfeeding because they look so official. They have a very busy job trying to get you to the ball on time and home by midnight safely. Most haven’t had much training in breastfeeding because they spend all their time looking after the coach and horses and they are typically chronically understaffed and under-resourced. Some have managed to become Mice or Fairy Godmothers. Others might also be Step Sisters.
6. The Handsome Prince. In the story he looks like he is the rescuer but I like to think Cinders herself, with a little help from her Fairy Godmother and the Mice, was the source of her own salvation. I hope Cinders really did love him and that he empowers her in an equal partnership. I hope he doesn’t think he can just strut in and fix Cinders. But I suspect he is the actually symbolic of the Patriarchy, consistently ignoring and cutting services for women so that under-trained coachmen, stepmothers and the Step Sisters are created and given free rein to continue sabotaging breastfeeding and restricting true freedom of choice in infant feeding. The Prince rules – he gets to decide what commercial influences and social injustices can negatively impact your breastfeeding journey. As the government of the land, he has the power to pass laws that would make things easier. And he makes Cinders wear those ridiculous shoes. (think the Fairy Godmother made her wear those shoes? Think again. She threw them away and he came looking for her to force them on her feet again!)
I’m not entirely sure this Cinderella analogy works. You see, the real landscape of breastfeeding support is super-complicated, piecemeal, variable and forever in flux. A brilliant support group with really wise, skilled, experienced practitioners could disappear tomorrow and not be replaced. A Health Visitor clinic could be a Fairy Godmother or utterly useless unless you want to use formula.
What I am certain of is that so many women have been caused such huge amounts of suffering and so few have had the opportunity to unpick and understand what happened to them that we now don’t know our nipples from our elbows. Blame is thrown in wrong directions and faith in our own bodies has been eroded.
When Cinders has kicked off those ridiculous shoes and she gets to sit atop her pumpkin surrounded by her mouse-friends breastfeeding her baby without pain or worry, it can seem to those who suffered that her very actions are an affront to them – a judgement on their choices. But, you see, it’s not. Cinders doesn’t care how you feed your baby – all she can do is stare at her beautiful child and get through each day as a new mum. Fairy Godmother is far too busy working her magic with the women who close their eyes tight and wish for her to appear. She hasn’t got time to stand in judgement of those who chose formula, even if she wanted to – and she doesn’t. She sees the suffering that happens, that even her wand can’t magic away, and understands with every fibre of her being why some mothers choose not to breastfeed. She’s a wise old bird who’s been around the block a few times, believe me.
It’s so convenient for the Prince to sell us the lie that all that matters is a fed baby. It puts women at the bottom of the pile, teaching us firmly that we don’t matter, that hoping for autonomy and agency and choice is too much to ask for. All that matters is not just an alive baby. YOU matter too. If you dream of breastfeeding – because you’ve read the research about the protection it confers on your baby, or because it’s free, or always on tap, or because it protects you from disease, or just because you blooming well fancy it, you deserve to be accompanied along the way by the Mice who will scamper around catering to your every need and fetching the Fairy Godmother if you need her.
You don’t deserve to be told, at the first sign of a problem, that it doesn’t matter how your baby is fed, implying you are an idiot to have wanted to breastfeed in the first place.
And if you read this and think, ‘well I didn’t want to breastfeed’ or ‘I tried but it didn’t work and I don’t feel bad about formula feeding’, well all I can say is BRILLIANT! I’m so happy for you. I’m genuinely pleased you’re happy. Be happy, and perhaps try not to rain on Cinderella’s parade. Cinders is just feeding her baby. Her actions are not designed to make you feel guilty. Can we, maybe, take a breath and agree that it’s the Prince that made the rules that make it hard for all of us, however we choose or end up feeding our kids.
When I showed the draft of this article to my friend Jo Rogers, this is what she replied.
“I think fairy tales were never meant to be nice or pretty. They mostly contained warnings or reflections of the darkness in human nature. Breastfeeding support is headed down a pretty dark path at the moment – the wisdom and knowledge of motherkenning and science is being overrun by fear and formula…There are characters in fairy tales who hold up a mirror not just to the players but to the play itself, to the pattern in society it represents. Those characters aren’t the darkness, they show us our own.”
I think she’s hit the nail on the head. What do you think? I love hearing what you have to say. Comment below to join the conversation. If you want to learn more about becoming a doula and supporting new mothers, why not have a peek at my other website, Developing Doulas