The November Carnival of Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding, Circa 1950s

The Carnival of Breastfeeding is back!

As longstanding readers may remember, I started participating in the Carnival of Breastfeeding at the beginning of this year, and got posts up for January, February, and March.  The reason I stopped writing posts for the Carnival after that was because the Carnival stopped.  The blog of one of the main hosts was cut off without warning (unfortunately I can't remember who the provider was that did it, or I'd name and shame them wholeheartedly) and the Carnival just didn't seem to reappear, although I did regularly check for some months after that.  In the end I gave up checking, and thus missed the first month's reappearance, although that was probably no great loss to the blogging world as I can't really think of any particularly interesting ways in which my birth experience impacted my breastfeeding experience.  However, thanks to Hobo Mama's Sunday Surf, I found that the Carnival was baaaaaaack in time to write something for November's deadline.  

(Quick note: As usual, I will be posting this on the day of the Carnival – November 22nd – but amending it once the other posts are out there to include links to them at the end.  Do check back after the end of the 22nd to see who else has submitted a post.)

Our brief for this month is to write about the history of breastfeeding through the generations in our family.  For what it's worth, here's what I know:

My mother breastfed me for six weeks before getting mastitis and becoming one of the far-too-many women of the time to be given the totally inaccurate advice that she should stop breastfeeding (we now know that the reverse is true – stopping breastfeeding actually makes mastitis worse, due to the buildup of milk in an already painful breast).  When she questioned this, the doctor said to her "Mrs _____, some women are SELFISH when it comes to thinking about what's best for their babies.  You don't want to be SELFISH, do you?"  So she stopped breastfeeding and she and my father spent a miserable day struggling to persuade me to take a bottle, something I wasn't in the least willing to do after six weeks of exclusive breastfeeding.  Thirty-four years later, the first piece of advice she would give me when I was pregnant with my first child – even before such important gems as "Don't solve the problem until it happens", and "The most important thing you can do for your kids is to enjoy them" – would be "Make sure you give your baby a bottle every day, even if it just has a little bit of water in it." 

I eventually resigned myself to taking the bottle (though apparently not before storing up some serious karmic retribution, judging by the amount of my maternity leave my daughter would someday spend stressing me out by her utter refusal to take the bottles that I had indeed tried to introduce at an early stage) and was formula-fed from then on.  But my mother's breastfeeding story did have a happy ending – later, she went on to breastfeed my younger sister for a year.  (And now our generational story has come full circle; my sister is now breastfeeding her own beautiful little boy.)

Since I know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the breastfeeding history of any of the other women of previous generations in my family and, quite honestly, can't see myself asking, that would have been that for this month's blog post.  Except that my mother saved two particularly special gifts for her two daughters.  She saved the books she used for information when breastfeeding each of us.  She saved them through decades and (in the case of mine) two international moves, so that she could give them to us when we had our own children.

I don't know what book my sister got (although I'd love to see it, someday), but mine was the second edition of the La Leche League's The Womanly Art Of Breastfeeding, published in 1963.  A thin volume in a blue hardbacked cover embellished only with the title and a simple line drawing of the LLL's logo, a woman cradling a baby (slightly different from the one used today – there's a definite 50's look to the woman's hairstyle).  On the inside of the front cover is my mother's handwritten name and the Philadelphian address where she and my father lived during my infancy, before we moved to the UK.  On the facing page, above a stamp reading 'Childbirth Education Association Of Greater Philadelphia', is a personal inscription that my mother wrote to me before presenting the book to me on the first Mother's Day after my son was born.

It's a fascinating relic from a bygone era.  While the decade might have turned to the 60s three years before that edition was published, the book was first written in 1958 and the ethos of the second edition is still wholeheartedly 50s.  Sometimes this shows up in glaringly obvious ways; an entire chapter is devoted to the father's role as protector and provider and to the assurance that, just because the authors advocate that he helps his wife out at particularly busy times (obviously, only when there are no women relatives available to step in and the family can't afford hired help), it in no way means that they aren't all in favour of men being masculine and there being a 'natural division of labour' within the family.  'La Leche League was formed for no other purpose than to help women be more womanly' the authors assure us.  Other signs of the thought patterns of that era are more subtle, assumptions dropped in casually in passing; discussing how a mother might talk to an older sibling about the need to deal with the baby first, the book suggests telling them in tones of happy reminiscence '"Mary, when you were little and hungry, I'd tell Timmy and Elizabeth and the older ones to wait a bit because I wanted to feed you…" Mary will love the idea of once having been the star.'  Yup – and I love the idea that the authors could take it for granted that a family of six or more children would be the norm among their audience.

But the biggest contrast between this relic of a bygone era and so many of the parenting books of today is in the tone of the entire book.  In her highly controversial article about the breastfeeding wars, Hannah Rosin wrote of The Womanly Art Of Breastfeeding 'The experience of reading the 1958 edition is like talking with your bossy but charming neighbor, who has some motherly advice to share. Reading the latest edition is like being trapped in the office of a doctor who’s haranguing you about the choices you make.'  I haven't read the latest edition, so can't comment on that (though it is fair to say that one reason why I haven't read it is simply because it looks so daunting – the edition my mother gave me is a delightful little guide that I read at a sitting, while my distant recollection of what I saw of the latest edition at the occasional LLL meeting that I managed to attend is that it bore more resemblance to a textbook to be dipped into for reference purposes).  But I do know that the tone of this book is a world away from the tense anxiety-ridden attitude of so much of what I read in modern breastfeeding literature in particular and childcare literature in general. 

In the books of today's parenting world (across the parenting spectrum), there are a host of possible ways to get things Wrong which must be avoided at all costs, and, oh, the pitfalls that might lead to Wrongness are many and devious and hard to spot – cling to our crucially important advice as closely as you can, dear readers, because dread disasters hover in wait for you and your baby otherwise, and won't somebody think of the chiiiiiiildreeeeeeen?  But, to the LLL founders, their role was simply to offer a small collection of pieces of friendly advice to get a mother's feet well set on a path that she would, thereafter, be fully capable of treading herself.  They genuinely believed in the ability of mothers to do the job of mothering.

For me, the book was a breath of fresh air and a joy to read.  Good grief, it even made the world of 1950s homemaking sound pleasurable – I can never leaf through the book without feeling inspired to go cook something with shortening (what the hell is shortening, anyway?). But, most of all, it's a loving gesture from a mother who has done so much for me that matters so much more than those weeks of breastfeeding or months of formula-feeding.  And one day, I hope to be able to turn that gesture into a family tradition as I write my own inscription in the space below my mother's and place the book in the hands of my own daughter, on the birth of her first baby.


Other posts in the Carnival include:

Elita at Blacktating: Three Generations of Breastfeeding

Christine at Christine's Contemplations: My Family History of Breastfeeding

Judy at Mommy News Blog: My Family History of Breastfeeding

Mama Mo at Attached at the Nip: How Women In My Family Feed Babies

Tanya at The Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog: An Unbroken Chain

Jona at Breastfeeding Twins: Beer & Bottles (and other motherly advice)

Alicia at Lactation Narration: Only the Hippies Were Breastfeeding

Jake Aryeh Marcus at Sustainable Mothering: Breastfeeding? Not in My Family


Filed under Family values, Milky milky

7 responses to “The November Carnival of Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding, Circa 1950s

  1. GrannyC

    What a truly, lovely post, Sarah. Thank you from the bottom of my heart….what a lucky Mum I am and always have been. xxGrannyC

  2. It’s interesting how often breastfeeding is believed to be something a mother does for her own selfish reasons, rather than something she does for her baby or with her baby. It’s a very special loving dance between the two of them and for many women, just a gentle guiding hand is all it takes to get the moves right. But I do think for a lot of new moms, particularly because there is so much inaccurate information out there about breastfeeding and still so little support from family and friends, and aggressive marketing of formula, that we have to work extra hard to encourage them along the way. If we don’t and the relationship goes south, mom feels guilty and breastfeeding itself and lactivists in particular(instead of the barriers) tend to bear the brunt of her anger and frustration.

  3. I use my Womanly Art of Breastfeeding as a reference book, and I’m happy to have it! It’s a font of information and support. I’ve heard the newest edition has updated sections on working/pumping and other concerns many nursing moms face today. I would love to get my hands on a copy as old as yours, though, just to read it through. Thanks for sharing your story!

  4. Amanda

    Shortening is Crisco 🙂

  5. I love this! I have my mom’s copies of Dr. Spock and the Bradley book, but I have no idea what she used as a breastfeeding resource – if anything. I’ll have to ask her…

  6. Laura Chapman

    Lovely article. I followed your link from your NCT posting, hi!
    I have, amongst my far-too-many books on parenting, a 1979 copy of TWAB and I have referred to it much more often than others, although I found the suggestions on how to adapt my clothing for nursing by unpicking a dart etc. amusing – I can’t even thread a sewing machine and just pop down to H&M if I want a nursing top!
    I have no idea about our family breastfeeding history, my mother wouldn’t even entertain the idea of it in 1973 and instead I was fed diluted Carnation Condensed Milk with extra sugar in it, to make sure I finished it up .

  7. Eileen

    No, if you want to be picky – Crisco is shortening, since shortening in the general term for fat used in cooking such as butter, margarine or other artificial fats or pork dripping. Crisco is a US product and in the UK would be paralleled by other artificial fats – once upon a time Trex was it but I have no idea what they call it now as I only use natural products on the rare occasions I need to. I have just learned how to make southern Italian Christmas pastries with olive oil!

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