A few things have happened since I began doing some research for this seasons Tour of the world of breastfeeding. I wanted to be able to take my listeners on a tour, if you will of breastfeeding around the globe from ancient to current times. I knew that I would be covering times when babies were wet nursed and cross nursed. I knew that I would be covering times when babies were removed from their biological mothers arms and given to other woman to nourish them. I knew that there were times in history when wet nurses were just your average citizen, some were paid very well and others average to even low wages. I knew there were historical times and places where they moved from their home to live in nice homes of their employer and times when they were so revered they were treated like royalty.
I also knew that babies were wet nursed for very sad reasons when their mother was very ill and could not nurse, or did not any milk or enough milk for her baby. I also knew that babies were wet nursed because there mother had died. I know that babies were wet nursed as a matter of convenience – so women could conceive lots more babies because many years ago, not a lot of babies survived so if a women had 12 babies, and males were so perhaps a male or two survived childhood. The other reason babies were wet nursed was for a matter of convenience and vanity as woman wanted to be able to fit into the tight clothes and breastfeeding did not allow for this.
So, as I am doing my research and putting much of what I already know, into context, I am also learning some new things and most importantly of all, I am actually sitting and contemplating and ruminating about what I already knew, but have not slowed down enough to take time to really, really think of what it means to me and to society as we live in now.
A few shows back, you may remember me making personal commentary when talking about how when wet nursing became so popular, that their became a need to have it regulated with business opening up that literally contracted wet nurses. This led to big brother so to speak i this case, The Parisian police authorities who created a municipal bureau of wet nurses, taking the wet nurses away from making their own way of doing business and collecting money, to big business hiring them, having contracts, having control over their money. You heard me make snide commentary about – How the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Well, as I continued putting this show together, I was reminded of even more similarities that make me realize that the way things were centuries ago, are really not that much different then they are now. I am not putting my stamp of approval on mother’s abandoning their babies, not at all. However, the realization that we think so horribly of a woman nowadays who might abandon her baby & that we actually make it a criminal offense, is not much different than women years ago. Many abandoned their babies for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they wanted to keep making money as a wet nurse, perhaps they were a single mom and could not afford to take care of their baby, perhaps the baby was an unwanted by a society that only valued male babies.
I realized that my thoughts drifted off to thinking this: Well, as awful as it is, years ago when a mom abandoned her baby, at least the mom did not face criminal charges and at least her baby was still breastfed. When that happens in modern times, the mother is sought out, brought up on criminal charges, her baby put into the foster care system and formula fed. I started thinking: Which is worse? Then or now? I started thinking.. Are we better off now then we were then? Aren’t we suppose to be learning from history because if we don’t, we are apt to repeat it?
Centuries ago, Some women choose not to breastfeed for social reasons. Many of these women were found to be of the upper class. For them, breastfeeding was considered unfashionable, in the sense that it not only prevented these women from being able to wear the fashionable clothing of their time but it was also thought to ruin their figures. There was a time when woman wore tight fitting corsets that changed their normal waistline into an hourglass figure. This pushed the breasts up and smashed the nipples against the corset material causing them to flatten. This wardrobe was totally not conducive to breastfeeding. It took a lot of effort to tighten the corset and so they certainly were not, what we would call, breastfeeding friendly. In addition, it would be hard for a woman to fit into her tight corset, if she was breastfeeding and kept some weight on pp.
Like it or not, agree with it or not, there are enough modern day moms who base their decisions to breastfeed or not on their own ideas of body image. They know or have heard that they may keep on some baby weight while breastfeeding, that they have to eat many more calories, that their pre pregnancy figure does not come back while they are breastfeeding, that their breasts will be saggy when they are done. They are afraid of stretch marks of breasts being different sizes. Some moms don’t even begin to breastfeed for fear of some or all of the above happening to them. Some moms start off breastfeeding, things are going really well, but they are frustrated at having to keep up their caloric intake or the differences between breast as one makes way more milk than the other, or their baby prefers one side over the other, which causes them to be different sizes. So, they stop breastfeeding. Not that there is a right or wrong. However, what this highlighted to me – The more things change, the more things stay the same.
There is one area that shines brightly and stands out and separates mom from centuries ago, from moms of modern times, is the attitude toward wet nursing. While there were outliers in each country and at different times in history, I would say that women who were wet nurses were more often looked up to, thought of in high regard and often they were revered, by society and by the families that the worked for. They received special treatment such as a nice place to live, and a large salary, frequently more than their male counterpart. It has been interesting sharing with you an overview of wet nursing in ancient times – ranging from societal reasons, cultural attitudes, medical necessity, and yes matter of convenience. Breasts were use to being seen in public and there was a respect for the female breasts and it was understood that their job was to make milk for babies as well as be used for sexual pleasure. WE have sadly moved away from this thinking and this is why we have such strong opposition to mothers being seen in public breastfeeding their babies. This is because the way our modern society views breasts is that they are for sexual pleasure only. As one of my good friend Tressa says: What is wrong with acknowledging the truth – that breasts can be for sexual pleasure and for providing milk for our babies. Why does it have to be one thing or the other? I whole heartedly agree with Tressa and feel why can’t we just call a spade a spade for goodness sakes?
There is so much written about slaves and or poor women, nursing wealthier womens babies. They left their home and their family, to take care of someone else’s baby. One might wonder, just why would they do that? Because when money was scarce and they could make more money then their male counterparts & if they were a wet nurse to an elite family, even better. But how could these women leave their babies with other woman to care for. Perhaps the care was as good as they would have cared for their own baby & perhaps the care was less than optimal. Moms now have childcare concerns just as they did years ago.
We might be quick to judge, however, we can really relate it to the current times that we live in. Often it takes 2 salaries to keep a household going. Moms, leave their babies with other childcare or daycare, they leave them with bottles of milk, breastmilk or formula, so someone else is caring for their babies and someone else is feeding their babies, for a better part of the day. How is this any different than what was happening with moms from a few centuries ago. They too needed to bring in money to take care of their families. Centuries ago, babies were wet nursed as there were no milk formulas or bottles or pumps so it was a matter of necessity. Now, moms can choose to feed their babies formula or pump and have their babies fed their breastmilk from a bottle. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
As I continue to read about breastfeeding and wet nursing, it really brings home what I already really know. That mothers are always trying to do the best for their children, for their families. The culture was different years ago, the finances and health care and living conditions were different. This created a culture that caused moms to make decisions that were slightly different than the ones moms make today as far as working and childcare. Perhaps they gave their babies to be fed by another mom, but in reality, mothers then, were not much different then mothers now. All are striving to do the best job they can and be the good enough mother.
As I looked further into wet nursing in different countries, there were some differences and yet there was more that was the same, then there were differences. I could review other countries and their infant feeding practices, however, I have begun to see quite clearly that the differences are not so great and there is no reason to take each country or time period and give it their own spotlight.
Next week, we are going to bring us up to the beginning of the 20th century. We are going to come full circle with wet nursing as it drastically fell out of favor when animal milk and refrigeration and formulas became easily available and convenient. When wet nursing use to be a matter of necessity, it now became a matter of convenience and when this happened because mothers now had an easier way to be separated from their babies because they could feed them animal milk from bottles, wet nursing rather quickly went by the wayside. This drastic decline, made way for a whole new way of feeding babies
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