Breastfeeding mums often find themselves needing to feed in public, but rarely in front of the camera. In a town with a catalogue of social problems, should Blackpool be pulling rank on breastfeeding?
My family moved to Blackpool at the back end of the town's golden years, attracted by the prospect of living somewhere that seemed such a happy place for families, and made a modest living running a hotel on New South Promenade. They struggled against declining tourism for just short of a decade until they eventually cut their losses and, in the mid-eighties, shut up shop.
Their story wasn't isolated, and while Blackpool Promenade has had a handsome redevelopment, to the tune of around £80m, it's hard to enjoy a stroll down the prom and ignore the countless number of boarded-up and disused hotels on the other side of the road.
The picture in Blackpool today is not one of happy families but of poverty and social deprivation. Statistically Blackpool comes off badly in most social issues.
Rates of violent crime, sexual assault and domestic violence in Blackpool exceed national averages. The town has high levels of mental illness, the highest rates of male suicide, the worst life expectancy and the worst levels of family breakdown.
One in 67 children is in care in Blackpool (over twice the national average). Approximately 30% of children estimated to be in poverty, with the majority being from lone parent families. Teenage pregnancy is high and, it will come as no surprise, breastfeeding rates are well below the national average of 45% at 6-8 weeks - 26%.
There's no statistic for breastfeeding rates at five months, the age of my baby. But it can be quite an isolating experience.
One playgroup I go to, in a local church, is attended mostly by grandmothers picking up the childcare role to relieve their children of extortionate childcare fees. Many women of their generation formula fed and whapping your boob out among them (and Jesus) to feed a hungry baby is unnerving. The other is run by Sure Start, a fantastic and invaluable facility where breastfeeding is wholly supported. But most mothers in my group have slightly older toddlers and few breastfeed. I go to these groups and breastfeed when necessary, rather than spend my days on the sofa enduring endless episodes of Peppa Pig to entertain my bored toddler.
Breastfeeding needs to be made more visible in this town - and indeed this country. We need to normalise it so that the teenage mum feels confident enough to make a trip to the park or the playgroup without worrying that her baby might need to be fed (and if they're breastfed they usually will.)
Breastfeeding is not an easy thing to do. If, by good fortune, you have a baby that takes well to the breast, and you don't face one of the countless problems so many mothers do (tounge-tie, mastitis, under-supply, over-supply - to name a few), you will usually have one who loves to dive down your top in the most inappropriate places and times - often leaving you feeling insecure about exposing your boobs, which society says are for sexual gratification only.
Last month I was leaving Blackpool town centre by car, with my two girls in tow. The baby, who had slept soundly in the pram around town (of course), woke as I was trying to navigate the diversions and one-way systems around the old bus station - the new "Central Business District". Flustered, I pulled into a side road to find somewhere quiet to feed her. I made the heinous mistake of parking in an (empty) taxi rank though. Babe on boob, she was happy, leaving me free to answer the 500th "why" question from my toddler that day.
I didn't notice the parking warden approach and jumped when he appeared directly in front of me (now in the passenger seat) to scan my tax disc. He wanted to ticket me, of course, and, against my better judgement as the baby still needed to be fed, I offered to move. But he was insistent I would receive a ticket either way.
I appealed to his better nature (I have faith that even parking wardens have one) but instead he took photographs of my car while I sat inside flustered and trying to console two now upset children. When he came to issuing me with the black and yellow penalty charge notice I knocked on the window and asked him to put it in my hand. Where was his human decency? I asked. But he shrugged and said he couldn't hear me. When he left, in his van parked on double yellow lines, I was upset too. The mortifying scene had grabbed the attention of several passers-by who peered into my car while I was attempting to breastfeed my baby.
I wrote to Blackpool Council, incensed that I hadn't been simply moved on. The fact I was feeding at the time had magnified events and my humiliation. It's ironic, I thought, that Blackpool Council professes to encourage breastfeeding (in the Hounds Hill Shopping Centre, where I'd been, there are no breastfeeding facilities, although you are "welcome" to sit down in Costa Coffee, according to the shopping centre, if you can afford to buy a £1.75 cup of tea) but its employee couldn't demonstrate a little discretion or, dare I say, sympathy for a mother attempting to give her baby her lunch.
While I waited for a response from the council (which I still haven't got directly) I became more indignant. The rude parking warden, his lack of sympathy and my own feelings of vulnerability and violation over the photos he took underlined how breastfeeding in public was a near impossible ask. No matter how much health professionals encourage us, they need to stand in my shoes, and wear my unsupportive nursing bra, while having a face-off with a parking warden in Blackpool.
Locally, I thought, this issue needed to be highlighted. With such social problems in Blackpool, why aren't more women breastfeeding? It promotes physical health for mum and baby, it helps the bonding process and of course it's free. I hoped I might encourage another mum to whap a boob out in another inappropriate place or another mum to breastfeed in the first place and went to the Blackpool Gazette.
The paper ran the story and, to its credit, journalist Jon Rhodes wrote an opinion piece saying that understanding was what was needed in my case, not a ticket. Online, the story ran on Mother's Day and I was amazed by the controversy it provoked among readers - although less so by the outrage it caused among Daily Mail readers as the paper jumped on the headline-grabbing story. According to its commenters, I should plan my day better and feed at home, or express so my baby can drink out of a bottle, or, better yet, buy formula - can I not afford it? One pointed out that in the picture the Blackpool Gazette used of me I looked quite "smart", as did my "brat", and my car looked quite nice so I must be a... (wait for it)... "scrounger" - all paid for with their hard earned taxes, of course.
Blackpool Council was quoted in the Gazette saying it would "rip up the ticket", an admission of fault, surely? But the council maintained that the parking warden had behaved in a "courteous" manner. It had missed my point. I had never denied I had parked where I shouldn't but had requested an apology for my treatment - nowhere near courteous, by my definition.
The bigoted opinions of so many readers are difficult to summarise, although Rod Liddle did a pretty good job of it in his column for the Spectator. Liddle believes that women should be able to get their breasts out when and where they want, "but only if they are quite attractive breasts". His deliberately controversial stance on the matter adds no value to the debate. But it is worth pointing out, if only because it represents the views of so many commenters, that his idea of "deferred gratification" flies in the face of NHS advice that we feed on demand and research showing that leaving a baby to "cry it out" is emotionally damaging to the infant. And FYI, Rod, there is no Waitrose in Blackpool, but Lidl and Aldis aplenty.
We can debate the matter of parking on a taxi rank 'till the cows come home - no one really cares, not even Blackpool cabbies (my dad is a long-serving one). But we should care about the lack of women breastfeeding in this town, crippled by poverty and poor health, and encourage them to do it openly, proudly, and in plain view of all the Liddle-minded people who try to undermine their choice.
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