Karem explains her answer to this question that so many mothers are asked
A few days ago my husband’s friend came for dinner and, as one does to be polite, sought to make conversation with me. Awkwardly unsure of how to phrase the question, he looked at me, stay at home mother of two toddlers and wife to my 70-hour-week-working husband and, swallowed, looked around, looked at me again and asked ‘So, what do you… do?’
I could have put my two gloriously happy and healthy children in front of him and said ‘I keep these two alive’, but instead, apparently seeking precision, I answered ‘I feed. I breastfeed my oldest and now I am breastfeeding my youngest son. A lot. That is what I do. I feed’. My answer did not allay the awkwardness. What does a man answer to a woman who brings up her breastfeeding? Where does he look? So, he looked at the floor and stammered: ‘Yes, yes. Is it…um, is it… very physical? Because this is what us guys don’t get. Is it like, hard work to, to, to feed?’
I am not sure why I put this poor guy on the spot. He really is one of the loveliest people I have met. But I know why I answered as I did. I wanted my work feeding my children to be recognised for what it is. Work. Yes, it is also lovely. It is luxurious to be able to see my children grow. It is a privilege to have the ability and means to breastfeed my children past infancy. It is glorious to have little hands and heads on my chest at all hours of the day and night.
But all jobs have their perks. This is still a job. Some days I want to scream: I just want 10 minutes on my own, with no one hanging from, pulling, or sucking on my body. At times I am so sore from holding children that my fingers go numb. There are days I am so emotionally drained that after bedtime I just sit in the dark, silently, while tears flow. And breastfeeding, yes, breastfeeding is work. My body is literally working day and night to transfer everything I eat, and even what I don’t, into the nutrition and calories my child needs to survive. If I don’t eat or drink enough, it literally drains me. So, it is work. I do work. I can’t take a day off, or, until recently, even a few hours off, because someone depends on me to do my work to survive. It is serious, life and death work. And it is as fair to discuss this work as it was, in my past life, to discuss the students I lectured, and the challenges of engaging learners. But it’s awkward. Because staying at home, and breastfeeding are not considered work. When asked what we do, stay at home mothers are expected to murmur meekly ‘Oh, I am just a mum’ and quickly move the conversation to a discussion of proper work, proper human achievements, proper problems and challenges. And breastfeeding is romanticised and hidden, not acknowledged and addressed as normal, healthy, and beautiful work.
I have decided that this will be my answer from now on to the ever reappearing question – what do you do? I breastfeed. Because at this point in my life this is what I do: it is my work, my interest, and my struggle. And I am proud of it. But more than that, I think it is an important reminder in conversations: of the work that women do, that I am a woman, that I am working in the home, and that this work is important but also that it is normal and needs to be brought into the public space, discussed, normalised, acknowledged.
Karem Roitman, LLL Oxford
This story was originally published in issue 205 of Breastfeeding Matters (Jan/ Feb 2015)