There is a pervasive and pernicious belief in Belgian society that breastfeeding is not the norm. This tendency developed in the 70s and was prevalent in the 80s-90s.
Since the late 90s, this mindset has had a reversal with people standing up against pharmaceutical and food producing industries. People’s desire to want closer to nature experiences has encouraged a growing trend and awareness of the risks for babies endemic in this industrial and capitalistic society.
Therefore, it is unfortunate that breastfeeding is still looked upon with ignorance or passive-aggressive hostility. Only a small number of women breastfeed in Belgium. Of that small group, most do so only during the first days at the maternity hospital, a few continue at home for another few weeks, and even less go on to breastfeed once they head back to work.
There are two explanations for this unfortunate reality:
1) a short maternity leave of 15 weeks and rarely the appropriate infrastructure and support that is needed to encourage continued breastfeeding even after the mother returns to work; and
2) a cultural misunderstanding or even ignorance and stigma about breastfeeding in Belgian society, but especially so at the workplace.
I work for the regional Government in Brussels, therefore the legal requirement of providing a room for breastfeeding is (more or less) better respected than in the private sector. Despite the requirement, at my workplace, we have to share the room with the medical control team who often proceed to kick us out two or three times a month. To make matters worse, my boss could not understand that the hour-long break that I am legally entitled to get to pump milk, should be discounted from my working hours and my workload adjusted accordingly.
My colleagues have received incredulous reactions from some coworkers such as, “I did not know a woman could still produce milk after 3 months” or their management asking them “How long do you intend to continue?” and being surprised at the answer, “For as long as my body continues to produce milk and my child to request it”. One of my favourite remarks among the ones I got recently was from a colleague (a mother of three who quickly gave up breastfeeding):
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] You are still breastfeeding? I wonder what animal in the wild does so for so long?” [/perfectpullquote]
My daughter was 16 months then. This denotes a belief in the norm of providing cow milk to an infant without realising the irony…why is it more acceptable to give my child milk produced by another mammal?
My mum who came from Colombia was criticised for breastfeeding me a whole year and people thought I was a fat baby too. She was told to give me powder milk so she could better measure my intake. Ironically, I was given the same advice for my baby who was found too skinny (8-9 kilograms at 1.5 years of age *Editor’s Note – Between 17-19 pounds).
Some of my older colleagues (women nearing retirement) blame the existing mindset of Belgian society against breastfeeding on the sexual revolution. Not breastfeeding was viewed as freedom. From a feminist perspective, I also find this to be a patriarchal control over motherhood: births became highly medicalised with a high rate of c-sections often programmed for “convenience”, not to mention price, and tall claims made by the powder milk industry, that all colluded to take mothers away from natural and home births, and breastfeeding.
As a result of popularly held beliefs, employers do not make greater efforts at providing an adequate place to pump breastmilk and both women and men continue to believe in stories tainted with ignorance and even intolerance. When pregnant, the recurring comment I received was, “No matter how much you want it, you are not in control and it may not happen” (referring both to breastfeeding and natural birth). This remark carried an unspoken compliment, “because it did not happen to me”. I am not a psychoanalyst but I wonder how many of those pernicious remarks (especially from women) are issued from a place of guilt and a desire that others may not succeed where one failed.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Due to this discouraging tendency, even women who would like to have a natural birth and breastfeed may give up having resigned themselves to imminent failure.[/perfectpullquote]
My response to such remarks was always that a positive mindset was more likely to help me than fear. I share my success stories of my natural birth and breastfeeding freely and as examples to counteract that negative culture. Unfortunately, they were not always received in the manner intended. Some perceived them as arrogant and others as evangelical. That takes me to a further analysis of the Belgian psyche which revels in lamenting and complaining rather than act to repair or remedy a problematic situation.
In order to fight misinformation and bring about more tolerance, there should be more information campaigns (like there are about organic food, agriculture, the environment) to see this as a public health and societal issue. Information should be provided in hospitals, and schools. These changes will bring a gradual shift of mentality.
Parenting rights need to be increased to a longer maternity leave or a shared parental leave like in the Nordic countries. There should be oversight over the implementation (and stringent sanctions imposed when not respected) of the legal obligation for employers to provide a breastfeeding room and respect for the time allocated to nursing or pumping.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Furthermore, employers should be more understanding of and respect women during their pregnancies particularly those vulnerable to complications during their pregnancy due to stress at work and/or a difficult commute.[/perfectpullquote]
For instance, providing for the pregnant woman to work from home two days a week during the last trimester can help alleviate some of the early pregnancy-related discomforts. Not having your maternity leave shortened whenever you have complications thus forcing you off work at the end of your pregnancy will be helpful (My baby was due late January but due to a complication, I was put on sick leave in December and my baby was born January 8. My 16-weeks maternity leave started on December 4th so I was expected back at work on March 17. My baby would have only been 2-months-old. That is when you have barely just established a safe breastfeeding routine in some cases.)
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Belgium does not value motherhood as sacredly as do some other cultures. One could argue this is an example of sex equality or freedom. However, European mums do not get the family support and still get the discrimination. A job will still be more readily offered to an equally qualified man of 30 than a woman of the same age who is expected to have babies at some point and then leave her job for a few months and who is also expected to be less flexible in terms of (extra) working hours because she will need to pick her children up from crèche or school.
As a counterpoint to this story, a minority of women who are fervent advocates of breastfeeding do exist and you will often find them amongst those who also baby carry, co-sleep, use reusable nappies, adhere to attachment parenting, and so on. They then form a support community in order to withstand the judgmental flow that often greets such choices. I hope that if and when my daughter embraces motherhood, those reactionary mentalities will have died out.
What are the views regarding breastfeeding in your culture? Reply in the comments section below.
Esmeralda Raskin Ordoñez is half Colombian, half Belgian, and married to an Irishman. She is multilingual and always keen on discovering other cultures and traditions. As the mother of an 18-month-old daughter, she has a strong concern for the environment. Whenever possible, she tries to make better ecological choices through cloth diapering, feeding organic food and gardening, and buying previously loved clothes, and furniture.