This Dark Matter

Veronique Ellena at Musee Reattu - part of the associated programme of Recontres d'Arles

Veronique Ellena at Musee Reattu - part of the associated programme of Recontres d'Arles

The theme of this years’ Photography festival Recontres d’Arles was Geopolitics, Transhumanism, Revolts, Utopias, all without mentioning infertility, parenthood, childhood, childrearing or birth. Unsurprisingly, 80% of the exhibitions were by men. Women were there, yes (as 20% of the exhibitors) but most often talking about men (space travel, soldiers, fashion designers). When women weren’t talking about men, men were talking about men: men who thought they were Jesus, men who wanted to become robots, men who were fighting wars, starting wars, being killed by other men for opposing war. Some of these exhibitions were astounding, many were moving. It was an impressive gathering of forces. All along I kept remembering the time a (male) friend once jokingly said to me in conversation,

“But I’ve talked enough about myself, why don’t you talk about me for a bit?”

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Thoughts on ONCA

Over the past few weeks I have been at the gallery every day. Sometimes I just sat on the beanbags and enjoyed the quiet. Other days I had others to join me: Lucila came almost every day. Many mothers came with their children. But also quite a few fathers. And others who had never had children; young women interested in the subject with their boyfriends, mothers whose babies had grown, mothers who had not breastfed, mothers who were still breastfeeding their four year old, mothers with newborns still struggling with the adjustment to motherhood.

In every case we sat or stood and held the conversation open: this is not an exhibition about how to breastfeed, or why you should breastfeed, or condemning those who do not...

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The Ecology of Breastfeeding

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Breastfeeding is food. It is part of the wider network of food production and relations. The food of love, as it has been called. And it is. Breastfeeding provides sustenance and nourishment and love in one swift gesture.

That breastfeeding is food is a fact that it is often forgotten in debates about breastfeeding in public, for instance, where breastfeeding is likened to going to the toilet or to having sex in public. This is because breastfeeding touches on a number of taboos. As breasts have become hyper sexualised, the taboo of showing a breast in public is related to sex, and thus indecency, and this is the reason the people who complain about breastfeeding in public and ask for discretion are all about. The other taboo is that of human secretions in public. The taboo of natural human waste products: urine, poo, even sweat, long held in many societies, which are not meant to be seen in public, has somehow been collated with breastmilk. The act of breastfeeding, with many times leaking breasts, and the act of transposing a liquid form one being to another in public seems taboo.

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Taking our time

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Birth and breastfeeding are an invitation to enter into another domain of time. Or more accurately, to be in time, to be grounded in the cycle of life. The other day, I went for a walk and I came across a rabbit. He crossed my path, in not much of a hurry. I followed it, until I saw him hopping into his burrow. It reminded of Alice in Wonderland, and how she saw the rabbit, followed it, fell into the rabbit hole and entered a new dimension. She accepted the invitation. Motherhood at times felt like falling into a hole where there are different rules and things flow differently, and things that made sense before are not useful anymore. One of those things is clinging onto clock time. 

The way we live our lives today in industrialised countries is ruled by mechanised time. And clock time, industrial time, or historical time, as it has been called, is linear and progressive. We are immersed and socialised into clock time. It is the prevalent mode of experiencing and narrating time. It is so obvious and naturalised that we don’t even question it: time is something that has a beginning, middle and end. It is structured in our language and in our narratives.

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Breastfeeding in public: discomfort matters

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Breastfeeding is not the norm in the UK, and breastfeeding in public can be especially daunting to a new mother. The anxiety that many women face shows that. In the last Infant Feeding Survey, 45% of mothers said they felt uncomfortable feeding in front of others, and most acutely so in public spaces*. But considering that being out and about is our right, and part of women’s daily needs and practice, this makes it a big deal. If breastfeeding cannot be folded easily within women’s daily lives, then it is likely that it is a practice that will either not be taken up, or be carried out for very long by the majority of women, which is what we are seeing today.

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Connecting through stories

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Connecting with others, sharing stories, finding a role model is crucial to breastfeeding. Because breastfeeding is in crisis. Because it is highly idealised, but devalued in practice. And that can make you feel lost, lonely and unsupported. I felt like that. But myths, images and stories helped. They helped because they made me feel accompanied, made me feel valued and understood, gave me perspective, and also other ways to see myself and what I was doing. They made me feel part of something bigger....

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Building Belonging

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The arguments for breastfeeding in terms of health are already won, but breastfeeding statistics remain impossibly low in the UK. How can this be? Because the barriers to breastfeeding are cultural, not medical but the majority of information about breastfeeding comes from the medical community. This viewpoint says that women should breastfeed, without acknowledging the personal and emotional struggles involved in doing so.

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