Voices of Breastfeeding
“Questions about how genes or hormones function in human lives are legitimate, but even complete understanding of them could never settle the human matter. If we focused only on completely understanding the physical components of the cake, we would lost the person who baked it, the occasion it was baked for, and the people who were there to eat it.”
-Emily Martin, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction
Each woman has her own complications and emotions surrounding breastfeeding. On top of that there are many players, pressures, and policies from the outside regarding exclusive breastfeeding, which according to the WHO means only feeding breastmilk for the first six months of a bay's life. After six months food can be added into their diet, but breastfeeding should, they say, continue until 2 years old.
According to two health and nutrition surveys in Mexico, the national rate of exclusive breastfeeding is somewhere between 14-25%. It should be at least twice that. UNICEF conducted one of those surveys and when meeting with them I was intrigued by but mostly questioning of the use of quantitative data to drive breastfeeding policies, campaigns and definitions of where the problem exists regarding exclusive breastfeeding in Mexico.
The quantitative numbers and survey responses can reveal quite a bit, but as the first step into this investigation, I wanted to connect those numbers with real life stories of women who breastfeed as a way to better understand, even just a tiny bit, the impacts on why a woman decides to exclusively breastfeed or not. In a space driven by quantitative data, what are women's stories about breastfeeding in Mexico that can help us to understand the low rates of exclusive breastfeeding?
Rebozos as a Conversation + Design Tool
In Mexican culture, rebozos are decorated shawls that originally played a central part in the China Poblana, the traditional costume adopted by Mexican women. It represents the journey from birth to death – playing its part as baby carrier and a shroud for those who have passed away, and has many other uses in between. There is an inherent sense of warmth and security to it that could be for one person or many.
According to a doula that I spoke with, a rebozo is a great tool for pregnant women and mothers. I found that it can also be a great tool for doing research about the personal and intimate topic of breastfeeding.
I created a 60 foot long version of rebozos para bebes or baby wrap that could be used to wrap up to 8 women together. I also made a version which could be worn by two or more people at once. By literally connecting people to each other quickly created an intimate space to have these personal conversations and moments. There was something about being face-to-face that lead to sometimes rather deep conversations with the person across from them.
From the conversations with roughly 25 women in both Mexico City and San Francisco Tetlanohcan, I identified a few common threads:
1. Feeling alone
2. The role of specialists
3. Individual decision-making in a space which there are supposed norms and "shoulds"
The intervention is specifically aimed at women in their first six-months of breastfeeding who are in the middle to upper economic level in Mexico City and feel alone. When you think of development this is not the typical group one would think of, but the low rate of exclusive breastfeeding is a problem born at a specific level of affluence. They have the option not to breastfeed and to buy formula. Beyond the economics of it all, many spoke about the intense expectations within this group to not only do it all like work and breastfeed and be a good mother, but to do it beautifully and without pain.
The idea was to create a voice messaging system where they could listen to a respository of stories online other women's stories about breastfeeding and/or record their own to share with each other. These postcards are one piece of the project that were posted around Mexico city--in changing rooms, on public bulletin boards, and in office spaces. There are 8 different scenarios based off what I heard such as “To the mother who has had to use a breast pump in a public bathroom. You are not alone.”