Travel perks for breastfeeding MP mums are unfair – all new MP mums should get them{0}

Australian MPs who are breastfeeding will now be entitled to ask for extra flights to bring their partners and nannies interstate, it’s been reported today.

Given the recent scandals involving Australian politicians’ travel expenses, the fact that MPs are going to be allowed to claim more business-class trips is raising ire.

But I’ve got another, more fundamental question – why only breastfeeding MPs?  What about new mums who are bottle-feeding?

Is it not just a crucial for them to be feeding their babies as breastfeeding mums?  Sadly, this is yet another example of how bottle-feeding mothers are demoted to second-class citizens, and how breastfeeding mothers are reduced to their purely biological function.

Let’s break it down.

Defenders of the policy (and probably those who hold the purse strings) will argue that a bottle-fed baby doesn’t have a physical need to be with his mother – that he could easily be fed by a nanny or a partner at home (or in the case of MPs, in their home state while they are sitting in Canberra.)

This shows a profound lack of understanding of the role a mother plays in the early months of a child’s life and how a strong bond between mother and child is formed.

According to well-established psychological theory, secure attachments to a primary caregiver are a key foundation for normal psychological development.  These deep feelings of emotional security are developed by an infant who has an adult who is a constant presence, and is sensitive and responsive to her needs.  The adult doesn’t necessarily need to be a mother, but she or he does need to be there. A lot.  And be caring for the needs of the child.  A lot.  It’s all about reliability – the original ‘face time’.

Given that feeding is clearly one, if not the most important need of a young baby, it is a key way for a baby to develop that attachment to a parent.  For breastfeeding mums, it’s pretty simple.  As the primary food source, you don’t have much choice but to be that key adult who meets a baby’s needs.

For bottle-feeding mums, it is different.  There is the option of sharing the feeding around.  But the vast majority of mothers don’t want to.  They want to be the person their baby trusts more than anyone else in the world.  And they should be encouraged to be that person.

Just because milk comes from a bottle, not a breast, it doesn’t mean it is any less heartfelt, or any less of a life-giving connection between mother and child.  Feeding your child, however you do it, is a way of showing love for that child, and performing one of the most fundamental roles of parenthood.  Just because a mother can’t breastfeed or chooses not to, that doesn’t absolve her of the opportunity or her desire to be the whole world for that little person.  So she needs to be with her baby, just as much as a breastfeeding mother does. That means giving her baby the majority of his bottle.

That means she needs just as much help as a breastfeeding mum, and if her partner or a nanny are able to support her, they should.

When a mother is the primary carer for her child, it doesn’t matter how that milk gets into a baby, it’s full-on work.  Babies may need to be breastfed more often, but once mother and baby get the hang of it, it’s simple.  Bottle-feeding on the other hand is a pain in the bum.  All that sterilising, boiling, preparing, rinsing.  It takes an age, not forgetting the the washing, bathing, wiping, changing.  Oh, and maybe if you’re lucky, a couple of hours’ sleep for mum.

And then there’s the flip side of this: a policy which privileges breastfeeding above bottle-feeding reduces a mother’s role in her child’s life to a pair of breasts.  If it wasn’t for the boobs love, you’d be just as easily replaceable as those bottle-feeding chicks.  If a breastfeeding mother only needs support to breastfeed her child, not do all those other things a mother does in the early months, we don’t understand what mothers do at all.

Finally, how on earth is this policy going to be policed?  Will a mother have to submit her nursing bras and stained breastpads along with her receipts to be allowed the perk?  Why it anyone else’s business whether she is breastfeeding, mixed-feed or formula-feeding, let alone a clerk in the parliamentary entitlements office?

MPs are entitled for 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave, however, most politicians don’t take that long.   That is a shame, but a reflection of the reality that our culture values work above childrearing.  Any female politician who takes her full entitlement of leave would likely find herself shut out even more from the cut and thrust of daily political life.  A week is a long time in politics after all.

So, support for parliamentarians is essential.  Support for new mothers is essential.  The discussion about whether that should be in the form of business-class fares for nannies or partners is a for another forum, but what is clear is that bottle-feeding new mothers are just as important, and need just as much help as breastfeeding mums.    Our parliament would be a good place to showcase this.