Mari Greenfield continues the blog series on naming and framings of violations in maternity care. The post exposes several heteronormative framings in perinatal care, with a focus on lesbian co-breastfeeding mothers' experiences. She reveals the harmful consequences of heteronormative Covid maternity restriction policies which fail to recognise diversity in family structures and the different roles that parents play. Not all partners are fathers and not only mothers who birth can breastfeed.
Bringing a new baby into the world is often a time when mothers and other birthing people value the support of their partner most. During Covid, restrictions on who can accompany people for support during appointments, birth, and postnatally have been recommended by various national bodies, such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of Midwives. These restrictions have not been put in place to protect the individual who is pregnant or giving birth, but to protect staff and others within the hospital.
Getting the balance right between support for those who are having a baby, and protection for healthcare professionals who are caring for them has been difficult. Heartbreaking stories have been reported in the media of women who have been alone while they were told their baby had died. In my own research, which was a mixed methods online survey which over 1,700 new and expectant parents responded too, similar ethical issues around the balance of safety have been raised. Women have told us repeatedly of their fear of giving birth alone – by which they mean accompanied by healthcare professionals, but without anyone who knows them. Similarly dads have spoken about their fear of missing the birth of their baby, due to the sometimes over zealous application of these policies. We know that these experiences are factors which influence whether a birth is psychologically traumatic to parents.
But one group of new parents appear to have been forgotten entirely in these policies – breastfeeding lesbian co-mothers. Reasons why a non-birthing mum might be breastfeeding are varied, and include situations where the birthing mum cannot breastfeed for medical reasons, or where the couple wish to share breastfeeding duties. Legally, these mothers have the right to be with their babies, and are protected by the breastfeeding legislation that protects birthing mothers too. However, when policies assume that the pregnant person will be the only mother, and will also be the only one breastfeeding, lesbian co-mothers can be forgotten. We have been told of several cases in which non-birthing lesbian co-mothers were denied access to both the postnatal ward and to neonatal services to feed their babies, because the policies assumed that a partner must be a father, and that only mothers who gave birth would breastfeed. This kind of continued heteronormative thinking makes equality difficult to achieve. In one case a parent reported that she was told she was not a mother, but was seen as a milk donor under the neonatal department’s policies. Research into new father’s perinatal mental health shows us how important it is to be seen as a parent, and how this can impact perinatal mental health. Being told that you are not a parent whilst your new baby is unwell is a horrific experience.
The argument that not allowing a support person from the same household to attend antenatal scans has been challenged for many months by the #ButNotMaternity campaign. Birthrights is similarly currently campaigning against the restricted postnatal visiting hours, pointing out that some NHS Trusts have reverted back to 24 hour visiting being allowed once more, whilst other Trusts are still only allowing one hour visiting a day. This inconsistency casts doubt on the idea that the restrictions are based on scientific evidence, and raises the question – should babies be at the centre of these postnatal policies, given they undoubtably benefit from being breastfed, or should healthcare staff’s comfort levels in different NHS Trusts mandate policy?
Over a year into the pandemic, and lesbian mothers are still being denied the right to feed their own babies in some Trusts, under the dubious name of protecting healthcare staff. To justify these policies, some mothers are being told they are not actually parents, potentially causing further psychological harm. The narrow framing of who is a mother in these policies is problematic, and the wording of such policies reveals the underlying heterosexist beliefs of the staff who create such policies. These beliefs are harming lesbian non-gestational mothers. It is time to do better.
Dr Mari Greenfield, Post-doctoral research Fellow, King’s College, London