I love, love, love this year’s National Portrait Gallery winner - Breech by Grimsby born Benjamin Sullivan, illustrating the artist’s wife Virginia breastfeeding their eight-month-old daughter Edith. Benjamin wanted to celebrate the love that had come into their lives and reflect on the worrying time the couple faced during Edith’s birth. Only 3-5% of mum’s experience a Breech birth so I can only imagine the anguish the couple went through at a time that is scary enough all by itself.
The broadcaster Kirsty Wark, who was on the judging panel, said: “The woman is tired. She is in love. Her life has changed for ever. We know her.” Indeed we do.
I love the way the mother is perched on the stool, naked apart from an old favourite dressing gown which has just been hurriedly hitched open to allow a demanding baby access to that source of nourishment and comfort all tiny tots crave. It is a fantastic snapshot of bittersweet reality that every human being on this planet needs to see - the extreme fatigue and yet the monumental love of a mother. And that amazing moment when a harried, overworked, slightly stricken (we’ve all felt those – ‘can we really do this?’ moments of extreme doubt) mother feels the baby’s mouth latch on and all those worries fade away into the most incredible explosion of bliss for both parties.
There is a huge problem in the UK - it has the lowest breastfeeding rate in the world. At three months, only 17% of mothers are breastfeeding their babies exclusively and only 1 in 200 women are breastfeeding after they reach their first birthday. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend just breast milk for six months, with breastfeeding to form part of a baby’s diet up to two years of age.
However, thankfully, things are beginning to change – there have been lots of protests, fuelled by the sensational media, against the idiots that think breastfeeding is ‘unnatural’ (Although I personally think we should just ignore these idiots completely) And we have seen lots of photographs in the media of very pretty celebrities, with full make-up and immaculate figure and clothes, breastfeeding in public. I applaud them all - but as we all know, breastfeeding certainly isn’t glam.
The thing with breastfeeding – and the wonderful painting Breech demonstrates this – is that you are a slave to your baby for the first year. The picture captures that moment so incredibly well – when you are in the middle of something else, tired and grouchy, and your baby needs you. You are in demand constantly. Tiny babies need to feed every two hours or so – and unfortunately this just does not fit in with most modern women’s routine – this Guardian article explains the crux of the problem in more detail.
I would love to see a breastfeeding revolution in my lifetime. And this year’s National Portrait Award winner takes one tiny step towards making that happen.