by Antonia Godber
In my role as a Doula, I am available to expectant parents throughout their pregnancies, by their side all the way through their birth, and on hand to nurture, support and empower them afterwards as they settle into their new life with their baby. It’s a beautiful honour each time, and I fall in love with every single family.
The main thing a new mother needs support with after the birth of her baby, is breastfeeding. Whilst breastfeeding is completely natural, it’s not instinctive – it’s a learned behaviour. Like playing the piano or driving a car for the first time, breastfeeding is a new skill which requires a lot of practice and patience. Because women’s emotions affect their milk production, they need a great deal of love and support as they learn to breastfeed. If women are nurtured and manage to overcome the numerous challenges breastfeeding can present, then the blood, sweat and tears that often quite literally go into mastering it are usually all deemed to be worth it, because the benefits of breastfeeding are immeasurable.
I myself was lucky enough to be supported when I had my babies, and because of this was able to persevere through the tough times and feed all three of them for as long as they each wanted my milk. I will always remember my years breastfeeding as one of the happiest times in my life.
As well as a magical— and important biological— way for a mother and child to bond, breastfeeding has countless other benefits. A living, adaptable and incredibly complex substance, human breastmilk is inimitable, and impossible to recreate in a laboratory. It meets all of the baby’s nutritional needs, as well as offering over 300 essential enzymes, hormones and immunoglobulins needed for growth and immunity. Breastmilk is always available, it’s always the right temperature – and it changes in consistency depending on the weather!
Just like all other mammals, our incredible mammalian bodies make the absolutely perfect food for our individual infants, which then changes and adapts as they grow. Then, when a child is between three and five years old and no longer in need of milk, their little bodies stop producing the enzyme that digests it – lactase – and the beautiful breastfeeding journey is over.
As a breastfeeding mother and birth worker, I can’t say that I didn’t know what happens in the dairy industry – I was obviously aware that cows needed to be pregnant in order to produce milk – but I never really gave much thought to what was actually involved. Until the day that I finally did, and then I was horrified and devastated.
Baby calves are torn away from their mothers so that humans can eat cheese.
This happens over and over and over again, calf after calf after calf, until the exhausted cows’ milk production declines, and then they are slaughtered, most at a fraction of their natural life span.
You might ask, “Ah, but what about calf-at-foot dairies, what if more farms left the mothers with their babies?”
None of that can, no so-called “welfare improvements,” can ever change this fundamental and profoundly offensive truth. The entire dairy industry, from small farm to large, no matter how “humane” or high-welfare they may claim to be, is fundamentally based on the invasion, exploitation, and coercion of the female reproductive system.
These heartbreaking realisations hit me one after the other like freight trains, and it wasn’t long before we removed all traces of dairy from our home, and went vegan.
Around that time, I was looking after quite a few pregnant and birthing women, and the miracle of carrying and birthing babies, coupled with the raw nature of childbirth, was all around me. But as each new baby was roared into the world and put to the breast in a haze of joyful tears, I could not stop thinking of the pain and suffering of the animal mothers and babies who were being so cruelly separated and abused.
Working with human mothers as they birth their babies, seeing the agony of even the shortest separation between a mother and her child, and comforting weeping women as their sore and weary bodies adjust to motherhood, brings it all home to me, all the time. We are human, but we are animals just the same. The marathon of pregnancy and birth is one of the most exhilarating, excruciating and life changing experiences anyone can have. It takes all we have to give. And it is absolutely no different for the non-human animals exploited for dairy, who feel all the feelings we feel.
Cows carry their calves inside their bodies for nine long months, just as we do.
Cows endure long and painful labours to bring their calves into the world, just as we do.
A cow’s body creates powerful hormones to produce the perfect food designed especially and specifically for her infant alone, just as our bodies do.
And cows are grief stricken when their babies are stolen from them, just as we would be if our babies were taken from us.
But because of the power of the industry and the normalisation of milk and other dairy products, most new breastfeeding mothers, swimming in their own milk and emotions, rarely make the connection between the overwhelming experience they are going through and the milk they splash into their cup of tea as they settle down for another long feeding session. Once the truth reveals itself however, there is no getting away from it; every sip of milk, bite of cheese and lick of ice cream is saturated in the silent suffering of another mother.
Every time a human consumes cow’s milk, it is because a calf has not been allowed to.
We are the only species who regularly consume the breastmilk of another species, and the only species to consume what is explicitly baby food, as grown adults. And why cow’s milk? Simply because cows were the easiest animal to dominate and then engineer so as to create as much milk as possible for human profit.
And the terrible irony inside all of this, is that all this suffering often comes back in a complete circle. Full of hormones, lipids, sodium, casein and growth factors – and designed to grow a small calf into a huge cow in a matter of months – dairy is an absurd and desperately inappropriate food for humans who grew out of digesting even their own mother’s milk in early childhood.
Whilst breastfeeding our own infants offers concrete protection against various cancers, extensive research shows that dairy is a major source of ills in babies and children, for whom cow’s milk is the number one food allergy, and a cause of eczema, colic, chronic ear infections, asthma, and more. Consuming dairy is also associated with a host of maladies in adolescents and adults, including a greater risk – up to 80% – of breast cancer in women, as well as numerous other diseases. The terrible truth is that the suffering humans cause by consuming dairy, often comes back around to cause suffering in their own human bodies, later on.
And the damage doesn’t end here. Dairy farming, and animal agriculture generally, are devastating our planet – and threatening our future and our childrens’ futures.
As I have delved further and further into the realities of the climate crisis in recent years, it has become clear that my different roles – mother, teacher, doula, climate and animal rights activist – are all intrinsically and inseparably linked. Because fundamental to all of my work with mothers is my advocacy for Mother Earth herself, from whom we all came, and without whom we have nothing.
Along with parents everywhere, as the earth warms and the severity of the situation reveals itself, I have become more and more terrified for the next generation. As things stand, the future looks desperately bleak. The planet has been decimated by animal agriculture, and the dairy industry is an enormous contributor to the ongoing destruction.
As well as the devastating environmental cost in terms of land and water, dairy farming is a major source of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential nearly 300 times greater than carbon dioxide. According to a 2018 Oxford University study, eating a serving of cheese three to five times a week for a year is the equivalent of driving a car for 514 miles, or heating an average UK home for 31 days.
There are currently more than 264 million dairy cows worldwide. Even with the global dairy industry slaughtering millions of mother cows and male calves every year, and even with cows increasingly raised in confinement (using the least amount of space possible), cattle, and the crops used to grow their feed, occupy almost one-third of the earth’s entire land surface. As well, dairy farms can use up to 150 gallons of water per day, per cow, in total. Most significantly, cows produce methane as a result of their complex ruminant digestive process. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide as well, because it traps significantly more heat.
So not only does dairy hurt cows, their babies, and our own bodies – it is destroying the beautiful planet we live on as well. The dairy industry is not only deeply cruel, it is also catastrophically harmful to the environment.
And it is completely unnecessary.
Amidst all the horror, however, I am increasingly aware of the raw awakening we are witnessing at this moment: the growing awareness of the inextricable interconnectedness of human, nonhuman animal, and planetary wellbeing. People all over the world are beginning to join the dots and working together to achieve collective liberation and justice. And so I hold on to a great hope for the future.
Antonia Godber is an antenatal & baby massage teacher, a birth & postnatal doula, and an environmental and animal rights activist & campaigner. She currently lives just outside of Amsterdam with her husband Rupert, children Will, Toby & Maisie, and rescue dog, Hennie.
Antonia runs support groups for Motherless Mothers, Eco-Anxiety classes for expectant and new parents, Empowerment sessions for women of colour entering the maternity system, and a ‘Little Nature School’ for children in her local community. She also offers 1:1 vegan workshops from her kitchen in order to educate and support people wanting to leave animals off their plates, and to raise money for tree planting projects and animal protection programmes.
She loves walking her beloved dog on the beach, cooking for – and belly laughing with – friends, reading to her kids, and doing yoga.
You can reach Antonia via Instagram (@the.harmless.kitchen).