‘Free Clothes!’ A poem on motherhood by Hollie McNish

‘Free Clothes!’ A poem on motherhood by Hollie McNish Hollie McNish. Photo courtesy of Facebook

It's week two of motherhood month... and we're delighted that spoken wordsmith Hollie McNish has written us a poem. You may remember her from another poem she wrote about breastfeeding, which took the internet by storm last year. Here, she talks about the recent scheme of paying mothers in deprived areas to breastfeed, as well evoking beautifully the frustration and awkwardness that comes with breastfeeding and new motherhood. (And don't forget to check out our #WISPchat on the topic of so-called 'breastfeeding bribes').   

Free Clothes!

Google images of breastfeeding
Pick up magazines and parent books
And the mothers and the babies seem to have the one same photo shoot
Beautiful, angelic, blue veins photoshopped from boobs it seems
A house that looks like the stylist was from Country Living Magazine
A tidy room.
Expensive rocking chair.
White shirt, white vest top,
Long blonde hair
White cushions propped on bed or sofa
28 or maybe older
Mother smiles down lovingly
She’s pretty. Light skinned, generally
Alone and close with looks of glee.
Baby latched on properly.
It’s easy.
It’s lovely.
It’s the best thing you can do.
For the baby and for you.
In calm lit rooms in clean white clothes
Skin on skin. Fed and soothed.
And I’m not saying that this can’t be true.
Or that I don’t think boobs are god
Or that I didn’t love those moments
I’m just tired of these shots
These photo shots, this photoshopped
Where no-one moves and no-one sobs
And I’m tired of never seeing that
Cos I can’t afford those rocking chairs and there’s no space in our flat.
And I longed for a feeding chair and not an aching back
And most days that I was feeding I did not look like that.
I looked like crap!
Where are the babies with cradle cap?
Where are the stains on the mother's clothes?
Where is the sick on their shoulder?
Why is she always happy she’s alone?
Where are the visitors or friends around?
Why does she never have to leave her house?
Where is the baby screaming out for more?
Why is no-one ever tired or sore?
As bloodshot red eyes stare to space
Cos she’s been up all night and up all day
As she tries to work out why her baby’s crying once again.
Where are the real things that we think about?
Staying inside, scared to go to town?
Worried baby will cry or be sick or shout out
When she’s out and about,
Worried where she might feed.
And there are never any photos of nipples that bleed.
Cracked swollen and sore
Mastitis and cramping
Babies trying to latch on but nothing is happening
Where are those moments when not everything’s happy?
Where are the moments of guilt, anger and panicking?
Are we not allowed to talk about those?
So when I hear the word ‘clothes’
Free clothes for free feeders!
I wonder the affect if would have on those bleeders,
Those mastitis mothers I know
Or the mother’s of pre-terms
Or those worried about breasts
Or the issues of feeding
Or the reaction of friends
Or not having support
Or the job they ought to go back to quite soon
Or the partner who says that those are his boobs
Or those who feel strange about breastfeeding too
Or the ones who have tried and don’t know what to do
Or that ones that don’t want to for so many reasons
I think we should talk about those.
But instead we give vouchers for clothes.
Instead we give vouchers for clothes.
£200 vouchers for clothes
“To make breastfeeding normal”
“To give incentive to those
who don’t want to feed and who need to be bribed”
“To tackle the breastfeeding social divide”
“To tackle the economic reasons”
But if the reason was cash, everyone would be breastfeeding
Cos it’s free.
And if you want to support parents, spend the money on supporting them
Or if you really want to bribe me,
I can think of better things to spend it on than clothes.
I’d suggest some
Free sleep vouchers
Hot cup of tea vouchers
Hold your baby and allow you five minutes to breathe vouchers
Put up your feet vouchers
Nipple leak vouchers
Hold the baby so I can go for a wee vouchers
Adult talk vouchers
When you’re bored vouchers
Cabbage leaves vouchers
Help me please vouchers!
Don’t tell me to leave the hospital without making sure I can feed vouchers.
Paternity or Grandparent leave vouchers
So someone can hold her and I can go sleep vouchers
Breathe vouchers
Or scream vouchers
When someone harasses me in town when I feed vouchers
A locked room
By myself
Just to weep vouchers
I just want to sleep vouchers
But I could feed vouchers
And it was lovely
For me
I could feed vouchers.
It was so cheap vouchers
Still hard and tiring and draining
for me vouchers
But I could feed
My nipples didn't bleed vouchers

My baby didn’t bite.
I had a partner and a mum to help me overcome the waking nights.
I had people there to take my baby so I could have a nap
I had no complications with a kid who couldn’t latch.
I found it hard but nothing bad
So give me my clothes vouchers
And bugger all my friends who did not do that
So give me my clothes vouchers
And bugger all the mums who do not do that
Just cos they apparently didn’t give a shit.
About their kid.
But would have done it fine and easy with a quick 200 quid
of clothes.
Especially those from Northern parts
Or those who bank account is not as big
But just a little question before I go and spend all of this...
Will you come and help me on the bus? into town with all the bags? take my baby for a walk so I can browse the shopping racks? And if my baby starts to cry and I have to feed her in the shops will you put your arm around my waist if someone stops and makes a fuss? Or help me find the feeding room that often smells of wee?
So give me my clothes vouchers now
And I’ll go and buy some clean white clothes
To replace the ones with sick stains on
Or milky nipple leaking holes
That yellow stain my feeding bras
And I’m sure there’s loads of research about why this plan might work.
But to me it’s just a farce.
I find it rude.
I find it classist.
I find it weird
I find it wrong
A patronising bribe that ignores a million different songs and a million different reasons from a million new found mums.

So give me my £200 quid
And I'll spend the cash on me
On the clean white shirts and vest tops
That I see in all those magazines.


18 Comments - Add yours


Amazing. Speechless. How you can make valid points read so beautifully I’ll never know.

By Hannah on 15 January 2014 at 16:50

- 7 people related to this

speechless… just amazing, as always.

By Katie Bryant on 15 January 2014 at 17:07

- 3 people related to this

Once again, Hollie, your words speak to me and bring tears, laughter and empathy. I couldn’t breastfeed my son and was made to feel like a pariah because of it - £200 wouldn’t have made a difference because I couldn’t do it, end of. BUT some extra support and understanding might have helped, and some sleep etc…all the things you mention…keep writing and sharing, please Hollie, x

By Leighsa Henderson on 15 January 2014 at 17:17

- 8 people related to this

The world needs more mothers like Holly McNish!

By Natalie Carlin on 15 January 2014 at 17:27

- 2 people related to this

you made me cry in the middle of the morning. It’s been a year since I got done with the long slog of breastfeeding two kids 18 months each, but this poem just brought it all back. There were beautiful and triumphant moments too in my breastfeeding journey but mostly, I think, it was like this. A long slog. A sacrifice I made gladly, but a sacrifice nevertheless.

By Nandini on 15 January 2014 at 17:32

- 3 people related to this

I breastfed too… and yes to the whole poem.

By Elisabeth Clark on 15 January 2014 at 17:47

Brilliant. ...I tried to breastfeed but couldnt produce nearly enough for my little one. I was made to feel extremely guilty and like a failure as I put him onto formula after trying to feed him for 3 weeks.
I was asked by health visitors ’ if I felt ok putting him on formula and if I felt like a failure’  the answer was ‘no….why should I? Surely I’m a better mum for realising what my son needed to be healthy and that doesnt mean I’ve failed.’
If you can breastfeed…...brilliant
if you cant breastfeed and formula feed ........brilliant

As long as your doing whats best for your child…..not your ‘status’ as a mum your doing a good job

£200 to breastfeed is just making mums that cant or dobt want to feel bad.

your poem is fab and I hope the government take note of it.

Healthy children are more important than anything x

By Claire on 15 January 2014 at 18:05

- 4 people related to this

The true picture. Being able to spend the money on help would be far more valuable.

By Anne Gange a on 15 January 2014 at 18:59

- 2 people related to this

I do love this poem and Hollie’s poems in general, however, it seems to be forgotten that this is not a scheme that was actually going to be introduced, or has been introduced. It was simply a piece of research into financial incentives in changing behaviour around health issues. I do agree that this would not be a suitable scheme for improving breastfeeding rates and is patronising and simplistic in the extreme but i’m not going to get up in arms about them researching possible ways to make a difference in health outcomes - something has to be able to reach those women who never even think to breastfeed because they’ve never seen a baby being breastfed or think breasts are for their boyfriends. Financial incentives are just one avenue to be explored.

By mrs b on 15 January 2014 at 20:27

- 10 people related to this

I think your work is amazing and I love your prose, words and the obvious thought and feeling that goes into what you write… but I can’t help but feel you’ve missed the point of the vouchers. Yes for a women who breastfed, or who tried or who wanted to but couldn’t for whatever reason then yes, £200 is paltry, meaningless and insulting. However this trial (not a gov scheme) is aimed at women who may have never even seen breast feeding, women who may have never heard anything about breast feeding other than it is horrible painful weird wrong a waste of time etc etc women for whom £200 in vouchers may just result in the decision to breast feed their baby even for a short time and how valuable would that be? How valuable would it be to have a new generation of mums who actually have a go at breast feeding where previously there were none?who could blaze the way for new mums to try? I think held in isolation the idea of giving money for something which many of us think is only the right thing to do does not sit well with us, BUT how many women from truly deprived areas have any of us spoke to? I know I haven’t. I spoke to one mum who’s husband threatend to walk out if she breast fed her baby, so she didn’t. Would £200 have changed his mind? http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/20/not-ashamed-giving-mothers-incentives-breastfeed

By Fi Hennessy on 15 January 2014 at 20:37

- 5 people related to this

I struggled to feed my little girl when in hospital as she was not interested at all for the first 36 hours. I had gone through a very long induced labour and then an emergency c section, I think she was just really tired (on reflection) At the time it was the worst thing in the world! Midwives came and checked her temp and says every hour as she was a “reluctant feeder”. When she eventually did feed (early hours in the morning whilst I was sobbing) she found it really difficult. I tried all sorts of positions and eventually figured it out. My baby lost a little weight (8% which is lower than the worst allowed) and I was told that as she wasn’t bottle fed and I couldn’t keep a record of what she had taken that I needed to keep a chart of how long she fed for and when she wee’d pooed or threw up! She was 3 days old! I wanted to sleep not make charts!!!

At 2 weeks my husband tried my little girl on a bottle as I didn’t want to exclusively breast feed. She took my milk really well and had no problems feeding after it. 2 days later the health visitor came and I (stupidly) told her how well she had done with my expressed milk in a bottle. I was told in no uncertain terms that I should not do this until she was at least 6 weeks old so as an inexperienced mum I listened and took on her advise! At 6 weeks My husband tried again only to be faced with total refusal!!! This refusal continued for months. I had to return to work for 2 days a week (and later full time) when she was 5 1/2 months old and she would still not take a bottle! It was a living hell! Whoever said a hungry baby will eat from anything if they are hungry was sooooo wrong!!! We tried every bottle under the sun! Eventually after a lot of tears (mainly mine) we succeeded but I think I spent what would have been my £200 on bottles!!

People don’t tell you the down side to feeding, the immense pain of blocked ducts, the dreading the next feed because of the pain! I think women should be given all of the information good and bad to make an informed decision. They need to not be asked the question of “why do you want them to have a bottle? Where do you have to go for more than 3 hours?” Yes an actual question from a health visitor!!!

Everyone to themselves! Do what is best for you because that is also what is best for your baby! A baby needs a happy healthy mummy!!!

By Emma on 15 January 2014 at 22:38

- 2 people related to this

Beautiful, such empathy. From someone (me) who is sick to the back teeth of the demonisation of ( especially single, young) mothers. This poem could be the start of the revolution.

By Alice Denny on 16 January 2014 at 12:11

- 1 person related to this

That was brilliant, brought up things that I had forgotten about in my journey. Good and bad, lying in bed feeding him, so tired and the temptation for bottles building up. Or just looking at his milk drunk face, and his skinny little legs fulling out knowing it was all me. But like you I had support. Support that helped me and got me to 17 months before he selfweaned. The reassurance that I was feeding him enough, the ability to have my mother mind him while I napped during the day, having my babies latch checked. It all counts towards a successful breastfeeding relationship. That money needs to go towards supporting women, not bribing them. Having doulas or lactation consultants visit moms and just help and reassure them.

By Bree on 16 January 2014 at 19:14

Fantastic poem. I really like your realism and your humour. Have you had a collection of your poems published? I think you should, though with a baby there’s not much time.

By Claire Gardner on 18 January 2014 at 19:23

- 1 person related to this

keep it up keep strong if I see you I will help

By christine hall on 18 January 2014 at 23:15

1980s newly born
large baby damaged mum
callous midwives on early week shift
unable to walk but no help
other mums see my plight
help as they can
thats not right,
thursday arrives staff change
more like mums theyre in a rage
sort me out get me showered
baby into the nursery
nipples hollowed pad me out help me mend
homeward after 6 long days
back to my motherly midwife and
tender care, zimmer frame helps
me walk
one family member cares enough helps me through
the time thats rough
nursing my newborn no feeling like it me and her
a bond true and tight
no where to nurse out there in an 80s world so
home is where we bond and learn
only stress when we leave four walls doesnt bode
well for continued care
nurse as long as i can in this stressful place
no support unless you pay
difficult with a redundancy
time runs on a second child
world changed slightly to accomodate
but not enough
at a wedding 10 days old lovely little boy
in the ladies lounge makeup area
hotel toilets a little bit posher
sucking through her teeth with disgust as
I proudly nurse my boy discreet I am her
not so
another coos so sweet he is
closed minds even in privacy makes
an alien of natural events
annoyed I start to feel where else could
there be no where if they got their way.
accused of doubling up on feeds when
he thrived because of purity
lots of places changed over the years
1986 another little girl great midwife and
support no hesitations
lots of changes out there
breastfeeding stations
thank you department stores
relaxed atmospheres
new life new attitudes great.
Those little lives now grown
children of their own what do they see
back to the beginning bottle v breast
attitude no or yes
still looking to disapprove
no facilities to nurse theyre worse
some shopping malls have some places
clean they arent many disgraceful
sad to see there is no change
from 80’s to 2014s
stagnant attitude
girls stick it out change the world
tell the truth show them
feelings show them skin
show them how reality is
breast is best we know that
bubbly babies juicy and fat
full of love full of joy
little girl little boy

keep it up holly let it be heard

By christine hall on 19 January 2014 at 18:55

- 1 person related to this

Hollie what an amazing poem once again. As a mum who tried to feed both my girls and wasn’t able to due to health and emotional issues I agree completely with it. I felt that I was a failure as a mum before my babies were even a month old, how is that right!!

I am confused by a couple of the comments as how can people not know about breastfeeding? Every pregnant woman sees a midwife during pregnancy and birth and it is all they talk about. When you have the baby it is again ‘suggested’ that is the way to go by staff. I may be wrong, I just don’t see how people can not know about breastfeeding so am unsure for that being the argument about thrusting £200 in vouchers and still agree all in the poem is true. Well said x

By Niki Gough on 22 January 2014 at 20:43

You empty my mind so amazing and so true

By Leanne on 28 February 2014 at 22:42

- 1 person related to this