How Does Encanto Help us to Imagine Better Infant Feeding Policy?

As parents of small children, many of us are very familiar with Encanto. After watching the movie for the third time in a weekend, one of our co-founders had fun on Twitter imagining infant feeding stories through the lens of the movie and its cast of characters, the gifted members of the Madrigal family. What follows is an edited version of these threads.

Spoilers ahead: If you haven’t seen Encanto yet – are you living under a rock? – read no further!

The whole thing started with Bruno…

Bruno speaks the truth, even when it is bad news. Then he gets blamed for causing the bad events he predicted and warned against. While he is shunned and exiled, elaborate fantasies evolve about what a horror Bruno is. And everyone is terrified of Bruno speaking.

The Fed is Best Foundation is the Bruno of the infant feeding world. Am I right, or am I right?!

In fact, Bruno’s vision is essential to prevent the destruction of the family and community, restore their relationships and save their gifts. Far from being an ogre, Bruno loves his family, and his exile harms it.

So, with Fed is Best in mind: ‘Um, Bruno…Yeah, about that Bruno. I really need to know about Bruno. Gimme the truth and the whole truth, Bruno!’

Next up: Luisa.

The author of this blog relates strongly to Luisa – taking on the burdens, pushing herself to breaking point, never saying no as her wider community assigns ever more burdens to her. Pressure like a drip, drip, drip, that’ll never stop…

Luisa is an example of a strong woman crushed under the weight of pressure, expectation and obligation. ‘But wait, If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations…’ Would that free up some room for ‘joy or relaxation, or simple pleasure’?

Keep breastfeeding…on demand…all night long…express between feeds, hand express, use a syringe, use a cup, every drop counts, breastfeeding is always worth it…Pressure like a grip, grip, grip, and it won’t let go.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Luisa can share the burden, bringing her closer to other family members. And so can the Luisas cracking under breastfeeding pressure, by making room for simple pleasures, meeting their need for rest and relaxation and sharing the load of feeding with others.

Can we talk about Isabella? Our perfect golden child. Who does she represent in the world of infant feeding?

In our metaphor, Isabella is the woman who performs motherhood with aplomb. She breastfeeds exclusively and looks good while doing it. She probably also uses cloth nappies and her baby only eats homemade organic food and definitely doesn’t have any screen time. Isabella sure as hell isn’t on Twitter while feeding her baby. She’s not entirely likeable and she can be cruel and dismissive to her altogether ordinary sister.

But it turns out that life isn’t so perfect for perfect Isabella. Growing rows and rows of perfect roses and getting engaged to a man she does not love to meet the weight of external expectations has taken a toll. But she can heal: by cutting loose a bit, embracing a bit of spiky imperfection and learning to enjoy herself. She needs to let things get a bit messy and embrace her average and ungifted sister. In doing so she saves not only herself, but her entire home and family.

Let’s talk about Abuela, the matriarch of the Madrigal family…

‘In our darkest moment we were given a miracle. The candle became a magical flame that could never go out and it blessed us with a refuge in which to live’. And so, a once life-sustaining gift, the extraordinary gifts of the Madrigal family, become something to be demanded.

Abuela is committed and dedicated to her family and community. She has a strong social conscience, but she is intolerant of weakness and ordinary-ness. Harsh, demanding and ever more controlling, as her home, her shelter, her kingdom begins to crumble, she banishes truth-telling Bruno, blames Mirabel, who has also started to see what is happening to the magic, and tells her that it is best for those without gifts to ‘step aside’.

Mirabel confronts Abuela that she is the one killing the miracle. She tells her that the ‘black sheep’ of the family (Bruno and Mirabel herself) love the family. As they argue, the house and town crumble and Mirabel risks herself to save the magic. Abuela, broken in the rubble, ends up sharing her story with Mirabel; the story of how she lost her home and her husband and how the miracle saved her and her three babies, enabling them to build a new home. She realises she has clung so tightly to the miracle that she has lost sight of who it was for.

Is the miracle breastfeeding? Is Abuela the committed but ultimately misguided breastfeeding advocate, losing sight of what is important?

Realising what she has done, Abuela embraces Mirabel, saying she has asked Pedro (her late husband) for help and he sent her Mirabel. At this point Bruno reappears and is also embraced.

‘The miracle is not some magic that you’ve got,

The miracle is you, not some gift, just you,

The miracle is you,

All of you, all of you,’

It might interest you to know that these lyrics, sung by Abuela, were the inspiration for our video for Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, ‘We are the Magic’.

Abuela needs to own her mistakes and the harm she has caused to her family and community, but not to flagellate herself. She needs to restore her relationships and liberate herself and her family from over-reliance on their gifts; a liberation that can only be led by someone else…Mirabel. Mirabel, who has overcome her low opinion of herself and built her capacity to see things clearly, confront unapologetically and reconcile her family and community, not with gifts, but with ordinary-ness.

Time to talk about Mirabel…

Mirabel has no gifts and is in awe of her family and their giftedness. So much so, that the first scene in the movie is literally her singing and dancing, as she goes through each family member and their gifts, steadfastly refusing to talk about herself.

At core, Mirabel is a little girl, made to feel ashamed for having no gift. She doesn’t feel good enough, or special, and yearns for a miracle, a gift to prove her worth. Blamed when the magic (that’s breastfeeding in our metaphor) is weakening and failing, Mirabel seeks the truth, the truth about her missing uncle, Bruno (Fed is Best, remember!) It is Mirabel who realises Luisa is struggling and helps her to take a break. And it is Mirabel who helps perfect Isabella embrace her imperfections, be creative and speak authentically, rather than simply pleasing her family.

Mirabel is anything but ordinary. She liberates Bruno and she enables Abuela to see herself more clearly, let go of the miracle and embrace her family for who they are, not for their gifts. It is Mirabel who leads the way back to the ruined Madrigal house.

Mirabel represents a different type of motherhood and female leadership to Abuela. Where Abuela relies on gifts, servitude and self-sacrifice, Mirabel embraces her family for who they are, not for their gifts. She sees their needs, as well as their strengths. The Madrigal family home needs a new foundation, one that does not rely on gifts, servitude and self-sacrifice. Mirabel’s community is based on compassion, acceptance and collaboration. Her leadership invites the entire community to rebuild the foundations of the Madrigal house. No longer in awe of ‘the amazing Madrigals’, the community become an integral part of the family.*

As Mirabel sees herself for who she is, and her family recognise her for who she is, she no longer lives in the shadow of the family. She has a place within it, and as she takes it, the home regenerates; a new home, a new foundation and a new matriarch. A better future awaits. It’s the ordinary, ungifted, humanity of Mirabel that leads the way. It’s time for the Mirabels to shine. And by doing so, enable everyone else to shine too: compassion, autonomy and safety.

*Oh, and just to be clear, the wider community that we need to reform infant feeding policy and practice includes science and evidence-based solutions to breastfeeding problems and to ensuring sufficient milk intake. And it includes the formula industry. We need them all for a strong home!

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