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June 19, 2005

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I find this entire debate over public breastfeeding to be far too puritanical, touchy, and ridiculous to merit the attention that it gets. First off, this demand that women breastfeed "discreetly" gets to me because that word is rather ambiguous. Does discreet mean that if I show some skin, I have crossed a line? Having watched several women in my family breastfeed, I know that the most I ever saw of a breast was the barest glimpse of the topside, which I didn't really find offensive.

Of course, that statement should contain the caveat that I grew up in a household of doctors who were also naturalists and that I was breastfed until I naturally weaned at a little older than 2.

The other thing that bothers me about the demand that women be discreet in their breastfeeding is that it somehow smacks of the stereotypical idea that men cannot control their sexuality when confronted with a breast or nipple. Maybe what men find so objectionable about breastfeeding is that they realize that a woman's breasts are more than just playthings. My fiance and I agree that while breasts can be sexual and attractive, they are also there to perform a job.

Lastly, the comparison of breastfeeding to peeing is so highly illogical and inappropriate. Micturation is a waste disposal process by the body, whereby the body gets rid of toxins that would otherwise harm it. Breastfeeding occurs after birth and is meant to sustain life. Sure, both are natural processes. And they are sure both very different from one another. People making that comparison are surely either ignorant or are doing so in order to be sensationalistic.

"Nursing discreetly is a learned skill. It takes time and practice to get good at it. Breastfeeding is most important and most vulnerable in the early weeks, when many first-time mothers are not able to get baby to breast in one smooth unobtrusive motion."

To me - this is what sums the discretion discussion up. As a new mother (my daughter is now 2 1/2) I would literally sweat buckets while trying to nurse in public. The only two places I felt safe were a) in my home and b) in my parents home because my mother breastfed and it was the norm.

I also think that it really goes back to the fact that in Western culture breasts have been sexualized beyond all repair. We are the only people that don't recognize the breast for it's primary function - the feeding of a human infant.

I whole heartedly agree that in certain settings such as church, or a formal event, or in the presence of an older adult (aka my grandfather) if *you* want to try and be more discreet, that's fine. But the line between trying and succeeding can be very fine. You may try to be discreet - and not quite manage it.

The other thing that makes me upset is the blanket thing - I don't know. I never really mastered nursing with a blanket. Zoe just never appreciated being smothered while eating. It's kinda like when a mother has the suggestion made to her of taking her baby to the restroom to feed. Would you wanna eat in a bathroom? Not I.

And I won't even address the comment regarding nursing vs urinating in public. That's a desperate poke by the uneducated who are only trying to further spread their own ignorance. It doesn't even deserve discussion.

Apologies for writing so much; I just feel very strongly on the subject and your writing inspires me to respond!

Many thanks - Melissa

Wow - we just pretty much posted the same comment, just using different words... awesome.

um, I agree with Sundae's manifesto, except for point two, "I will bare my breasts brazenly" or something like that. As a former hippie-child who brazenly bared her entire body many, many places, I certainly am no prude. But nor did I ever find it necessary to expose the boob publicly and entirely in order to nurse anytime, anywhere and in the presence of anyone, including at church.

The gal in the picture you have linked to whose entire breast is out of her shirt while nursing and also apparently debating in public lives in a culture different from ours. Lucky her.

But our culture will not change because of exposed nursing boobs becoming commonplace. It will change as mothers nurse withouth shame when the baby needs to nurse. and to that I say, Hallelujah.

I can't read this stuff without welling up with tears knowing my two are the only ones I will bare and nurse.

Nurse on, ladies. And ditch the tea towels, baby blankets and jaunts to some far off corner to feed your little ones. Our culture needs to realize that what breasts are for is not merely male pleasure. And public defecation, while once a common thing, will, in my postmillienial view, not be returning. Thanks for sharing your heart. Can we talk about something else?

Again, I agree with everything you wrote. I'd write something pithy, but I'm tired.

Robin

First of all, I've agreed with both of your breastfeeding posts.

Secondly, I had this problem myself last week. I belong to a group of women who are parenting or expecting babies after a loss. I've been encouraging a number of new moms in their bf'ing efforts, and somehow ended up on a tangent about my problems with formula companies. Not formula itself, or when it's necessary, or mother's who use it. Just formula companies and immoral business practices.

Well, we have a mom who just had a T-18 baby after a stillbirth, and she has to use formula and lavage feeding, and she took my post as an attack of her not breastfeeding. I re-read my post multiple times looking for the attack and never found it. I finally realized that it had to do with her pain and not my post.

I just hate to see women give up on breastfeeding because they're scared out of it, given innacurate information, or like you've been discussing, becoming too self-concious.

To the person who wanted to know why my husband Dominic thinks it's ridiculous to nurse after a year, it's because the baby isn't getting the nutrition it was during the first year. But I'll have him read the post on the issue. Thanks!

Okay, so I breastfed twins and that obviously complicates the issue, but I hardly ever nursed in public. In fact, as I'm sitting here thinking, it may be that I NEVER nursed in public. A lot of it had to do with being a new mom and very sensitive to any criticism and a lot of it had to do with "what do I do with Baby #2 while Baby #1 nurses?" (if no one was with me).

I pumped regularly anyway, at first to build up my supply since they were slightly early and didn't latch on well, and afterwards to build a freezer supply for when I went back to work. So it wasn't a huge deal for me to pump and bring bottles with me. Plus, then I could feed both at once and not spend an entire hour on a mall bench.

I wish I could have been one of those nursing mothers, proudly lifting her shirt in public. As it is, I just smile and make a positive comment if appropriate when I see a nursing mom. I agree that blankets can be problematic and I think I was pretty "discreete" in front of people without a blanket. I wish I didn't care about offending people by doing something so positive and good for my kids.

I have trouble trying to encourage breastfeeding without hurting new/expectant moms. I'm writing a post about it currently, hope to get it up later this week.

I find it's harder for me to be private with a blanket on my shoulder. It just gives me one more piece of "equipment" to maneuver into the right place. I have one hand to guide the baby, one hand to guide the breast, and no third hand to keep the blanket from slipping off my shoulder. The only place I've managed it is at the swimming pool by pushing the corner of the towel under my swimsuit's shoulder strap.

I didn't realize CCL had a thing about sleeveless tops. I had no idea my shoulders were going to cause th downfall of Christianity.

I am thinking that I have a much more relaxed view than most people do - though very similar to you it sounds like.

I read that Mothering article you linked and it sounded fine... I personally wouldn't nurse during an optimology apt. but all the more power to those who do. I personally didn't nurse my 1.5 yr old the other day when four 6 grade boys came flying into my son's preeschool but I couldn't go anywhere but center-room and I was a little embarassed. Should I have? Yeah. Would I next time? I would... I figured out a place to have been out of the way but still nursing once we left. I'm not perfect and I'm still learning sometimes too (when to make it an issue, when to let my youngest son wait, when not to, etc.). Nursing a baby has been no problem and I feel totally at ease... it's nursing a toddler in public that threatens my bfing views sometimes - I can practically feel the thoughts aimed at me and sometimes that's hard... I've never been down this road (my oldest had to wean quickly @ 11m when my milk dried up w/ surprise baby). The comments I get from my sister and friends are sometimes enough to make me frustrated at their ignorance (when they have never-been-there-done-that) so I agree strongly with the "I can't say if I don't know the reasons" views of others.

I had a doula couple have their baby recently and they are going to wean him at 1m - I asked why and they told me (convenience is what it sounded like) but I didn't push it but encouraged them that ANY bmilk at all will help him even if she just nurses him at night. Not my baby, not my choices, and I want them to feel encouraged and positive about bfing so I left it at that. I didn't tell a friend of mine because she would have probably insisted I give them 10 reams of information about why they should continue bfing full-time but it was obvious to me that they had made their choice and my advice about the evening bfing seemed like a good one to them. I'll take it.

But that's getting off topic - discretion is very similar to clothing choices - each chooses what they do and it's not up to me. I think people on all spectrums should be... it makes life interesting and while I'll never bare myself brazenly, for some people that's what they need/want to do for belief reasons or comfort. I would rather look away if embarassed by an exposed boob (doubtful) than wish more Moms were comforable bfing in public (ie. bfing at all).

"Does the pressure to breastfeed discreetly or not at all make it harder for new mothers? I think it does. "

As a mama and the sister of a brand new mama, I can say that I KNOW it does. Thanks for this whole post. Thanks for the last couple posts. Thanks for saying the things that I think about but just can't ever come up with the right words for.

I LOVE this blog! - Kara, first time commenter, longtime reader

I have no problem with any of this. I think we'd all be hard put to find a woman who is breastfeeding in public primarily for the cheap thrill of exposing her breasts to some poor unsuspecting male passerby. I just wonder, however, if the conservative Christian women who are asking for their public breastfeeding to be accepted and that they be allowed to breastfeed openly without being commented on or to would extend the same courtesy to gay men and women who appear in public together and exchange simple gestures of affection with each other (nothing pornographic - just a kiss or holding hands)? Would you be as outraged over the Barbara Walters comment if she had expressed discomfort with a lesbian couple who'd held hands next to her on that flight? When I hold hands with my husband of a quarter of a century, people think it's nice that we're still affectionate at our advanced age. When my neighbor holds hands with his partner of over a decade, people think it's immoral and disgusting. Is this society that should encourage and learn to accept public breastfeeding also going to accept openly affectionate gay couples as well? Or is this society only supposed to accept behavior that Christians approve of?

Hi curious. I am a Biblically conservative Christian woman and I would of course extend the same courtesy to gay couples. Have many times, in fact. Which doesn't mean I don't squirm a bit-it is alarming to see a man kiss a man on the lips passionately.

However,we all sin in many ways, daily. The sin of homosexuality is not any more grieveous than the sin of lying, theft or murder(although the personal repercussions of sexual sin are more serious for the sinner, according to the scriptures, and in my personal experience)

However, I do not want our culture to (legally) decide that marriage between two of the same sex is normative anymore than I would like to see the wearing of clothing in public as being not legally required. These things can have huge cultural implications which I believe would not be beneficial for anyone. But this is an entirely different issue than feeling that the behavior of homosexual couples is "immoral and disgusting."

Are you certain that (conservative Christian) people feel that way? So what? They must answer to God, as must all.

Christians may or may not approve of many different things(my husband has termed these things 'the other ten commandments.') I wear sleeveless blouses often in the summertime...some may not approve. So what? This has nothing to do with Biblical Christianity. Accepting the actions of others without scolding has to do with loving one's neighbor as one's self. It is God who shall judge and God who shall condemn. Hope you see what I mean.

You know, I think part of what people object to ("people" being "me", maybe?) is the in-your-face-ness of it. I didn't like the tone of the article that you linked to -- it was kind of like "this is the way it is, so shove it". As opposed to the kinder, gentler tone displayed by Jamie and some of her commenters. BFing in public, at say the mall, is one thing, at the optometrist is a whole 'nother thing, in my opinion. One is a blatant disregard for the comfort of others, the other is doing what's best for the baby. I don't know if I'm making sense here but I'm trying to put my finger on what the big deal is. I don't know that we will ever figure it out, though.

Mary, I agree. I think there should be a balance between those who feel they need to apologize for breastfeeding (unacceptable) and those who appear to relish the discomfort of others (also unacceptable).

I can see the point of the article's author, however. I have heard many "Breastfeeding is gross" comments and felt that an apology was expected of me. Like, "I'm sorry what I'm doing is so disgusting. Here. Let me cover myself and hide my shame." If you see that attitude repeatedly, you may form a more in-your-face personna.

The problem is, in part, that virtues, such as the modesty or civility (called "friendliness" by some older authors) that are being called upon here, are means relative to two extremes in a particular situation. We can all agree that a breastfeeding mother should be modest or civil in how, where and when she breastfeeds, but it is impossible to pin down stock answers of what exactly is the mean for every possible situation in advance. It is easier to point to obvious examples of what NOT to do -- e.g., nurse topless as a protest against colonialism during a welcome ceremony for the Crown Prince of England (to use a real life example from the news some months ago in New Zealand). When trying to figure out what TO do, however, you have to consider such issues as local cultural customs, your immediate surroundings, who is present with you, etc. You weigh these things along with the needs of your baby, and you make the best decision you can, and that decision might be different if you are in a room full of strangers while waiting for assistance and the bank or if you are in the company of other mothers at the local park. There really is a balance to be struck in each situation, but there is no ready-made formula that will tell you what it is.

All I know is that any post in which you get to use the word defenestration is a good post. (grin)

And the T that rhymes with P for provincial bit - Brilliant!

My wet-bar is currently closed, so I'm pretty calm about this issue...but thanks for the thought provocation.

I think she comes across as hostile. Here is more of the attitude I try to adopt...

http://www.compleatmother.com/nursing_public.htm

Yup. She's hostile, all right. Her language is not very feminine OR motherly OR Christian. As someone above mentions, it sounds like she relishes the idea of making other people uncomfortable. That's just childishness- much like teenagers' body piercings or hair dye are seen as a "public protest." I will not use my baby or my body to make a public statement of immaturity, thank you.

I think learning to nurse discreetly is all about making the MOTHER comfortable anyway-- a fact that she ignores. Most women do have a natural inclination toward modesty, and this includes their breasts. As a new mom years ago, I was only comfortable nursing my baby by myself or with my husband in a private place. These days I nurse Baby #7 just about anywhere and honestly, I think most people don't even notice I am doing it. From those that do, I never get weird looks or stares or nasty comments. I am pretty sure that would happen (and should happen) if I were to "bare my breasts with pride and confidence." Sheeeeesh!

I've never read your blog before, but what an interesting topic.

I really appreciated the comments about being supposrtive and Danielle's comments that discretion is about the mother's comfort. It's not a badge of shame.

One reason for objection to public breastfeeding that I haven't seen directly addressed is what I would call the "organic" aspect. (I completely made that up, as well as my little theory here, not implying that organic = bad). It's not so much that the breast is a sexual object, but that by feeding a child from you body, with or without exposing the breast, you are implicitly acknowledging that this child was in your body and that the child was in your body because you had sex. That sounds sort of ridiculous until you think back as recently as the '50's and '60's when pregnancy couldn't be mentioned on television, back when women crossing the frontier didn't mention pregnancy in their letter (you'd only hear of the birth of the child) and even further back when pregnant women did not appear in public later in their pregnancies. It was all a matter of "decency," which is why the urination comparison endures.

You mentioned older men in your post. My father-in-law became visibly uncomfortable when his very pregnant daughter would inadvertently expose her a bit of her belly late in her pregnancy. Is it any wonder that her own mother vocally objected to her breast-feeding her daughter past the age of four months? Mt sister-in-law is a 40 year old woman who was hiding her continued breast feeding from her strict Irish Catholic mother.

My point is that some of the prejudices are hard-wired from long ancestral legacies and I don't think it's all about the discomfort of seeing a breast. It goes much deeper to the "things we don't talk about in public" place.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment!

Looking back (so much of those first three months is a fog!), my first experience NIP when I stopped worrying about what others thought, was at Easter dinner when P was 5 weeks old. 20 family members were in the living room and I was watching Phil Mickelson win the Masters golf tournament. A number of great-uncles were playing cards 10 feet away and I decided that my desire to watch tv was more important than whether they were uncomfortable knowing I was breastfeeding behind them. There were times when P was maybe 6-8 months when I had to leave Mass to nurse because P was too distractible to nurse without latching on and off repeatedly. My nipples were happier if I went downstairs for a few minutes.

I think I live in a BF-friendly area because I NIP now, with a 15 month old, and don't notice any stares or glares. The only thing I do to add some discretion is to keep P from pulling my shirt up to my collarbone. No blankets here.

Jamie, I haven't been here in awhile (how DO you manage to write so well as a mom of four including a newborn?) but this post intrigued me. I personally have never gotten comfortable with nursing my baby in public. I am too clumsy and my daughter is too distractible, and I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of my own personal breasts flahing all over the place. And I have a very curious and distractible six month old now so it's a losing propostiion anyway. Other mothers want to let the girls fly free? Great. It's just not me.
Which leads me to the rest of our post. If more lactivisits were like you and took as their rallying cry "I am not in her shoes" I think a lot more people would try breastfeeding. I came home near tears from my breastfeeding class, because the teacher basically said Bottles Are Bad and Forget About Schedules Forever. Neither of those items fit in with my needs as someone who must earn an income to ensure my family's survival. I wanted to breastfeed so badly but the picture painted was so bleak and limiting. A less "all or nothing" approach would have freed me from a lot of guilt and worry and made my early postpartum days soo much easier. Finding a way to blend my need for freedom with her physcial need to nurse and both our emotional satidfaction from doing so has kept me breastfeeding to my absolute goal of six months (hooray!!) and thinking I'll try for the full year after all. The militant lactivisits who glare at me for giving my baby a bottle and make drive by comments to adoptive mothers in stores need to realize that preachiness and judgement make them very poor ambassadors for breastfeeding. People like you, who come from a place of sympthy and kindness and community, make me prooud I made the choice to stick with it. I've said this to you before,, but thanks again.

You know, I love coming here to read the blog. But lately I've loved coming here just to read the comments!

You are blessed with intelligent and insightful commenters, and I look forward to more!

Great post, well thought out and argued!

I got into it big time with my SIL over this issue and made pretty much your exact argument. She doesn't like to be disagreed with and when I refused to agree that NIP was BAD she ran off with her son and refused to talk to anyone on our side of the family. I guess she felt very passionately about this. But then, so do I. I usually just agree with her to keep the peace but not on something this important. Not on something that could save this country $3.6 billion annually. Not on something that makes such a difference in our children’s lives. Until we make NIP a regular sight, people will still feel they have to run off and hide or FF.

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