I follow this great page on Facebook called Occupy Menstruation, the majority of their posts concern the politics surrounding menstruation but occasionally they post additional articles about birth, breastfeeding, pregnancy, and motherhood. This week, they posted an article about a mom who was shamed on Facebook for breastfeeding her child at a local restaurant in the US. I know, the media loves a good breastfeeding headline… But why? I thought we should talk a little bit more about this – not just defending one’s right to feed their child in any way they choose but the deeper politics about why this is actually a taboo subject.
So let’s agree on a few things:
One: Breasts are everywhere. And everyone has nipples too, usually remaining useless little nubbies for the majority of your life. I don’t have to tell you this, of course. Ads like the one below for LaSenza are hanging from the shop windows at the mall, over ten feet tall (making each of the breasts in your periphery a good three feet large). We know what they look like, you’ve likely seen them in the flesh, maybe even more than one pair, lucky you!
Two: Breasts are not sexual organs. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, they get all dressed up in bras and low cut shirts. Yes, we like to touch them when we’re being intimate with our partner. Just like we like to touch legs, bums, ears, necks… you get my point. The reality is that breasts are secondary sex characteristics that develop during puberty, they might look nice but the size of your breasts aren’t a make-it or break-it factor in whether or not you can reproduce. What I’m trying to say is that it is our culture that has sexualized breasts. When we think that women’s enlarged breasts need to be covered at the beach but men’s breasts do not (and yes, they are called breasts in men too), that’s societal values and expectations talking. When we think that a child suckling on their mother’s breast appears sexual or somehow feels like a sexual act, that is our societal understanding of breasts as sexual organs for male pleasure talking. We need to be aware of this and recognize this when we become uncomfortable with seeing breasts anywhere. Being critical of what you’re seeing and why you feel a certain way is a great place to start with any issue. Being critical tends to take emotions out of the equation and helps you move forward.
Three: Children get hungry – I’ll rephrase that, children get hangry. I would prefer a baby happily suckling on an uncovered breast than a raging newborn with screams reaching over 80 decibels in line at the grocery store. And let’s be honest – people are going to get mad at mom for not “controlling” her child when it’s screaming AND when they see her breastfeed, it certainly feels like a no-win scenario for moms. That is unfortunate and something that we need to fix. We need to stop policing parents for every single decision they make.
So it’s not only men that are uncomfortable with breastfeeding. A lot of women out there who even breastfed their own children sometimes find it inappropriate in certain circumstances. Now with that being said, I appreciate your being uncomfortable, it’s not a really nice feeling to sit with. However, unfortunately your right to being comfortable or not having your tail feathers ruffled does not trump a child’s basic human right to nourishment and food. I’m sorry, but it is as simple as that.
So let’s talk about the argument about mothers having to rearrange their schedule around feeding times. Can we just say that being a parent is hard enough? You get spit up on your clothes, very little sleep, and barely have time to take a shower. To ask a parent to rearrange their life schedule around their child’s breastfeeding routine isn’t fair. Especially if it’s to make sure that a random stranger is comfortable sitting in a food court that can seat over 200… and to be honest they’re probably already arranging their schedule as best they can to suit their baby’s needs.
If a mother is confident enough to have her breast exposed while breastfeeding, that’s wonderful. If she wants to cover her chest with a towel, also wonderful. If she want to use a bottle, perfect. Whatever fashion mom decides is obviously the most comfortable for her – if it feels weird for you, that’s your baggage to unpack, not mom’s.
I think a lot of the issues surrounding breastfeeding have to do with class. Breastfeeding has been associated with the lower class for centuries. Even as early as “950 BC, women of higher social status frequently demanded wet nurses.” Too bourgeoisie to breastfeed, can I make that a thing? By “the 1940s and 1950s, physicians and consumers regarded the use of formula as well known, popular, and safe substitute for breast milk. Consequently, breastfeeding experienced a steady decline until the 1970s.” If you have access to this wonderful product (technology, really) why be natural? If you have the resources to purchase something that potentially can make your life easier, why not? This was the selling point for upper class women. Even my grandmother told me that when she had her two children, breastfeeding just wasn’t popular. She gave birth at one of the best hospitals in Montreal, where all the staff were very pro-breastfeeding. But my grandmother and her friends who all had babies in the 1960s thought that formula was easier, more convenient, and “in style.” Somehow breastfeeding became viewed as a lower class, almost a primitive culture’s act (also often associated with race because of course there are going to be intersections on this topic).
Advertisements during that time made breastfeeding look bad and the point of course, was to sell you the product of infant formula. For example, one ad I found says “Don’t wait too long before you wean the baby.” The text below says that if you do (wait) “the little one is likely to be weak and anemic” … and that the time will come “when it isn’t sufficient for the fast-growing body.” This is problematic for so many reasons, one is that it further perpetuates the idea that the woman’s body is not good enough and that it will eventually fail, not only you but also your baby. It is also completely false, why replace mother’s milk for something that is “the nearest thing in the world to mother’s milk?” The ad doesn’t make any sense.
Mother’s are sometimes vulnerable. They want to do what’s best for their children and can be sometimes coerced into making “the right choices” that might not necessarily be the right choice for her and her baby. Especially when you don’t have access to the knowledge that gives you the empowerment to make informed decisions about your healthcare. It’s really hard when you have to consider your health care professional’s recommendations, your partner’s wishes, your parent’s opinion, and your third cousin twice removed’s advice. I can’t imagine how exhausting that must feel.
Now, don’t get me wrong, formula is often the best option for mothers who are unable to produce milk, find breastfeeding painful, or simply don’t want to breastfeed. And that’s okay. The main thing is that you have a choice and that you should be supported in that choice. If you want to breastfeed breasts out or if you want to use a blue bottle with dinosaurs on it filled with formula, the choice is yours and I know you will do what you think is best for you and your baby (it seems like choice is a recurring theme in midwifery, doesn’t it?).
My point is that it doesn’t matter how you feed your child, whether you want to breastfeed for over a year or not at all, if you want to bottle feed with formula or pump, the decision is yours to make and that choice should be supported. If you’re uncomfortable with seeing a mother stand by her choice, remember something: this is not your child, these are not your choices to make.
So why do we love breastfeeding headlines? Because the female body is inherently political and always will be, especially when pregnant or nursing. Somehow the pregnant female body becomes public property (and in many ways it already was)… That is why choices are so important. They reclaim the body as your own. They say it takes a village to raise a child but maybe the village is getting a bit too big.