I think it would be fair to say that women have been breastfeeding their babies since the dawn of time. Forgive me if I don’t cite a reference on that one. And I think it is also safe to say that besides using car seats and putting babies to sleep on their backs, breastfeeding is the big parenting “must do” of our generation. (And luckily, if we choose not to breastfeed or simply can’t make it work, we have better alternatives to utilize than our mothers ever did.) But from the pamphlets in the OB’s office to even the commercials for heavily marketed formula, the message is that “Breast is Best.”
This hasn’t always been the case. My mother did not breastfeed her children. In the mid to late 60’s, formula was still considered to be the “scientific” way to feed babies. No one ever educated her on the benefits of nursing or even offered it as a choice. My mother-in-law told me that it was basically the same for her. Bottles and disposable diapers were symbols of status and convenience while breastfeeding was for the hippies on the commune. Even though La Leche League was organized since the mid-fifties, bottle-feeding was the norm from the Baby Boomers to Generation X. So when did that change? Probably about the same time that parents fought to have fathers in the delivery room. By the early 90’s, breastfeeding was back in fashion.
I remember this being a big deal for my sister when my niece was born. But she had to fight for it, begging for her baby to be brought to her and not be given a bottle in the hospital nursery. The women in my family couldn’t understand why she would even want to breastfeed. But almost a decade later, that attitude changed. By the time I gave birth for the first time in 1999, the hospital nurses simply assumed that I would be breastfeeding. Dean never once was offered a bottle or pacifier in the hospital and a lactation consultant checked in on me even though each of my nurses “helped” me with my technique. In fact, if I had ever made any other choice, I might have been made to feel like less of a mother. I left the hospital armed with a pump, nipple cream and a bag of formula (just in case). I also left with a baby that had gained weight before we were discharged to prove that I was doing it right. Breastfeeding for my peer group is not just the fashion, but also the expectation.
So why, in a society where it is understood that about 70 percent of mothers do indeed breastfeed their infants, do we still hear stories like this? Did we suddenly time warp back to 1967? Where does such discomfort with the most timeless, natural process come from? Could it be that we still consider baring one’s breasts an offensive act, like mooning? But Catherine Connors wasn’t mooning anyone – she was trying to feed her baby. And for most, a quietly suckling child is more socially acceptable than a hungry squalling one. So we are expected to breastfeed our babies, just not in front of anyone else?
What really surprised me about Her Bad Mother’s story is that another mother was the one giving the disapproving glare. I would never consider another parent to be someone I wouldn’t lift my shirt in front of to feed my child. In fact, after three kids, I doubt there is anyone who has met me that hasn’t seen me nurse a baby. Parks, museums, school, soccer practice and even the library – I’ve bared my breast almost everywhere I have been in the last nine years. And if I have gone to a private location to nurse, it has probably been for my own comfort rather than yours. I have even nursed in front of my own father (gasp) and if he can handle it, so can you.
This is not to say that I go topless just anywhere. I do carefully choose locations, again based on my own comfort and sometimes the comfort of those around me. I don’t nurse in front of the adolescent boys at the pool. I don’t nurse in the mall food court in front of the old men. I haven’t always breastfed in front of my dad – I usually leave the room and if he chooses to sit next to me on the couch while I’m nursing, then that is his choice. It’s taken him awhile to get to that point. And if I don’t know you well, I may ask you if you would be uncomfortable with my nursing in front of you. But I’d never think to ask a mom of young children who had probably breastfed as well.
No one has ever asked me to stop nursing. I have never been instructed to take my nursing child into a public restroom – a place regaled for bodily fluids coming out of the body rather than going in. Would you want to eat in there? Even if I weren’t pro-lactation, I would never make another woman feel like she had just done something unspeakable in front of me. While my almost nine-year-old son can’t stand to see me undressed, he is never uncomfortable seeing me breastfeed his brother – whatever the location. He understands the difference between nudity and nursing. One makes him uncomfortable while the other is natural process.
So at the close of World Breastfeeding Week, I offer up these challenges. Next time you see a young mom nursing a baby – give her a smile. Reminisce with your children about how they were fed – bottle, breast or both. And if you are currently lactating, take your child to a public location and proudly bare your breast – for moms like Catherine and for your baby.