What do you immidiately picture when I say that word? Okay, I know what you picture, but what is the context?
Do you see the latest cover of a Victoria Secret magazine? Maybe a scene from the most recent movie you’ve watched? Perhaps you picture the scantily-clad girl you just passed on the street or you imagine a passage from 50 Shades of Grey.
How do these images make you feel? Do they feel normal? Natural? Sexual?
Do you picture a mother breastfeeding her baby? Did that pop into your mind at all?
Now try this:
Imagine you’re sitting at a restaurant, enjoying a nice meal. Everyone is maintaining the utmost civility. And then, across the restaurant, a mother lifts up her shirt and brings her baby to her chest.
How do those breasts make you feel?
What about uncomfortable? Squeamish?
I know. If you’re reading this right now, you fully believe that you support breastfeeding. In fact, you’ll even go so far as to say that you support breastfeeding in public. If a woman believes that breastfeeding is best for both her and her baby*, she should not be forced to stay at home or encouraged to bring a bottle whenever she goes into public.
I know you believe this.
But what does “in public” mean to you?
Recently, in the city I grew up in, a vendor at the local farmer’s market was asked to cover up while breastfeeding her baby. The city had received complaints from certain market-goers who were uncomfortable with her uncovered breasts. In response, the woman organized a nurse-in, and thirty women came to the market to nurse, uncovered, to raise awareness of breastfeeding rights. The city issued an apology, but of course, everyone is talking about it.
Yesterday, the local radio show hosted a call-in about the issue of breastfeeding in public. Everyone who called began by saying that they supported breastfeeding in public. Because in this day and age, everyone believes they do.
But, along with that strong moral stance that breastfeeding should be accepted in public, a but is often included. Women should be free to breastfeed in public. But women should be considerate of others. But it makes me uncomfortable. But they should cover up. But they should go somewhere discreet, like a public washroom. But I don’t want to see it.
Everyone believes in a baby’s right to breastmilk… but.
A few weeks ago, I received a request from a pregnant friend of mine. She asked if I would be willing to have her watch me nurse Gavin. She realized that she had a lot of apprehension about nursing her own baby and thought it might stem from the fact that she has never really seen a woman breastfeed her baby before. In her world – in our world – breastfeeding isn’t normal because it isn’t seen. … Because people “believe in breastfeeding” but they don’t want to see it.
So, I ask you again: What do you picture when I say the word breasts? Is it a woman breastfeeding her baby? Or do you picture the other million ways society normalizes breasts?
When I was a brand new Mom, I believed in breastfeeding my baby, but I was also conscious of how the world saw me. I would go out in public, even to family functions, and spend the majority of my time closed up in a room, alone, feeding Cameron. Everyone else would be visiting and enjoying themselves, and I would be staring at a wall for dozens of minutes, waiting for my baby to be satisfied. I hated it. And because of that, I dreaded going out and I dreaded nursing. I didn’t want anyone around me to be uncomfortable with me feeding my baby, so I hid myself away, even in public.
I’ve since learned that hiding yourself away is not breastfeeding in public, even if you are doing it outside of your own home.
Furthermore, there is a popular opinion that women don’t need to be hidden away in order to breastfeed their babies, but they should “cover up”. Many reasons are given for this preference. Modesty. Consideration. Squeamishness. I’ve even heard that women who do not cover up are “exhibitionists” and part of a “bare-all, look-at-me generation”, as if we mothers are feeding our children to fulfill some twisted, selfish fantasy.
I get it. We’re not used to seeing breasts as anything but sexual. In our society, sex is normal. So when a woman’s breast is exposed so her baby can receive the nutrition and the comfort that he so desperately needs, others get uncomfortable. In response, babies are told to eat with a blanket over their faces. Mothers are encouraged to break eye contact with their newborns. In so doing, breastfeeding is hidden from the public’s eye. And by hiding this beautiful, natural act we make it even less normal.**
Canada protects the rights of breastfeeding mothers trough the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But more specifically, Nova Scotia has chosen to define a woman’s breastfeeding rights further.
Women have the right to breast-feed a child in public areas, including restaurants, retail stores and shopping centres, theatres and so forth. Women shall not be prevented from nursing a child in a public area, nor asked to move to another area that is more “discreet”. (source)
Believing in a woman’s right to breastfeed means just that. No buts attached. A woman and her baby can breastfeed in public. Period. She should not be told to go somewhere more discreet. She should not be told to cover up. And furthermore, she should not be made to feel those things either. If you say “I believe in a woman’s right to breastfeed in public but…” then you do not support breastfeeding. Not really.
No woman should feel nervous about breastfeeding her baby because she has never witnessed breastfeeding before. Instead, women should go into the delivery room feeling as though they are surrounded by a society that encourages and teaches healthy breastfeeding through community examples. We shouldn’t be alarmed that sometimes you have to hold your breast just right to encourage the baby to latch or that milk might spray everywhere. We should not be surprised if some babies eat loudly. We should know this because we have seen it before. Imagine how confident we, as mothers, would be if society was comfortable with breastfeeding. Imagine how many more babies would be breastfed if breastfeeding were normalized.
Breastfeeding needs to be normalized, not hidden away. If this makes you uncomfortable, it is time to get comfortable. Do not expect a baby who needs to breastfeed cater to your comfort.
Now what do you picture? How do you feel?
I hope you feel normal. I hope you see motherhood.
Whenever I write something like this (controversial?), I always feel the need to include caveats so no one gets offended.
*I advocate for a normalizing of breastfeeding in our society. This does not mean that I judge those who do not breastfeed, for whatever reason. In fact, this post has nothing to do with formula feeding vs breastfeeding.
**I often do cover-up while nursing in public. I often assess the environment and chose to breastfeed in a way that makes me and my baby the most comfortable. Sometimes that is completely uncovered. Sometimes it is covered. Sometimes it is even in a quiet room. The point is, breastfeeding should be seen more in public and women shouldn’t feel chastised for nursing however makes them feel most comfortable.
Are we all on the same page now? Awesome.
Suggested Further Reading
My sister just wrote a blog post about this issue as well as her experience with breastfeeding: The Rookie Wife | Breastfeeding
This is a great post about normalizing breastfeeding by making it visible. There is so much good about this entire blog, but I particularly like this post: Nurshable | Monkey See, Monkey Do
Here’s a little bit of breastfeeding humour, and a brief glance into what breastfeeding is really like: Babymooning | 12 Signs You Are the Mother of a Breastfeeding Newborn
For some breastfeeding support, check out The Alpha Parent | Timeline of a Breastfed Baby