This is a subject that has been milling around in my brain for a while now. In fact, for several months. A couple years ago breast-feeding became a huge argument on my Facebook feed and I wrote a post with my views and told myself I'd said my peace and I was done.
The debate is heating up on my feed again and the "advocates" (and I use that term loosely) are becoming more and more rabid. So, I'm here to tell you my thoughts and to counter some of the more popular arguments out there. Understand, I absolutely support your right to breast-feed. But, before you hop on the bandwagon of angry voices, here are a few things to consider.
"We need to normalize breast-feeding."
Hate to break it to you, but this is already normal. I live in Kansas and here I have the right to breast-feed my baby anywhere I have a legal right to be. So pretty much anywhere. And Kansas is not the only state with such laws. There are ways to breast-feed in public without getting too much flak. It's called covering up. I'm not just talking about an actual cover, though in some situations that is appropriate. I'm talking about wearing your shirt in such a way that you are still mostly covered. Yes, I get it, your baby's head will cover the most private parts of your breast. But the rest of your breast doesn't need to be in everyone's face either. And before you jump on me about low-cut blouses, I would say the exact same thing to those women. There is absolutely no need to have your breasts on public display. None. Zero. Zip. If you are wearing a tank top while breast-feeding, instead of pulling the top down under the breast, pull the bottom up and over. This allows you to keep the breast covered while feeding your child. Pulling down merely exposes the entire breast which is unnecessary and will garner negative reactions from those around you.
There are also times when wearing some kind of cover is the best option. I understand there are babies who don't like it. I've had two of them. But when we're in a public place, and I have no option of removing myself to somewhere private, they've had to deal with it. It's not just about covering myself, it's also about removing distractions for them. This past December I was participating in a craft show selling books. I had my baby with me and when he needed to nurse, I draped my jacket over my shoulder and let him feed. Guess what? No one at the fair so much as blinked. And believe me, my baby is a loud eater. Everyone in the room knew exactly what was going on under the jacket. But no one said a word to me about feeding him, I didn't get any nasty looks. They went about their business and Ben did his. He couldn't see all the people milling past and so ate without pausing to look at everyone. Yes, he pushed at the jacket and even fussed a little. But he got fed and I was able to stay at my table. It was win-win. I fed my baby in public and didn't get martyred. I also didn't get applauded, which was perfectly fine with me. Some of you "advocates" sound like you want a trophy for feeding your baby. Your trophy is healthy, growing baby. Congratulations!
"The media has oversexualized breasts which is why people have a problem with it."
Oh, honey, this reason is so laughable it's hardly worth mentioning. But since this is one of the more common arguments, here we go. The breast has been "sexualized" since the beginning of time. Don't believe me? Read Song of Solomon or The Odyssey or a myriad of other ancient texts. Men have always been fascinated by the breast and that's both normal and natural. Like other animals, we have distinct features to aide in attracting a mate. That would include the breast. While I agree that the media has done a lot of damage in regards to body image and how people treat the body, it is not just a media thing. There is something inherently beautiful about a mother feeding her baby. It is intimate, special and I'll go ahead and say it: it is sacred. No matter how a man tries, he can never quite emulate that bond. The tenderness and pure love exhibited by a breast-feeding mother is powerful and that can make some uncomfortable. It's not because your breasts are so sexy. It's because of how special and beautiful that moment is. And if you've got your entire breast, or both breasts, out of the shirt to feed your baby, who's really the one sexualizing your breast?
"My baby's needs are more important than your comfort."
Can we just admit right now this is a load of horse-hockey? There are plenty of times when you put societal norms and comfort before your baby's needs. For example, if you're out to eat and your baby needs changed, you don't set him up on the table amid the food and change him there, do you? Of course not! You take him to the restroom, find a changing table and take care of the diaper. Or you're driving down the road and your baby needs fed. You don't take him out and feed him while still driving. You either continue to your destination, if it's close enough, or you find a spot to pull over and then feed him. So using this argument against covering up just doesn't hold water. Like I mentioned before, I've had two babies who did not like to be covered. But if I was in a situation where I could not find a private place to nurse, they were out of luck. I dealt with holding the cover in place to feed them. I dealt with the whimpers and occasionally screams. Because in the end, the baby really just wants to be fed and will give up. If you argue that your baby truly won't give up, then use the two shirt method or just use your clothes as a cover. Also, how many of these issues are people drawing attention to themselves? I'm serious. I have never once had a problem when I breastfed in public, whether with a cover or not, and I think it is largely because I did so modestly and I didn't pull attention to myself. I just did what needed to be done and went on with my life.
"Expecting women to breast-feed in a bathroom is disgusting and wrong!"
Okay, I've nursed in plenty of bathrooms and my children are just fine. And in every case I chose to nurse my baby there. Why? Because my children are easily distracted. A restaurant, store, or really any public place is loud. There are people talking and laughing and walking past. The quietest spot in any of these places is the restroom. I don't sit on the toilet to nurse, but rather stand so I can gently rock my baby. I use the handicap-accessible stall so I have more room to move around. It's no more disgusting than using any other room to nurse. What about germs? Unless you're dipping your breast in the toilet water, you're not getting those germs anywhere near your baby. And if you're worried about airborne germs, guess what? They're outside the bathroom too. If germs worry you that much, just stay home.
The Reality is...
It doesn't really matter how you feed your baby, someone somewhere will say you're doing it wrong. I've been blessed with three children, two I've been able to breast-feed. The first was bottle-fed and I can tell you I got way more crap about how I was feeding him than I ever got for my other children. I avoided going to activities with other mothers because I was constantly berated for making such a selfish choice. It didn't matter to them that I wanted desperately to be able to breast-feed him. They didn't care that I spent days crying when my milk supply dried up and I couldn't even pump for my child. Some told me my child would be developmentally delayed or wouldn't feel that I loved him as much. To those mothers, I wish they could see him now. He is well ahead of his peers and he knows that I love him every bit as much as I love my other children. I still wish I had been able to breast-feed my son and at times I feel robbed of that precious bond. But that experience taught me a few things. First, it taught me to ignore and avoid the people telling me I was doing it wrong. Second, it taught me that there is no one way to be a good mother. There are many and just because it works for me doesn't mean it will work for someone else. And third, it taught me that there really is no way to please everyone. If you choose to breast-feed in public, there will always be someone who gets offended. It happens to mothers who bottle-feed too. And to the mothers with one and the mothers with many and the mothers who adopt and every other mother out there. Breast-feeding mothers don't have the corner on getting scorned and ridiculed for their choices. I wouldn't even say that mothers in general have that corner. There will always be the naysayers, so learn to ignore them. Quit beating the poor, dead horse. And most of all, if you are going to call yourself an advocate for breast-feeding, then understand and accept that you are not going to change everyone's viewpoint. And you won't change anyone by being rude, thoughtless or condescending.
I have two friends who were part of a photography series on breast-feeding. I saw the pictures of each of them and they were beautiful. I have also seen the picture of the woman with a towel over her head while she is breast-feeding her child with the sign, "If you are nursing, please cover up." I hate that picture. What's the difference? Each picture was made to advocate breast-feeding. The difference can be summed up in one word: attitude. The pictures of my friends show the beautiful love between a mother and a child. They are modest and their clothing covers as much of them as the babies' heads don't. It is clear that they are breast-feeding, but they are doing so in a beautiful and loving way. The pictures celebrate and capture that intimate and sacred nature of breast-feeding. In the other woman's picture, her full breast is out of the shirt and only what her baby's head hides is covered. The picture lacks the beauty that is breast-feeding and merely uses it to make a point. There is no love in that picture, no understanding of other people's consideration. That's not what breast-feeding is about. It's about loving and nurturing your baby. It doesn't mean using your feeding choice as a means to put down others.
Yes, I breast-feed my baby. Yes, I do so in public places. And this blog post isn't meant to tell you that you can't or shouldn't breast-feed in public. But I don't feed my baby as a political statement or to make a point. I feed him because he needs to be nurtured. I cover him not because I'm ashamed to breast-feed or because others expect it. I do it because I put his need to eat above his want to see everything going on. Sometimes, he gets covered even when we are in our own home because when I have guests over I want them to be comfortable. It is not my place to decide what makes them comfortable. Nor is it my place to belittle or demean them because what is comfortable for me is not for them.
Motherhood is a hard enough journey without turning every little thing into a fight. Is it really necessary to continue dragging this out? Is it really helping us or our children? If we truly want to advocate for breast-feeding, then we need to just quietly and consistently do it. No fanfare, no announcements, no harsh words, no whining. Just take care of your baby because in the end, that's really all that matters.
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius