Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Why Children Need to See Breastfeeding . . . Especially in Public

"You can't play with that baby right now.  His mama is doing something you shouldn't have to see." It's hard to convey the disdain uttered in those words spoken about me at a hockey game a few weeks ago.  Moments earlier, we had been friendly strangers.  The six or seven year old girl in question had been playing peek a boo with my eleven month old and letting him play with her game day pom poms.  As action on the ice heated up, all of us had been drawn to the ice and conversation and interaction had lulled.  Well, most of our attention was on the ice.  My sleepy baby had decided he was hungry and soundlessly nudged that it was time for him to eat.  As I was wearing a very modest nursing shirt, I was able to accommodate him on the stands and while I was not wearing a full nursing cover, no skin was showing (too cold. . . it's been non stop arctic blast here in Michigan).  However, when the little girl turned to tickle the happy, nursing baby's foot, her mother sprang into angry action, forcibly moving her to the other side of her and giving me looks that had they been translated into words would have been unprintable.  Deciding to not push the woman into saying more things that might lead her daughter to figure out that feeding the baby was what her mom was so angry about, I quietly ignored her and let my son nurse until he was finished.  Although the woman probably thought she was looking out for her daughter, I know I was doing the right thing and me nursing my son was exactly what her daughter needed to see . . . and her mother, too. Children need to see nursing especially in public because that is the only way it will ever become a normalized, supported part of the culture again.

I nurse in front of my elder son and other children all the time.  When I do that, I am also teaching.  I am teaching them that nursing a baby is not a sexual, private act (any more than bottle feeding is a sexual act).  I am also teaching them that breasts (and women) are not just sexual play things.  If I could have had a calm, private conversation with that mother, I would have explained that.  When we teach children that nursing should only be done in dark rooms or under blankets, we perpetuate the idea that breasts are purely sexual and that nursing is somehow a deviate act.  I am a naturally modest person and so the nursing I do publically is very modest, but that is a very personal choice.  In other eras, cultures understood breasts as both sexual and functional and had healthy cultures around it.  (In the Victorian Era, for example, when ankles were considered "racy" and women were swathed in dresses from neck to toe, nursing dresses of the time reveal almost no cover for nursing mothers and paintings suggest that nursing was done very publicly with no cover.)  In early American colonies, saturated with rules about the dressing and layering women must abide by from head to toe, paintings depict church, community meetings, and other public venues with women nursing very publicly uncovered.  Were these societies ones in which women had healthy non-over sexualized representations?  No.  However, these were socities in which breastfeeding was clearly not sexualized.  Nursing in public now, in this culture, is very important because it is an act that both desexualizes feeding babies and also works to de-hypersexualize women in our slightly more self-aware culture.

 Adults really struggle to be comfortable with this because they are products and participants in our
hypersexualized culture and, frankly, after decades of bottlefeeding as the cultural norm, breasts have become increasingly associated with sex.  Children, however, have no such suppositions and discomfort.  More children than ever are growing up in homes where breastfeeding is at least attempted if not completely successful than in many decades.  Children not growing up in those homes may be more curious when they see nursing mothers in public (the same way they are more interested in anything not found inside their homes and every day life), but they are equally open to seeing the act as normal as long as the adults around them present it as so.  This is why I did not engage the obviously angry mother in conversation.  I did not wish to goad her into saying in front of her daughter that nursing should not be done on demand or in a normal setting because it is not normal for her.  Her daughter had no awareness of why her mother was so on edge and I wanted to keep it that way.

So, what is the real effect of nursing in front of children?  It becomes completely normal and even dull.  How do I know this?  The photos in this blog are all taken by my four year old.  A self proclaimed photographer, he hasn't quite got the knack for composition and instead takes pictures of unposed inanimate objects, body parts, and other subjects that, frankly, most of us would find pretty uninteresting because his focus is learning how to work and focus his camera.  Among his photos of completely ordinary objects are pictures he's taken of me nursing his baby brother because nursing is so normal, it's boring . . . like blocks, feet, or a baby crawling .  This is what nursing looks like (whether in public or in private) in the eyes of a child who is used to it.   If children see enough public nursing, they won't notice, care, or see it as abnormal when they are older. Let's make nursing in public so normal and "boring" that our daughters and sons won't even notice it or care if they see a stranger at a hockey game feeding her baby. 

Thanks for reading, Shawna


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