In the eleven years since I first put baby to breast, the issue of public breastfeeding (or more specifically, breastfeeding in public spaces that are actually owned by various entities) has come into the news a few times. During the two years when I was actually breastfeeding (1998 and 2002, to be precise), I was blissfully unaware that this was all about breastfeeding rights for mothers. Naively, I had presumed it was all about eating rights for babies. Thus armed, I proceeded to feed my baby from the breast in restaurants, hotel lobbies, airplanes, parks, museums, beaches, offices, and pretty much anywhere I happened to be at the time with my hungry babies.
The thing I loved best about breastfeeding was the convenience. No bottles to heat, no worries about spoilage, nothing to store and nothing to discard, and no crying baby waiting while the bottle was prepared and heated.
Not once did I ever catch a glimpse of disapproval. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that anyone could be offended by breastfeeding; however, it often occurred to me that people might be annoyed by a squalling baby, therefore I obviously wasn’t completely insensitive to other people’s physical well-being (as infants, my kids were loud and persistent criers when they got down to it; it was best not to let them get worked up in the first place).
Some of my best memories of breastfeeding include the genuinely approving looks I got from elderly men and women as I breastfed in malls and restaurants. Seniors spend a lot of time in malls, and as a young mother, so did I – for the logical reason that we both needed a place to walk and sit out of the cold and snow (I had winter babies). We happily shared that space, and nobody ever got more than a very quick flash of breast flesh, if at all. They’d have to have been sitting nose-to-nose with my baby to get a glimpse of areola.
So eleven years later I am wondering what all the fuss is about, and why breastfeeding mothers are labelled (by some) as lactivists if they reasonably insist on their right to feed their babies in public. I would have hoped that by now, this right would have become completely uncontested.
As for Facebook and its “standards of decency”, it is apparently only photos of the entire breast with baby attached that provoke dispute and deletion. I think it should be understood that women who post these photos are doing so for some very excellent reasons. Some may live in places where public breastfeeding is not an uncontested right, which was not my experience.
In humans, breastfeeding is not an instinctive behaviour (sucking is both an instinctive and learned behaviour in babies – like all mammals, human babies are definitely hardwired to suck, but many babies have to be taught to suck in such a way that is not painful or damaging to the mother; in some babies that can take a few seconds, others – like my firstborn – need a few days to catch on, ow.) For mothers, breastfeeding is a learned, cultural behaviour. In Western culture, breastfeeding was all too often an undertaking that was shifted to women of a certain class, wet nurses, who became experts at it and passed along the know-how within their own culture. Often, these wet nurses had to share their breasts with the babies of upper-class women who were breeders but not feeders. But with the democratisation of our culture, eventually breastfeeding came to be encouraged in all women. Of course, I’m skipping over a lot of history here, including the advent of formula in the 1930s, which many women , who had hung on to the old prejudices, figured would save them from having to learn to breastfeed their infants.
So all of that to say that breastfeeding can often be difficult for the average woman to learn and adapt to. It hasn’t gotten easier for women since the 70s, because each individual woman has to understand the mechanics and principles involved, plus she has to understand her own milk production in synch with her baby’s growth and appetite. It can become all-absorbing, a full-time job in fact, at least for the first few weeks and months. After about one month or so, if milk production is adequate (it isn’t in all women, a fact that complicates breastfeeding even further) breastfeeding suddenly becomes the easiest thing in the world, and if all goes well, one suddenly realises its matchless advantages.
So I can understand why women are presenting photos of their breasts on Facebook. This is the image they are projecting of themselves, at this point in time, because breastfeeding has become their world, their singular occupation, and they may even have important information or tips to share with others. It’s like an icon – there is knowledge behind that image.
I just wish the 12-year-old boys who run Facebook would grow up more quickly and realise that breastfeeding photos are neither sexual nor “disgusting”. I predict that if they don’t realise it by themselves, they will be shamed into it by some very determined mothers.
To help them on their way, I’d suggest they read Marilyn Yalom’s wonderful book, A History of the Breast. It will make them think about breasts in more interesting ways than they have yet imagined.