Flying the banner

            My post last week led to a few very respectful dissenters who wondered why I couldn’t respect other people’s desire to raise their children to believe in modesty.  Well, actually, I am not all that immodest a person these days.  If you want to know about high school, you’ll have to ask Chris to comment, and Poker Chick could probably tell a few tales about college, but nowadays I tend to keep my shirt on even while drinking.

            However, breastfeeding is not an issue of modesty.  Modesty is about not letting your seven-year-old prance about with words on her perky little butt.  Modesty is about buying a Prius even though you can afford an SUV.  Modesty probably entails not letting your four-year-old still see you undressed, but I’m still working on that.

            Breastfeeding is an issue of feeding a hungry baby.  It is also about health, because it is far better for the baby and the mother than formula.  Breastfeeding is about the environment, as it saves all those canisters of formula and the gasoline required to get it to my front door.  And, it sure helps out on the pocketbook.

            None of this is to say that I think those who don’t breastfeed are ogres set on tormenting their children.  Like the rest of us, they have their reasons for the choices they make (and for some it is not a choice).  But they ain’t doing it the way I do it.  I won’t judge them if they promise not to judge me.

            To be honest, I do think there are limits on when breastfeeding is appropriate.  But those limits have to do with age, not location.  Unless you have a very precocious child, once the child is able to say, “No, I’d prefer the left one, please,” it may be time to think about weaning.  Until that time, it is essential that women feel comfortable breastfeeding where and when they need to.

            Because public breastfeeding is about a commitment.  When I feed my baby in public, rather than hiding in a corner or trying to cover her head or letting her scream till I can get her home, I am denying the shame that people try to attach to the act.  The moment I accept heavy limitations on breastfeeding is the moment I start to fail.

            When I lived in London, I found that the women in my area were very uncomfortable feeding their babies in public.  They only nursed in private.  And, soon, they began to feel stuck in the house.  So, they would supplement with bottles when they needed to go out.  Their milk supplies began to decrease because they were using the bottle any time they were not in their homes.  Pretty soon, they had given up altogether.  Nursing for only a few months is considered successful breastfeeding in that neighborhood, and I think it has to do with the anxiety over public feeding.  While that might be fine for some, I feel very, very strongly that my kids deserve at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding and another six months of plenty o’ Mama Milk if they are willing.  Benjamin, it turned out, was not so willing

            So, despite the taboos, I breastfed my second child in London much as I had my first in Philadelphia, which is to say everywhere.  Walking to the Tube, on the Tube, listening to a string quartet in Covent Garden.  “Fly the banner,” the violinist commented.  Sadly, many of the English were somewhat less supportive.  Not that they actually said anything to me.  That would have been terribly un-English.  But they looked at me and then looked away, which is English for “WTF?”

            Being American, I kept right at it, which is how I found myself on a bench outside the Science Museum one fall morning, feeding Benjamin while Zachary and J went inside.  Next to me sat a couple about my age.  The man was right beside me and he looked over.  Actually, he stared right down at the little head as it took care of business at my bosom.  “Great,” I thought.  “Another Englishman appalled by my behavior.”  Except it turns out these folks were Italian, and the man said something to me as he gazed down at the suckling child.  The woman proceeded to translate, but there was no need; I know what “Bella” means.

            These are culturally constructed attitudes, and we can decide as a society that nursing is something to be hidden or something so lovely we cannot stop staring.  If I cover up, I am agreeing that there is something to hide.  I am telling other mothers that they should keep it under wraps, which is the best way I know to sabotage breastfeeding.

            I’d rather fly the banner, thank you very much.

28 responses to “Flying the banner

  1. It was nothing I set out to do, it just happened that breastfeeding worked best for us and (like you 🙂 ) am basically lazy, so if I was going to be around, I was not going to pump just so the kids could have a bottle in public. The both nursed for eleven months, at which point their taste buds told them that whole cows milk was better than that blue stuff I made and we mutually agreed enough was enough. Maybe I am oblivious, but not once in 22 months did I feel uncomfortable doing what I needed to do where ever I happened to be. I wish everyone could have such a good experience, and I wish I had more opportunities to encourage mothers to just go with the(ir) flow.

  2. I was raised to be ultra-uber modest (didn’t stick for the vast majority of things… my poor mother) and body self-conscious so I did nurse exclusively but also used a blanket. None of my children objected – possibly they were greedy little piggies? The worst place for breast feeding was Germany – not sure why. They do nudity all over the paddock but I never once saw anyone breastfeeding so I remember an extremely uncomfortable session in a loo stall at some castle somewhere. I was far more comfortable with the blanket so I would never judge anyone for wanting to cover up or go somewhere private – we all deal with so many complicated issues on this stuff I figure everyone should do what works best for them. I’m not entirely sure where I land on the breast-feeding in a school thing… probably because I don’t quite know why it’s an issue since it wouldn’t bother me at all. Still, if someone is very, very uncomfortable with it… well… I suppose I think they have a right to feel that way as well. Difficult isn’t it? Either person acting on their beliefs and ideals means another person has to accommodate them and possibly violate their own beliefs. Sigh. That wasn’t helpful was it!

  3. Don’t people have better things to do that try to get women to feel some kind of shame around breastfeeding? Sheesh….keep flying the banner.

  4. I say keep at it. I did, personally, have to draw the line at not covering at church. This is just me, but when they are passing around the bread and the wine, I just felt wrong to be having my boob showing 🙂 But, agreed, that women should be able to draw their own lines not have them drawn for them. Of course, I also grew up with a mother who was a Le Leche League leader and there were boobs and nursing women all over my house, growing up.

  5. I’m about the least shame-filled person I know. Seriously, I’d walk around naked (and chubby) without thinking twice if I didn’t get cold. I just_don’t_care.

    But I’m still so amazed by people caring about public breastfeeding. I nursed Alex everywhere and although I did buy a coverup thing, I never used it. It was too much a pain in the butt.

  6. Thanks for the shoutout!

    While I won’t embarrass you by regaling your readers with tales of the past (but they are awesome, peeps) , I will say that it boggles my mind that this is an issue.

    Having grown up in London I, too, had to overcome the modesty thing. However it didn’t take long before I found myself whipping out a boob at a sidewalk cafe in New York.

    The explanation is simple and boring: I had a right to eat there. So did my kid.

    Let it go, peeps. There are so many more important issues to get all hot and bothered about. You’re really going to use your energies fighting a child’s right to eat in public?

    I wonder if we would be having this conversation at all in, say, Sweden. I’m just sayin’.

  7. Again, very good. Amen!

  8. I applaud your banner-flying too. It’s a little easier for me perhaps in Australia where breastfeeding rates are higher, but I still do get the stares at times. Although I have to say… the world health organisation recommends breastfeeding to a minimum of two years and beyond, and there is a lot of evidence to support extended breastfeeding. I like to think I’m flying the flag for all breastfeeding mothers, not just those with babies under one…

  9. Mymilkspilt,
    I figure most kids have a good 3 years before they know left from right and are capable of requesting a particular one 🙂

  10. Rock on. Fantastic post. 🙂

  11. sing it, sister.
    I couldn’t agree more.
    Have you ever heard the Joules Graves song, “Nipplephobia”?
    I’ll email you the lyrics 🙂

  12. the modesty argument always confuses me, as i tend to see more breast watching an 8pm tv show than i ever do glancing at a nursing mother and baby. why don’t people save their outrage for the ubersexualization of advertising?

    oh right, they’ve come to see that as what breasts DO.

  13. one of the coolest breastfeeding moments of my life was the first time we travelled to Belize. we’d found a dingy little guesthouse ran by a family who lived on the property. we’d been travelling for like 15 hours and 3 bouts of public transportation and were exhausted and the woman, a younger woman maybe in her 20’s came out to see us and we were talking and she’s taking our money and getting us our key and all of a sudden looks down at her child, a toddler maybe 1 or so and whipped off her shirt, standing straight as an arrow and brought that kid to her breast and without skipping a beat latched the kid on and talked to us for about 5 minutes more while the kid sucked away in the sun.

    i was 4 months pregnant at the time and thought alright people, i can do this. bring it on.

    sorry for the long winded comment but her effortless comfortability with nature always stuck with me.

  14. You know that line from Nemo, “Fish are friends, not food?” I always wanted a t-shirt that said, “Boobs are food!” But then some Dahmer jackass would probably try to bite my tit off.

    (Did that take it too far?)

  15. Yes, fly the banner. I agree. And I love you all the more hearing you did so in England despite the fact it was not the popluar thing to do. I am so fortunate to have gone on vacation to Jamaica when I was pregnant with my 1st… We met our Norwegian friends there, along with their 9 month old baby. My friend Kristine nursed with reckless abandon, and I mean that in a good way. There is no non-public way to nurse with a bathing suit on, without covering your baby’s head. So she didn’t. We got an eye full of breast, and a heart full of the magical connection between Kristine and her baby. I thought of her often when I was struggling with successful public nursing, and I was very empowered by the memories.

  16. Hey, I just went back and read Jen’s comment above. I love that story, and I love thinking about how your public breastfeeding, Emily, will also encourage expectant mothers to think, “okay, I can do this!”

  17. It’s a form of public education, what you’re doing. Please keep it up.

  18. I was directed to your blog by a close friend. I just posted about being approached in a fast food restaurant and told I was being “inappropraiate.”
    I am with you… I will feed my baby in a very appropriate way no matter when and where he needs me. I will fly the banner with you.

  19. The best part of this post was when you mentioned the Italian man. It just drives home the culturally reinforced ideas of body and beauty…

  20. I think its important to also recognize that some women cover up, not so much because they are ashamed of the act of breastfeeding, but perhaps because they are ashamed (or at least not proud) of their bodies.

    I am a mother who chose not to breastfeed her children, and trust me for all the stories I have read about people giving you grief, you should hear all the rude comments I have gotten …because CLEARLY (she says with sarcasm) I dont love my children like breastfeeding moms do, and CLEARLY I dont want to bond with said children. (did you know my child got GERD —acid reflux—- because i chose not to breastfeed…. HA!, or how about the one where I was ignored care at the hospital because a non-breastfeeding mothers needs are NEVER as important as a breastfeeding mothers needs…yes I WAS TOLD by the nurse that my needs would be secondary to that of a breastfeeding mother…because they needed her help more)

    I primarily chose not to breastfeed for 2 reasons

    1) I am somewhat overweight and I find VERY little attractive about my body, I wish this self-loathing would motivate me to do something to fix my body, but sadly it has not. Exposing my boob in public (the ones covered in stretch marks I got in 7th grade long before I was ever fat)…. is just quite frankly not an option for me, because I cannot handle it. So I figured I would be confining myself to the 4 walls of my home….and this did not appeal to me.

    2) A few of my friends breastfed their babies, and they were the most exhausted and stressed mothers I had ever met, of course there was a rare exception to this, but by in large, it was heart-wrenching for me to see them struggle because breastfeeding isnt always automatic or easy (and watch them feel so guilty because they HAD to breastfed or else they werent being a good mother). I never wanted to be the only person in my family to feed my child. If i needed 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep to help me heal……then by gosh I was going to get it, my hubby could feed my baby, and I wouldnt feel like my boob was going to explode.

    I applaud all of you who choose to breastfeed, and I support your right to do so whenever, wherever and however you please. However, I caution you against assuming that someone who is covered is just not fighting the good fight, it could be that if they had a body they were proud of, it would be a non-issue, and even if they feel like they have to cover up (body image being irrelevant)…….their feelings about their experiences are no less valid than anyone elses.

  21. Great post, Emily. Made me think about my own slight discomfort when I’m in a room with a woman who is breastfeeding. I’m all in favour of it and I agree with the Italian that it is a beautiful thing. I suppose the discomfort comes in because I I find myself fascinated by it. Part of that fascination is a guy fascination with breasts generally. Maybe I’m a bit envious – after all, I was weaned at 6 months! But the discomfort is also in hoping that the woman won’t feel that I’m checking her out inappropriately. But it’s gerat to have this conversation out in the open. Fly the banner and let people deal with their own discomfort.

  22. Dear Melzers,
    First, thank you for the courage to leave your comment. It is never easy to leave a comment that dissents with the flow of the post of the other comments. My post was not about judging others, but about someone who presumed to tell me to cover up.
    I am angry that society has made you feel your body is primarily a thing to be judged. I am saddened that, instead of pride at its function, you feel disgust at its appearance. I am so sorry that you feel this way.
    As to your other point — I feel I must respond in case there are women out there thinking of breastfeeding and who are swayed by your point. I have heard this before and I understand that, in the first month or two, it is probably accurate. But, by the time my babies have been 2 months old, they are sleeping for at least 6 hour chunks, and usually much more. Every choice we make in parenting is a trade-off, and this one is a short-term one. Within a month or two, breastfeeding mothers are no more tired than formula-feeding ones. And, since breastfed babies get sick less frequently, in the end, they may be less tired.
    Every choice we make has plusses and minuses, and I am pissed when people judge either way. I usually try to encourage my friends to try breastfeeding for two months. After all, you can always stop and switch to formula, but you cannot decide at two months to go the other way around.
    Thank you again for visiting and for having the courage to comment.

  23. I totally agree! We should not be ashamed of feeding our babies in public. It is a beautiful and natural thing. I love nursing my baby and I get so frustrated with people who keep telling me to switch to formula. I am going for the full year, if not more!

  24. Here’s what I think: imagine that at some point we develop a pill that gives us all our nutrition we need for a day and decide to abolish eating meals as a result. After awhile, those who choose not to take the pill but instead continue to eat veggies and fruit and chocolate and pizza start to be seen as barbarian and gross – I mean, they’re putting stuff into their mouth, into their bodies – there’s a smell, there’s spit – this is CLEARLY not something to be done in public. Do it in private if you need to PLEASE don’t make me have to know about it.

    Isn’t this insane? But isn’t it the same? You know that breastfeeding didn’t turn out well for me, and I’m very grateful for formula. But breastfeeding needs no list of excuses – this is how babies are fed, plain and simple. Inventions of science may come and go, and I’m grateful for them. But breastfeeding is still how babies eat. Period.

  25. Oh, and I’ll agree with Melzers as well -the comments and criticism I got for breastfeeding can’t hold a candle to the ones I got for bottlefeeding….

  26. I’m a childless supporter of breastfeeding. I wish I had been. As to modesty, you are correct, feeding a baby is not an issue of modesty. I would even go so far as to say modesty should not be stated as an excuse to instill shame in children about their bodies.
    We all have bodies, seeing them should not be considered in a sexual context. I am more in line with the modesty is living in a small house, driving a sensible car, not using more resources than necessary.. etc.
    Walk now and then when you could drive.
    AND for god’s sake let the babies drink!