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.