The first time I had to breastfeed in public, my baby was 3 weeks old. I was at a 30th birthday party for a friend of ours, someone who we worked with quite a bit, but not enough for us to really know her family or older friends or, indeed, most anyone else at the party. Suffice to say, just about everyone there was a stranger.
I hadn’t wanted to go. Not because I didn’t want to attend my friend’s birthday celebrations, but simply because I didn’t know how to leave the house yet. I had a three week old baby and I was lost in a world turned upside down, with little sleep and no experience in what I was doing, or indeed, confidence in myself to do it, either.
And I knew I would have to feed him there. So that being the case, I also knew I simply couldn’t go.
Luckily, darling beloved, who has had two children before, waved aside my fears, bundled myself and baby up into the car, and off we went anyway. It was terrifying. But the lighting was party-lights dim and people smiled and cooed over the baby and I found myself a dark corner to set up camp in and, with a deep breath, when he next asked for it – and believe me, back then, my baby was looking for feeding every 1-2 hours – I fed my baby.
Struggling to slip out a boob from a maternity-friendly top – my wardrobe then, as now, consists of clothes solely chosen for this purpose – and get the baby to latch onto it, all without showing too much flesh and breaking any social taboos. Which is not easy when you’re a first time mother struggling to figure out how to breastfeed properly and it still takes several goes to latch the baby on, plus it’s still painful from the cracked nipples which haven’t healed yet, and you’re not sure if you’ve got enough milk yet, and the whole thing is just confusing and scary and you’re just not sure what you’re doing at all.
But I did it. I fed him successfully, in public. And best of all, nobody battered an eyelid. I felt a bit of confidence build.
A while later, another couple with a baby arrived at the party. But when that mother fed her baby, she covered the both of them in “a modesty sheet”. That is, a large sheet she draped over both herself and the baby while breastfeeding. Yes, sitting there in the corner of the room, covered in a sheet.
I freaked out. Was I meant to be sitting under a sheet when I fed my baby too? Was that the social etiquette of public breastfeeding? Had I offended half the party by feeding without one? Could I just go home now and die of shame?
Look, I was full of post-partum hormones and severely sleep deprived, or else I might have approached the situation a bit more rationally. But the fact remains – I knew I had every legal right to breastfeed my baby whenever and wherever I needed to. And I knew I personally supported the rights of women to breastfeed their babies wherever and whenever. But I wasn’t sure of the accepted social etiquette and in my vulnerable state, I was terrified of committing some act of social taboo, when all I really wanted to do was feed my baby, and if possible, not be trapped inside the house going stir crazy any longer also would be nice.
This is why the opinions of older, privileged male television commentators, publicly expressed to a very large audience, absolutely matter. Because all politics of the situation aside – and the politics of it is important, but that’s not what I’m talking about here – it has a very real, very personal impact. A very negative impact.
What new mothers need most is support and encouragement. What the recent airing of opinion that breastfeeding mothers need to be more ‘discrete’ and ‘classy’ about it (anyone care to define discrete or classy in this context?) actually does is send the message to all mothers that public breastfeeding is still something you can only do if you’re prepared to stand up to wide-ranging criticism, social disapproval and the expectation of shame.
In reality, it’s not. I have been breastfeeding for almost a year now, so I’m a lot more experienced, comfortable and emotionally stronger than I was. In the last 11 months, I have found myself having to breastfeed in places as diverse as food courts, the pub, the library, many cafes, many more parks, doctor’s waiting rooms, restaurants, other people’s houses, on a peak hour train, and any number of other places that I’ve forgotten. Sometimes I was nervous doing it. Sometimes I didn’t think twice. Never did I have a choice – my baby was hungry, he needed to eat. And never did I use a modesty sheet, because for one, I felt ridiculous having to hide beneath a sheet when out in public, not to mention it would call far more attention to me than otherwise, and two, I don’t think my baby deserves having a sheet draped over him just because he needs to eat. Anyway, he would just rip it off, regardless.
And not once in that time has anybody shown me any sign of offence or made me feel that I should be ashamed. Maybe somebody thought it. Maybe somebody tut-tutted to themselves. But if so, they kept it quiet and to themselves, and nobody has ever shown me any sign of it. I hope – no, I believe, because I have faith in people – that that’s because almost everybody just accepts breastfeeding as normal and doesn’t care a jot about it. And if there are one or two out there who have felt uncomfortable seeing my baby feed, then I hope – no I believe – that they stayed silent about it because they knew if they tried to shame me for doing it, then they would have been shouted down and shamed themselves, instead. Because it is fully socially acceptable for mothers to feed their baby’s wherever and whenever they need to.
This is why opinions publicly aired on television and in major newspapers matter.
This is why public nurse-ins matter, such as those held at the television studios where the older male commentator first aired his distaste for indiscreet public breastfeeding, however its defined, and at the public pool where the breastfeeding mother was asked to leave. Because when negative opinions that can have a very real, very negative impact on new mothers trying to breastfeed are made so publicly like that, it is important to counter-act those opinions. For everyone else to stand up and say – it is okay to breastfeed in public and those negative opinions judging you are actually what are socially unacceptable, not you.
New mothers need support. And it takes guts, sometimes, to breastfeed in public, when you know you have to, when you don’t have a choice, because baby is hungry and you need to feed him or her. Especially when you’re new it to and you don’t have the confidence or the emotional space yet to deal with standing up against an imagined court of public opinion.
I have never known any mother who does not do her absolute best to be as discrete as humanly possible about breastfeeding in public. Not a single one. Yet as this article in The Conversation shows, one of the biggest reasons woman stop breastfeeding so much earlier than modern medical advice is because of the feelings of shame and discomfort over breastfeeding in public.
This is why opinions publicly aired matter. This is why nurse-ins matter when negative opinions are aired, to show public breastfeeding is normal, healthy and perfectly fine. This is why this is still an issue.
And this is why the most important thing we can do is simply go on feeding our babies, wherever and whenever we may be, and to go on just ignoring anyone near us who is feeding their baby, because it’s only a natural, normal, everyday behaviour that isn’t worth commenting on.
When the negative and judgemental comments from public figures stop, that’s when the political battles will have been won. And the personal ones too.
Articles linked to in the above:
Nina Furnell in Daily Life (The Age) on the nurse-ins and protests against David Koch’s comments on breastfeeding: http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/showing-your-breasts-in-public-20130121-2d23h.html
Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep – one of the many women who have taken up the issue on social media and received an amazing amount of criticism for speaking up about it, including from some who otherwise support public breastfeeding: http://noplaceforsheep.com/2013/01/22/breasts-class-public-space-language-as-a-tool-of-repression/
Yvette Miller in The Conversation on the public health ramifications of comments such as David Koch’s: http://theconversation.edu.au/feeding-frenzy-public-breastfeeding-is-good-for-us-all-11707
Tehani Wessely on her blog A Conversational Life, about the fact it is illegal to ask any breastfeeding woman to stop or cover up, as breastfeeding has the full support of the law: http://thebooknut.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/breastfeeding-anywhere-anytime/
David Koch in his opinion piece in The Age committing to his earlier stated views that women should be more discrete and ‘classy’ about breastfeeding in public: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/i-have-an-opinion–always-have-and-always-will-20130121-2d39n.html