Please be sure not to miss the first half in: Part 1 of Breastfeeding Older Children in Public.
Do you care about whether a mother and older child are breastfeeding?
Or do you care about whether a mother and older child are breastfeeding in public?
The first question is the important one as the financial and societal cost of not breastfeeding and the personal benefits to mother and child are arguably well-established. Yet, it’s the second question that seems to be on the minds of most people when they see a mother breastfeeding older children in public. The complex issues over control of women’s bodies clouds the issue immensely and leads to some of the worst shaming I’ve ever seen hurled at breastfeeding mothers.
Why should we care whether mothers feel comfortable sitting with their older child (or any age, really) and breastfeeding in public? Well, how about if I put it this way: Why should we care whether a segment of our population is excluded from public spaces? This segment isn’t limited to the specific women and children, it also includes their other children, partners, friends, and relatives of those mothers and children. All for someone’s discomfort with breastfeeding.
For the most part though, the questions that arises most often when people see public breastfeeding are politely asked, whether or not they come from a place of judgment or curiosity. Most often, I hear:
“Are they still breastfeeding?”
There are certainly places that I feel more comfortable breastfeeding, especially tandem nursing, than others. But, having been on twitter, and seeing that it doesn’t matter where, how or when a mother and baby breastfeed, has been extremely freeing. I’ve read tweets casting shade at breastfeeding in the car, in the mother’s rooms at stores, in daycares, church, and anywhere that people can be, for that matter.
I can recall the time when I was with my toddler and 4 year old, searching for a quiet, comfortable place to sit and nurse with minimal distraction for them. I had (gasp) worn a flattering, but decidedly not nursing-friendly, underwire bra and turtleneck sweater. (Aside: this was going to be a short, kid-free trip.) I finally found a shady table, outside a glassed-in, unoccupied banquet room of a restaurant with the bonus of a large shrubbery in front of us. I ordered a warm drink, walked over to our table, and got us settled, the kids were pleased to nurse and I was feeling completely comfortable, even with my chilly, exposed muffin top.
About half my cup later, I realized that while the three of us enjoyed our drink, the entire banquet room of recently seated business had been enjoying a presenter standing directly on the other side of the window behind us. I’m sure the entire meeting room had a view of the three of us breastfeeding the entire time. I felt instantly embarassed. Even though a moment before I noticed, we had been contentedly together, my perspective changed by the realization that we were being observed. But, I really have no idea about whether the people inside cared. I assumed that they judged me and my own insecurities were projected onto them-much like someone who is judging a nursing mother and child does to them.
But, if I had turned around to see the group pointing and tweet-shaming us, I probably wouldn’t have been embarrassed. I probably would have felt offended that someone would be offended. This image mutual righteous indignation-those subjected to seeing the breastfeeding and those subjected to being seen-always makes me laugh at the ridiculousness of reactions.
Amusement at judgment reactions, is not to say that shaming breastfeeding mothers and children doesn’t do harm. An expectation of a hostile environment can cause breastfeeding women, children and those in their company to avoid public areas. It can also lower breastfeeding rates and has been cited as a reason for many mothers not to breastfeed at all.
That mothers feel that they have to know the law in order to feel comfortable breastfeeding in public spaces says it all.
Most of this shaming is for moms and babies. I can barely stand to think about the vitriol that’s thrown at mothers with nursing toddlers and kids. If the wonderfully infamous Time Magazine article with Jamie Lynn and Dionna, from “I Am Not The Babysitter” and “Code Name: Mama,” respectively, is any indication, we have a very long way to go (in both the press and the public) on acceptance of women and their use of their own bodies.
I swear, I really do write about other issues in motherhood, even though I seem to have made breastfeeding my core topic in guest posts at Feministe.. and this is maybe why it has been my topic du jour, because breastfeeding is more than a choice about how to feed your baby, it is a lens through which you can see with absolute clarity the intersection between misogyny and motherhood. There are a million other possible examples but this area of mothering is a stunning case of it. Because, let me be clear about this – women get harassed and shamed and illegally evicted from public space for breastfeeding; women get threatened with losing custody of their children for breastfeeding for ‘too long’; women get ridiculed and bullied for trying to pump milk at work; women get described as a freak show for breastfeeding twins or tandem feeding; women get called names like ‘stupid cow’ or ‘filthy slut’ for breastfeeding; women get told they are sexually abusing their children for breastfeeding; women get told they’re not allowed to keep breast milk in communal fridges because it’s a dirty bodily fluid (and cow’s milk isn’t?); women are bullied into stopping breastfeeding because breasts are the sexual property of their husbands; women get told that breastfeeding is obscene in front of other people’s children or other people’s husbands; women get told their bodies are too fat and too saggy and too veiny to be exposed while breastfeeding; women get told to stay at home with their babies until they are no longer breastfeeding; women get instructed to throw blankets over themselves and their babies if they wish to breastfeed outside the home.. and on it goes. This is not the result of some peculiar sensitivity towards babies and small children eating, this does not happen with bottle-feeding, this is specifically about breastfeeding and it is about policing women’s bodies and lives.
(But seriously, go check out her blog, Blue Milk. It’s intelligent and passionate feminism and motherhood. Somebody give her a book deal already!)
Birthing and nurturing my children has, ironically, turned my focus inward. I do so many outward actions, mentally and physically, to be the parent I want to be, that it has led me to be more compassionate and softer with myself when judgments arise. But, this inward focus has made me more passionate about human value and human rights. I have learned to listen deeply to my kids, my inner voice, and to what other people are saying about their experiences.
I look beyond the hang ups that people have indoctrinated about “tits” being out is offensive when they’re working breasts instead of pushed up for display to sell something. No matter how women use or don’t use their breasts, they are going to be criticized anyway. The responsibility needs to be on the subject creating the object, but that is going to take compassion for them to understand that listening to the mother and child won’t cause them to let go of their perceived power in judging.
With two nurslings, I’m more concerned with my muffin top showing in public than if there’s a momentary nip slip. If someone is standing close enough to actually see nipple, they’re either someone comfortable around breastfeeding or will become so very quickly. My issue with my muffin top is my issue and I’m working on self-love for it. It’s not like it will disappear for my being embarrassed about it or being mean to myself. I earned this body with every choice I’ve made in my life and I wouldn’t change a thing, even if it meant rock-hard abs.
Does it need to be said that I do not want anyone to see my breasts? Perhaps it does. I do not want anyone to see my breasts. But more importantly, I do not care whether someone chooses to be offended by my breasts.
Because, unlike my kids, grown ups can choose whether or not they want to be offended. Just like I trust them to be adults in public, and all the common societal courtesies that go along with that, I trust them to make the decision whether to be offended.
Breastfeeding (or muffin tops) isn’t something that is done to an offended person. The private, intimate part of breastfeeding that is constantly thrown at breastfeeding moms is exactly that: private and intimate between mom and babies. Breastfeeding (and women’s bodies in general) have nothing to do with anyone else.
I liken the offense of seeing a mother and child breastfeeding the the offense of seeing fat people eat in public. If you don’t believe me, search twitter. It’s the same language used to shame and defend the shaming for both groups. The only way it’s going to stop is, the same way bullying stops, for bystanders to call out the behavior. Otherwise, they give it credence. And we know the hostile atmosphere this creates.
I have my own judgments and I’m constantly working to not react to them. I’m always trying to let go of judgments so that I can really see and hear what someone else is saying. I have a lot of compassion for people who hold tightly to their judgments, even when it’s expressed as vitriol. I try to call out the hatred without calling out the hatred.
Opinions and judgments are great. They help us to discern what works for us and what does not. But, we need to be cautious about how we listen to our own judgments and opinions within ourselves. And never, ever should we take our own discomfort with an opinion and project it onto someone else.
Whenever I remember this, it becomes easier to feel compassion for other people. Somewhere along the way, that message wasn’t shared with this person. I know, I certainly missed it, even if it was shared with me. I didn’t pull apart the person from the actions until well into adulthood.
Breastfeeding my older children with my even older children around helps them to see normal nurturing and normal bodies as neutral. It opens the lines of communication for honoring their own bodies and the bodies of others. Issues around consent, objectification, misogyny, curiosity, and othering began at my breasts, in the security of my arms. Families are able to create this open-closeness whether they breastfeed or bottle feed. It’s the connection that is important. Whether a woman’s breasts or a bottle are out in public should be a non-issue. And this is one of the rare times that I do enjoy the use of the word “should” but it is with the caveat of complete compassion and acceptance for where people are with their judgments.
The judgments my children have and that they hear from other people, as in “are they still breastfeeding?” have given us a way to talk about listening to themselves and deciding whether to listen to others-including their mother. And for that, I am grateful for every last bit of shade that has ever been thrown our way.
- World Health Organization. Infant and young child feeding
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- La Leche League International
- Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding
- The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding
- Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond
- Mothering Your Nursing Toddler
- How Weaning Happens
- Breastfeeding Older Children
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Post for NaBloPoMo(Since I’m writing most of these late at night, in bed, while tandem nursing twins, I’m choosing to concentrate on writing rather than proof-reading or editing. Please forgive the extra typos and non-nonsensical grammar. Thank you.)