Breastfeeding is in the news a lot these days, in part because of protests over one woman being asked to cover her baby with a blanket while she nursed him at an Applebee’s. I didn’t make it to one of those protests, and I haven’t read everything under the sun about this. But after I read in the Washington Post that the Department of Health and Human Services watered down their pro-breastfeeding ads to appease the formula industry, I did write a rant that I couldn’t bring myself to post online. As the mom of a nursing 18-month-old, I feel strongly about women’s right to nurse their children wherever their children need to be nursed.
Photos of me at nurse-ins at Reagan National Airport and on Capitol Hill have appeared in The Washington Post and Mothering magazine. When I mentioned the airport nurse-in to a group of moms I didn’t know well, explaining I was something of a lactivist, one woman asked, “So that means you’re the breastfeeding Nazi?” This came from a political progressive who sends details for Poets Against the War readings. How can wanting the best possible nutritional start for children get me compared to genocidal maniac?
I sympathize with women who struggle with supply issues or who suffer postpartum depression and can’t make it through without meds or through a tough case of mastitis or yeast and not lose their minds, or with adoptive mothers who try and don’t succeed at initiating lactation (or their children won’t nurse or take their milk). They don’t need extra judgment heaped on them. But they don’t need to get attitude, either. Some of the mom writing I’ve read in books and blogs takes on a “so I bottle-fed; wanna make something of it?” stance, reverting back to the “I or (insert name here) was raised on formula and I/he/she turned out okay” argument. I hear people use the same reasoning about fast food, as though the fact that we have obesity and diabetes epidemics and plenty of other health issues doesn’t belie the idea that “we’re all okay.”
I’ve just watched Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s documentary about the fast food industry and his 30-day McDonald’s-only diet. At one point, his vegan girlfriend needles him about his enjoyment of eating meat, offering, “I’m sure heroin feels really good.” The unposted rant I wrote last week made a similar comparison. I said I hoped to see the day when a pregnant woman saying blithely, “Nope, I’m not going to breastfeed” would garner the same response as if she’d said, “Sure, I plan to keep snorting cocaine through my third trimester.”
The problem is that the society we live in does not see anything wrong with regular consumption of fast food or with formula feeding. In fact, people who do not participate in these acts of consumerism are considered outsiders on the fringe. The packaging of products with fast food themes or logos is all over the place, just like icons of bottles have come to symbolize “baby.” Stephanie Ondrack’ s “Taking Down the Almighty Bottle” in the July/August 2006 issue of Mothering addresses this pervasiveness of bottle-feeding as the norm in great detail. .
“Boobs Demystified,” the September 19, 2007 entry of The Blog Antagonist —http://www.blogantagonist.com/ — argues that in order to get over the sexualization of breasts, they should be visible everywhere. If we saw breasts everywhere, they would just be what women had, like they have other body parts. Then there wouldn’t be such a concern about using breasts to feed children.
This got me to thinking: What if breastfeeding demonstrations were part of classes in middle and high school? I’m thinking of health and wellness (maybe part of gym class), human growth and development (or whatever deals with reproduction and child development), culinary arts (or whatever used to be home economics)… In some schools kids have to wear a pregnancy suit or pretend to care for a baby as part of health class or the family life curriculum. Some schools’ contraception talks include putting a condom on a phallic object (or even, as one of my colleagues once did, over the head to show just how much it stretches). Nutrition is usually covered in gym, or health, or cooking classes, if only in a cursory way. So if the healthiest possible start for a baby is breastfeeding, why not make sure that every kid has seen it in person before he or she is capable of making a baby?
Honestly, when was the last time you saw a woman nursing on a sitcom or in a movie? Not just a reference (like Bailey leaking in Grey’s Anatomy) but seriously a woman sitting on a couch, having a conversation with her shirt raised. I admit I’m more than a little behind on pop culture, but in my youth I spent enough years in front of the – hmm… was going to say “boob tube” until I noticed the pun (and what does it mean if “boob” means both “unthinking dummy” and “breast”?) – in front of the television to know nurslings do not abound, at least in the collective adolescent psyche of Gen-Xers.
As long as we allow kids to believe that it’s perfectly fine to have a lunch of French fries, Doritos, a snack cake, a Coke, and maybe some pasteurized non-organic cow’s milk for good measure, we’re also not going to see a woman nursing. No one makes money off it. Breasts are only to be seen or almost seen if they are selling music or vodka or, in the case of Girls Gone Wild, just videos of breasts. If we followed Blog Antagonist’s advice, those poor independent filmmakers wouldn’t have anyone buying their product. How many people buy videos of women showing ankles or elbows?
If we could honestly get to a place where people cared more about longterm health than short-term feeling good (as one does after consuming sugar, caffeine, etc.) maybe we would be more open to seeing breastfeeding for what it is: feeding. Nourishing. As long as we think let kids think nothing is a real meal if it doesn’t come in plastic packaging, how can we honestly think we’re going to raise a generation to view breastfeeding as a normal choice?
When I was teaching high school, there were two girls whose nipples I accidentally glanced. They happened to both be girls who had babies. A few weeks after “Sheena” had her baby, she came to visit and stopped by during my planning period. She’d had her daughter on her own sixteenth birthday. I noticed her shirt was scooping too low, exposing her nipple, and said something like, “looks like you might want to pull that up a bit.” I don’t know if it was right after that or at another point in the conversation that I asked if she was nursing. She just shook her head, “Naw,” as though she didn’t even really know what that meant. I got the impression that no one had talked to her about it in any kind of way that mattered. It was just not even an option for her.
So I was pleased when another student, “Sabrina,” brought her baby to school one day and said “Oh, yes,” when I asked if she was nursing at all. I remembered the previous year pointing out to her quietly that her orange tube top was “a little on the see-through side.” Her eyes had gotten wide. “I know; I didn’t realize that until I got to school.” Fashion can reveal nipples so easily, and yet bringing a child to suck in public is still controversial. After I had my son, I ran into Sabrina at Target, where I was buying some inexpensive mass-produced clothes to fit my unrecognizable body. Behind the cash register in her red apron, the more seasoned mother told me, “Oh, but you’re nursing, right? That weight will all disappear.”
I don’t know how these two girls had such different approaches to feeding their daughters. Maybe it had to do with Sabrina having had a miscarriage and actually trying to get pregnant again. Maybe it was about what they’d each grown up with in their homes. I’d like to see a day when all mothers, young and not so young, take breastfeeding as seriously as they take any aspect of prenatal care. There will still be folks who don’t take vitamins or do use drugs. But what if healthcare workers worked as hard to establish a breastfeeding relationship with mother and baby as they do to make sure a baby’s fetal heart tones are okay during labor? Even harder (especially with the prevalence of heart tone issues leading to unnecessary c-sections).
But if we don’t have education about breastfeeding right along with education about pregnancy, if we don’t have see breastfeeding in public, and if breastfeeding is not simply a part of what people do in the fictionalized stories we turn to for entertainment, it’s tough. We’ll never get to a place where all pregnant women expect to nurse and do everything they can to make it work.
I might take my own advice. This summer I tutored students in my home with my young toddler son playing on the floor. I did as much prep work as if we were at a library – reading novels, making vocabulary lists and guided questions – but I offered a steeply discounted rate because of my son’s presence. I figured he would distract us a little, maybe worth 10 minutes over the course of an hour. This was fairly accurate, and the girls said they didn’t mind. As I had expected, his often adorable antics were at times a welcome distraction during tutoring they didn’t really want, especially during the summer.
But what I didn’t expect when I first met my clients in the spring was that at 15 months, my son would start wanting to nurse all the time, and that he would begin throwing tantrums when he didn’t get what he wanted. Sometimes I could just play with him on the floor or walk him around in a sling, but there were a few times when I could not keep his hands out of my shirt. So what did I do? I sat on the floor and nursed him behind the couch while the student did a piece of writing or we read out loud or continued to discuss the book.
I don’t know if this is sad that I didn’t nurse him right there on the couch where we sat so they could see that it was nothing to be ashamed of, or if it was bold to nurse him with them in the room and have them see that an upset walking, talking child can be made calm with a little nursing. They always said they didn’t mind coming to the house. The mom of one of the girls even clipped the Washington Post photo and article for me, knowing I was out of town when it appeared (August 3, 2007). The photo illustrated a short finding by the CDC that many women don’t nurse their children as long as is recommended, “because of jobs, the inconvenience and perhaps because convincing advertising for baby formula.” The article stated that 74 percent of new moms breastfeed, but only 30 percent of new moms feed their three-month old babies breast milk alone.
My friend Liz, who was also pictured in the photo, pointed out the irony that even I hadn’t noticed. In the image, which appeared on page A2, two of us have babies on our lap, one toddler is standing next to her mom, and there are a few other moms and babies partially visible. None of us in the picture is actually breastfeeding.