On Breastfeeding in Public

Note: I wrote this piece over 2 years ago. On 12 July 2017 to be exact. I didn’t know what to do with it then – I wanted to submit it somewhere, but of course the days ran by and I ended up forgetting about it. Until now. Here is my attempt to explain why I wish to normalize breastfeeding.

It has come to my attention that my breastfeeding in public makes some people uncomfortable. Have I been walking around with a blind sense of false support because no one has voiced their discomfort until now? Is it because on more than one occasion, both men and women have thanked me for publicly nursing? To be fair, I am not certain if the recently voiced discomfort is because my baby is a walking, talking, 2.5-year-old, or if it is purely the notion of public nursing in general. Regardless, it is helpful for me and, I hope, others to consider a few things. First and foremost, breastfeeding is the definition of what it means to be a mammal, which is what we humans are. Second, there is a wide range of nursing ages, particularly when nurslings are allowed to wean when they are ready and not forced to wean (similar to how they are allowed to walk and talk when they are ready). Studies by the widely-cited anthropologist, Dr. Katherine Dettwyler, describe comparative mammalian nursing age ranges among non-human primates. Specifically, non-human primates tend to wean their young at various times. For example, when (a) offspring start getting their first permanent molars; or (b) offspring have either quadrupled their birth weight, or reached about 1/3 their adult weight; or (c) offspring reach about half-way to reproductive maturity. Translating these age ranges to human years, that would be weaning around (a) 5.5-6.0 years; (b) 2.5-3.5 or 5-7 years; or (c) 6-7 years. To put it bluntly, as Dettwyler does, “The minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years” (Dettwyler, 1997, p. 2; emphasis added). “In cultures where there is no pressure to wean, children tend to breastfeed for at least two years” (Wiessinger, West, & Pitman, 2010, p. 330).

Every child is different; every mother is different. What I am about to unleash in this writing is purely related to me and my feelings toward my child and how I perceive my role as a mother in the current cultural context of acceptable mother-child interactions. My intention is not to judge mothers who do not breastfeed for whatever reason, nor to uphold mothers who do as the gold standard of motherhood. I know of no cash prize ready to be delivered to the mother who breastfeeds her child the longest. I don’t breastfeed for glory. My husband and daughter can certainly tell you about the times when I am at my least glorious while breastfeeding. I do breastfeed because my daughter isn’t ready to give it up entirely yet. And neither am I. I started this article by describing the biological norms of breastfeeding. But we are more than our biology; as a social psychologist I know that we are also bound by our social norms that are wrapped up in our social identities. Here, then, are the social/cultural reasons why I still breastfeed, both in private and in public.

A favorite comic. Credit to Horsey, 2012, as it appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

If it sounds like I’m angry, I guess that I am. I’m also tired. Tired of being the one to silently nod with whomever may be speaking so as not to reveal my true contrary thoughts. Tired of feeling afraid to stand up for beliefs that I feel are just and moral and good. Tired of worrying that I haven’t thought enough about the counter-argument or some tiny piece of data that could unravel my whole argument. So, with my anger and my fatigue (because I also am the primary caregiver of the most amazing, brilliant, strong little girl who saps all of my energy and brain power most of the time), let me say that I don’t know how to say what I’m about to say in a more compassionate, gentle way. This is my fault, to be sure, since I should be able to convey my thoughts without readers feeling attacked. It is not my desire nor my intent to attack anyone. For most of my life I have been non-confrontational; I dislike debating, arguing, any type of fighting, really. But some things, obviously, require a fight. Here’s mine:

I refuse to surrender to patriarchal norms that police my body and the functions that it serves or the needs it fulfills. My breasts are not simply to serve a man’s (or a woman’s) sexual desires. My breasts are, in fact, also designed to nurture, comfort, and care for my child. Each and every human has breasts and nipples—man and woman. In our western, patriarchal, puritanical society, men are the only ones “allowed” to bare their breasts. Why? Because their breasts contain less fat tissue? Set aside the public display of nursing to consider another “hypothetical”. If my mere presence as a female makes others uncomfortable, say as a professor in the classroom, as a researcher studying the Middle East conflict, or as a business owner, should I forego my rights as an individual, my needs, or my ability to function, simply to ease someone else’s discomfort at my presence? Am I at fault for causing their discomfort simply for being? 

Discomfort that arises from seeing “unusual” behavior is directly linked to societal/cultural cues. However, people often do not see that what they perceive as “unusual” is simply a reflection of the social patterns that have emerged from, and are perpetuated by, people engaging in those same norms. It’s the spark of dissent and different behavior that slowly shows the public that there are other views out there that are just as valid, even if not (yet) embraced by the majority. There are many examples of this, such as the acceptability of interracial relationships, homosexual relationships, or working mothers. What example would I be setting for my own daughter if I did not do my part to normalize everyday biological, maternal interactions between mother and child? 

I refuse to sit by and cover either me or my daughter when women’s breasts are policed by society regarding when it is acceptable to display them. Today, in our culture, flaunting a woman’s sexuality with ample cleavage is acceptable while nurturing a child is not. When the 45th president of the United States can “grab [women] by the pussy” and brag about it without consequence, indeed he is elected, what can we say? We can state unequivocally that in a society that truly respects women, this behavior is not normal, it is not “boys-will-be-boys” “locker room talk”. And so, we are clearly not in a culture that considers women to be equal to men. 

I will not be complicit in following social norms that wreak havoc on society. Specifically, I refuse to support archaic and puritanical social norms of what function my body serves. In other words, I refuse to allow anyone to deem what is an appropriate functional, nurturing use of my body in public or in private. The human body is amazingly multi-functional. Every part can be used for pleasure, pain, or survival. Our mouths are used to eat and to kiss, yet mouths are not covered in public while eating because it reminds us of any number of sexual acts that a mouth can be used for. Unless, of course, it is the mouth of an infant or child drinking the milk her mother’s body produces for her.

Societal norms do shift (however slowly). What once was a common, familiar practice is now rarely seen in public. Thus, I am aware that my behavior will surprise most. Some people will be happy to see this maternal-infant bond, others will be uncomfortable and bothered by it. People respond differently to their worldviews being violated—some will ignore it; some will be upset by it; some will attack the source; some will pause to question their assumptions and consider alternatives. This last type of response is certainly most desirable, from my perspective, but is not something I have any control over. 

Since I believe the predominant nursing norms are rooted in inaccurate and socially-harmful assumptions, and because I know my rights as a nursing mom, I do not feel obliged to adhere to archaic norms. As it happens, when I do nurse my child in public, I am not the slightest bit uncomfortable to show this relationship I have with her: I am not engaging in any illegal activities; I am not physically harming myself, my child, nor anyone around me; nor am I mentally harming myself or my child; thus, it doesn’t bother me to be seen in this relationship with my child. I acknowledge that it may bother others (as discussed above), but I believe there is no social benefit to sequestering myself and my child while we nurse. I hope for the day when a mother’s love and care for her child will be fully embraced rather than shunned. A gentle, loving, mother-child bond represents the epitome of a compassionate, caring, nurturing society.

I just mentioned the relationship I have with my child. Allow me to further explain what I mean by this. As a mother, I am choosing to be open and receptive to my child’s needs such that if she needs me and I am right next to her readily open and available, I will respond to her needs. What might this response look like? It may be me nursing her; it may be me leaving a conversation mid-flow because she starts talking to me; it may be me putting down the dishes (or my phone or the mail or whatever other trivial thing that has my attention at that moment) to sit and color/read/be with her. A 2.5-year-old who needs “mommy milk” for whatever reason while in public is not always placated by the admonition to wait X minutes until we can be hidden from others’ watchful eyes. More to the point, in my mind, putting off my child’s needs when I am open and available to attend to them teaches my child that I am, in fact, not available to her when she needs me, but only when it is convenient for everyone else around us. I do not subscribe to the idea that I should attend to everyone else’s needs—I am not their mother. 

Without a doubt, there are, of course, times when I may be with my child, but it is not possible for me to attend to her right away, such as when I need to go to the bathroom (a common occurrence), or when I am teaching a mommy-and-me class. In the first case, I am attempting to offer boundaries between her and me and to demonstrate that I also have needs that must be fulfilled, sometimes before I can fulfill hers (as in, please secure your own oxygen mask before securing that of your child’s). This example of putting off nursing is not dependent upon anyone else’s comfort level except mine and hers. In the case when I am teaching a class with others, my attention needs to be diverted to my students/families equally. Here, again, we are working on boundaries between her and me. To reiterate, these are not boundaries that are dictated by the public at large, or even the people in our class.  

So, here I am again, talking about public expectations, social norms, and cultural values. Here’s where I will conclude my case for not concerning myself with others’ discomfort toward, or disapproval of, any of my benign behaviors. We all grow up in different times with different norms and social pressures. Sixty years ago, the civil rights movement was beginning to confront racist segregation and oppression to effect change in social norms and values (though much has been accomplished, there is still a long way to go); homosexuality was barely beginning to be a part of public discourse; little girls could dream about growing up to be secretaries and wives. Forty years ago (when I grew up in the 1970s and 80s), there was no internet, there were no cell phones. For entertainment, we simple went outside to play with the other kids in the neighborhood. I never had a play date arranged by my parents. The same year that I graduated college—1997—the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the oldest state-supported military college in the US, admitted its first female cadets. How comfortable were the male cadets having these first female cadets around sullying their reputation? How has the comfort level changed now that it’s been 20 years? Some, hopefully many, cadets now think nothing of it; others would probably prefer to revert back to the all-male days. But, whose problem is this discomfort? Is it the female cadet’s responsibility to shoulder others’ discomfort? Or can she just be allowed to get an education, perform her duties, and live her life? In this same vein, can mothers be allowed to care and nurture their children—as all mammals do—without having to worry that someone who might see some flesh may be embarrassed by this natural maternal bond? Were public nursing to become a common social reality, not only would mother and child benefit, but our culture would be all the better for it.  

Additional Material

For a more concise, poetic perspective, see poet Holly McNish perform her beautiful piece, Embarrassed:

References

Dettwyler, K. (February, 1997). A natural age of weaning. Retrieved 7/6/2017 from https://www.health-e-learning.com/articles/A_Natural_Age_of_Weaning.pdf.

Horsey, D. (2012, July 12). Los Angeles Times Newspaper. Retrieved 7/6/2017 from http://www.latimes.com/opinion/topoftheticket/la-na-tt-breastfeeding-moms-20120705-story.html

Wiessinger, D., West, D., & Pitman, T. (2010). The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. New York: Ballantine Books.