Okay, ladies (dads can weigh on this too, but moms are much more culpable in this particular matter)-
Reading GoodyBlog earlier this week, I realized that another volley has been launched in the boob wars with a recent Parents Magazine article on breastfeeding in public. I say wars rather than debate because debate suggests some level of dialog and attempts at mutual understanding.
Somehow any mundane discussion of breastfeeding or bottlefeeding or bottles themselves seems to eventually deteriorate into a gladiatorial battle with both breast-feeders and bottle-feeders feeling defensive.
Here are the indisputable facts of our shared maternal situation:
We (moms) all must choose how to feed our infants as they yet cannot choose how to feed themselves and are not yet sophisticated enough to go on the all-cracker diet. We all face incredible pressure and criticism in this decision from loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers on the street. We all choose a method- though some people have far more contributing factors than others- and proceed give our children life-giving sustenance. We are all losing sleep- lots of it- to late night feedings and general worry.
Breastfeeding is generally preferred and strongly recommended by physicians. It is however, not recommended in every medical situation. Chemotherapy, psychological drugs, heart medicine, and some antibiotics, for instance, do not mix well with babies. They actually hurt babies. People on drugs dangerous to babies should not breastfeed. Can we agree on this?
People caring for children who they did not birth tend not to breastfeed either. I've read about adoptive mothers who work to lactate for their newborn infants, but I don't think this practice is very common. Foster parents and guardians also seem to typically be outside the option of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding, though a biologically natural process, is not always accomplished with every infant as some have unusual physical structures (palette issues, etc.). Some moms also have unusual physical structures that complicate nursing. Other moms may have nutritionally poor milk or poor milk production- in these cases infants face a risk of malnutrition.
Other moms may be particularly vulnerable to infections like mastitis.
Anyone reading social history- or even Little House on the Prairie- knows that mothers of newborns were susceptible to life-threatening "fevers" and some babies "never flourished" and lived very short lives. We have better medicine and far more information now.
By now, the lactators in the audience are surely starting to grumble... but hang on, I'm not done yet... Obviously, for the majority of people, breastfeeding is the healthiest option (as well as the most intimate, cheapest, and most convenient). This is why breastfeeding is great and easy to recommend to others.
But some healthy moms choose not to breastfeed- and they are the moms who militant lactivists would like to approach. Now, I agree with you that it's mind-bogglingly irritating when people remark that "It's [breastfeeding's] just NOT NATURAL." They are so inaccurate in this remark- and they do violence to the English language and logic simultaneously. [May I request that practitioners of this despicable phrase please adopt the more accurate criticism "It seems so primal." Thank you.]
Some formula feeding women simply followed the patterns of their mothers and grandmothers who became convinced breastfeeding was only for the poor, unsophisticated, and uncouth (thank you, formula advertisers of the early 20th century).
Some formula feeding moms are working moms. Sure you can pump- which is easy when you have clean, private office with a solid, locking door, some control of your work schedule, and convenient refrigeration facilities. However, in the small shampoo and tanning lotion factory and warehouse where I worked one college summer, the workers there didn't have regular breaks or any breakroom. The restrooms were shared with men who greatly outnumbered the women (and they were SOOOO gross). The plant was easily 90 degrees at its coolest. That work situation is far better than that of moms working in low-paying fields like hotel housekeeping (a high school summer job) or fast food (a couple college summers).
And not all office workers and professionals have it easy either. Cubicle dwellers and elementary through high school teachers may face problems finding a good pumping location, a regularly available time, and milk storage facilities. Even in a good office situation, it might become necessary to have an awkward disclosure of that innocuous bottle being expressed milk so it isn't poached for a colleague's coffee.
So why do we all turn into gladiators, ready to battle to the death, at the mere sight of a woman feeding her child in a different manner than the one we chose for ourselves? I never see moms rushing over at a restaurant to lecture another on how her child might benefit from a vegetable other than french fries or moms confronting each other about toddlers drinking soda.
Why is this topic fair game for public discussion? Well, truthfully it's not, but we justify our nosiness in two ways. It's either a) for the health of the child or b) it's a public place and it should be pleasant and free of boobs. Let's consider these justifications for a moment.
"It's for the health of the child." This assumes you know the medical history and life/work situation of the mom receiving unsolicited advice. With strangers, you don't. With acquaintances, there may be more going on than you know. Besides, our society loves to look the other way regarding children's health, so this is a somewhat disingenuous argument. Children's health care, for instance, is troubled by our labyrinthine medical insurance system. From 1997 to 2006, in my home state of Indiana, 136,ooo children lost private health coverage. These kids were fortunate to have health insurance in the first place which isn't true for kids whose parents work low-income jobs where health insurance is either not provided or not affordable after basic living expenses. So, maybe our concerns for the "health of the child" would be better applied in striking up conversations with people in suits about children's healthcare (especially those people in suits who we send to Washington) instead of attacking individual moms.
"It's a public place." Yes, it is, but it's not like breastfeeding moms are tabledancing topless for tips- they're feeding their kids. If you see a bit of boob accidentally, it's probably not a big deal for the nursing mom, so don't feel incredibly awkward. Breastfeeding moms are offended by staring, glaring, photography, and/or caustic comments. If you need to interact with a mom who is breastfeeding, just remember the advice proffered to young men trying to meet women "The eyes are up here, buddy." Make eye contact, and treat her normally; the whole experience will probably be exquisitely mundane.
Given the proliferation of adveritising and contemporary fashions, public places are already cleavage laden, and frankly one more boob isn't going to tilt the scale tipping this whole handbasket toward hell.
We moms have a lot more in common than just concerns about stretch marks and a future of baby-food splattered clothing. None of us should be worrying about public censure when feeding our children. So next time you see a mom who looks chagrined with a public feeding (breast OR bottle), smile and maybe say something nice, something comforting, something supportive. We've all been in those slightly spit-up splattered shoes.
Let's not all be boobs about this.