Monday, April 23, 2012
Public Breastfeeding- Not Always a Statement
It’s no surprise to encounter misinformation about the push to remove formula marketing from hospitals. “Ban the Bags” campaigns to stop manufacturers from distributing hospital gift bags have been painted as anti-choice, anti-consumer, and even “dictatorial.” So it was hardly shocking to hear a popular morning talk show claim that some hospitals have decided to remove all access to formula for mothers and babies in maternity wards. What was surprising was the choice to follow the ensuing discussion about how society needs to let mothers feed their babies however they choose with a discussion about why mothers should not openly breastfeed in public.
Reaction to a radical public breastfeeding movement? No, in fact, the discussion was based on one occasion in which one host witnessed a mother publicly breastfeeding without a nursing cover. The subtle implication was that the blame for such supposedly judgmental, anti-choice policies falls to the breastfeeding community, and that the breastfeeding community is represented by publicly breastfeeding mothers.
Since when is public breastfeeding a political statement? Why are mothers who find themselves out in public with a hungry baby necessarily aligning themselves with any particular policy or philosophy? Aversion to seeing nursing bosoms is not universal, as much of the rest of the world will attest- including societies far more conservative than ours. And certainly, open public breastfeeding has been used as a political statement, usually in protests designed to secure that same right. But the fact remains that open public breastfeeding is seen as the alternative, statement-making, attention-grabbing way to feed a baby in the US only because it’s not the mainstream way to feed a baby.
Breastfeeding is a basic care and caring act, in the same category with holding a child’s hand, kissing a baby, wiping a nose, and cutting a grape. All acts that are repeated over and over again throughout the day. Acts that, by their very ubiquity and banality, say everything and yet make no particular statement at all. Like most acts of parenting, breastfeeding has both an inherent messiness and a transcendent beauty. To separate breastfeeding from other acts of mothering, and require it to happen in secret or behind closed doors, is to make it into something unusual, some part of parenting with which we still can’t quite reconcile ourselves as a society. Likewise, to make it into a statement- an act loaded with unintended meaning, is to disempower breastfeeding mothers and rob them of their own voices. We cannot fully enable breastfeeding without enabling public breastfeeding- not just for logistical reasons (how many older babies like their heads covered?), but as confirmation that we are ready to accept it as a normal part of the human condition.
A truly breastfeeding-friendly society would not devote its national airwaves to a discussion of one instance of public breastfeeding. Members of a truly breastfeeding-friendly society would hardly notice any one particular instance of public breastfeeding, because it would be ubiquitous. Though enabling breastfeeding would mean everything, breastfeeding itself would cease to mean one thing in particular. Like other everyday acts, it would continue to mean everything, but say nothing at all.