Apparently, the Carnival of Nursing in Public is currently in full swing. I’m not really clear on what a “carnival” is, but I’ve read some interesting posts from bloggers participating in this festival of sorts, and it’s gotten me thinking about the hot button topic of nursing in public, or “NIP”, like the cool kids are calling it.
As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, my biggest pet peeve is hypocrisy. It kills me. Makes me switch political affliliations more often than Carrie Bradshaw switches shoes. (Actually, you could blame most perceived “flightiness” on my part – a trait for which I am well known – on my hatred of hypocrisy.) And this nursing in public controversy screams of hypocrisy, at least to my highly sensitive eye.
As mothers, we are inundated with conflicting messages: Be a supermom/Don’t over-parent. Stay home with your kids/Go back to work. Get back in shape/Relax, your kid should come first. Nurse for at least a year/Don’t let anyone see you nursing.
It’s ridiculous. We put all this pressure on women to breastfeed exclusively, and then we urge them to be discreet about it. After watching nearly every one of my friends nurse their children into early toddlerhood, I think I can safely say that even if you WANT to be discreet about it, it’s damn near impossible to do so. At the beginning, you and your babe are still figuring it all out – how the heck does anyone expect you to get a good latch when the parts involved in the process are covered by a sheet, even if it is a designer Hooter Hider? In my case, it took about an hour of fumbling and several highly trained adults to get my child to even latch a little bit. If I’d had to do it alone and sight unseen, forget about it.
By the time you perfect the art, the kid has probably become a little more in control of their bodies and minds, which means they likely have an opinion about being all hidden away from the world. I wouldn’t want to eat in the dark (although I seem to recall a weird trend in the early part of the decade where people purposely ate at expensive, completely darkened restaurants… but I think that trend died out pretty quickly. Probably because it was messy. I feel bad for the busboys at those restaurants). It’s probably pretty stuffy under those things, too.
I don’t even want to get into the whole nursing in a bathroom thing, because it just infuriates me. No one should have to hang out in a public restroom for more time than it takes for a quick pee, let alone a small infant who needs to eat.
I think the problem is that America, like it or not, is still a puritanical society. And unfortunately, I don’t know if promoting nursing as “normal” is going to solve the problem, as much as I believe it needs to be solved. I know that’s an unpopular opinion, but I hope that by discussing these things, we can try and figure out a way to alleviate the angst of this rock-and-a-hard-place situation for nursing moms, right here, and right now.
Our society is messed up on so many levels; we’re a nation of extremes. There’s no reason that near-pornographic fashion ads should be allowed on giant billboards in Times Square, while a mom can be made to feel weird about feeding her child in public. But that’s the world we live in. While for new parents, pediatricians and breastfeeding activists, it may seem like everyone cares about how we feed our kids, the fact is that most people just don’t. Even parents of older children tend to forget about all the drama over bottle vs breast as they start to deal with other battles, like learning and behavior difficulties, school budget cuts, and the REAL causes of childhood obesity or it’s ugly cousin, eating disorders. Ask your typical father of a 14-year-old girl what parenting causes he cares about, and I highly doubt breastfeeding rights will be tops on his list (even if 14 years ago, he cared deeply about this as he watched his wife struggle). And that’s a parent. What about all the childless folks who think kids are just annoying, short versions of adults that disrupt their meals, movies, shopping trips, etc.? (And come on, now… can you blame them? I wouldn’t want to be seated next to my child in a movie theater, which is why I’d never take him to one. )
This is not to say that any of this serves as an excuse, that we should just give up on trying to change public perception or cultural norms. My point is just that these issues go far deeper than breastfeeding, and we need to try and address our cultural attitude to the human body first and foremost. That may take awhile. And while it’s in the process of happening, I worry about the moms who actually need to deal with NIP at this very moment.
So, in the meantime, while smarter people than I work on the larger issues at play, I think it might be useful to address some of the more personal aspects to the NIP conundrum. Because here’s the thing: I live in a very pro-breastfeeding area, where we see people NIP constantly – and yet many of my friends never felt comfortable without a hooter hider, even if it was just a bunch of us girls hanging out in someone’s house. It struck me as strange, especially as time went on and it was just the status quo, nothing novel… I mean, at this point we were all friends, all thought nursing was “normal”…. and yet my friends were still more comfortable covering up, even 11 months into the whole breastfeeding thing.
I’m afraid that’s the thing no one talks about when they discuss NIP: it’s not always other people that make us feel weird about nursing publicly. Sometimes, it’s our own hangups about our bodies that are the true culprit.
I have more than just respect for those who are comfortable feeding their children, sans cover, in front of others. I have envy. I’ve had body image issues my whole life, and they’ve only gotten worse in my post-natal state. So when I see women who are strong enough to either not have those demons at all, or overcome them in order to feed their babies more freely, I want to cheer. But I also think we need to acknowledge that even if we change society’s attitude, right now, in our generation, there are women who are not going to feel comfortable being seen with their shirt off, or even just pulled down, in public. Even if it is in the name of love and nourishment for our children, for some of us, breasts are something we’d rather not share with the eyes of the world. And that needs to be okay.
Therefore, rather than dwell on what other people think of nursing moms, in the spirit of the Carnival of NIP, I’d like to propose two ideas to help new moms feel more at ease with their own feelings about this issue:
1. Encourage all malls, hospitals, and office buildings to have “Mom Suites” – places where all moms of infants or toddlers are welcome (both nursing and bottle feeding), with comfortable seating, and privacy. I’ve been in a few of these and I think they are the coolest. It couldn’t be that difficult to designate a small space for this purpose, could it?
2. As part of breastfeeding support groups or pre/post-natal classes, include help/advice/support for women with body image issues or particular anxiety about exposing their bodies. Rather than making them feel ashamed for not having the emotional fortitude to nurse in public, help them find solutions – ways to serve their babies’ needs without giving themselves more anxiety, because what new mom needs more of that? I believe this would help increase nursing rates among those who are afraid breastfeeding will chain them to the house; if there was some way to help them feel more comfortable in public situations, maybe it would make a year of nursing seem less daunting.
Anyway. Just two measly cents from someone who never got the chance to even attempt NIP (although I did actually nurse in front of a camera – we were the subjects of an internet series on pregnancy and they did film me that first week with one of the lactation consultants I saw… they never used the footage though, as it was probably too darn pitiful, what with the tears and screaming and all). I would’ve had to pump in public (PIP??). Now THAT would be an accomplishment. If I ever witnessed a mom pumping in the middle of Starbucks, I’d buy her a Venti Frappucino. Full sugar and all. She’d deserve it.