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DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE:
The Current Feed

I know this won't come as news to most AustinMama.com readers, but breastfeeding isn't much like going to the bathroom or taking a bath or having sex, and the rules we've devised to cover those situations aren't really applicable to nursing. In fact, it's not all that much like an adult eating either (for one thing, babies are less likely to make noise and mess when they're breastfeeding). The only really valid comparison is between breastfeeding and bottle feeding. However, while bottle feeding is generally looked upon as something that's completely unremarkable in any place that babies are to be found, breastfeeding in public is still a bit more controversial.

Sometimes the opposition to public breastfeeding is framed as an etiquette issue it might make someone uncomfortable to see a flash of a woman's breast, so women should be modest when they breastfeed and use a blanket or, even better, find a private spot where no one will see them (or best, do it in the privacy of their homes) and sometimes it's couched as concern for the mother and the baby (critics of public breastfeeding sometimes speak of nursing as something so private or intimate that, like sex, it ought to be done behind closed doors). But both of these views of breastfeeding are rooted in the idea that however natural or healthy breastfeeding might be, it should be confined to the domestic sphere. If this means that mothers are also confined to their homes, and that mothers must choose between being people (who have lives outside their homes) and mothers, then that's just too bad.

The United States lags behind other countries in the number of women who breastfeed their newborns, as well as the amount of time women breastfeed before switching to formula and other food sources; studies suggest that the perception that public breastfeeding is immodest or inappropriate directly affects whether women decide to breastfeed and how early they wean their babies. Is it any wonder that, faced with the false dichotomy between breastfeeding and the freedom to work and play outside their homes (with or without their babies), so many American women choose to bottle feed?

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However, this view of breastfeeding has been challenged repeatedly in recent years; breastfeeding advocates both nationally and locally (the Le Leche League of Austin, Central Texas Doulas, and the Austin Attached Families and AustinMama.com listservs, etc.) have successfully organized letter writing campaigns, boycotts, and "nurse-ins" to protest corporate and governmental polices that discourage public breastfeeding. The current battleground is the decision of blogging site Live Journal to disallow default user pictures (also known as userpics or icons) which depict women breastfeeding. The site's Terms of Service instruct users not to choose default user pictures which are "inappropriate" and until last week the FAQ said that default images shouldn't be "graphically sexual or violent," but after several posters had their accounts suspended for using breastfeeding images as their default pictures, the wording in the FAQ was changed to forbid nudity on default pictures. This decision precipitated a slew of furious letters to Live Journal employees and has prompted many Live Journal users to delete their accounts.

To be clear, Live Journal hasn't forbidden breastfeeding images in general, only on the default pictures that are most likely to be seen (and only pictures in which you can see some of the mother's nipple or areola are against the rules). However these restrictions still imply that images of breastfeeding are somehow "inappropriate" in the same way that graphically sexual or violent images are, i.e. that they are not something that should be available for just anyone to see. This policy is comparable to those situations in which a nursing mother is asked to retire to the bathroom or some other private spot in order to avoid offending other patrons of an establishment, as in the recent cases in which a breastfeeding mother was asked to leave the stands at a Round Rock (Texas) Express game and a Burger King employee in Utah asked a nursing mother to either stop or take her baby to the bathroom.

The good news is that societal norms about breastfeeding seem to be changing. At least twenty states (including Texas and Utah) have laws on the books explicitly allowing breastfeeding in public and making it illegal (in public venues) to demand that a nursing woman stop breastfeeding or go somewhere more private. Although the Live Journal disagreement is ongoing, all the other cases that I'm aware of (not only the Round Rock Express and the Burger King incidents but also earlier altercations at a Starbucks and a Borders) have ultimately resulted in the companies involved issuing public apologies and writing pro-breastfeeding language into their official policies. Each of those cases is a step in the right direction, towards breastfeeding being recognized as normal and unremarkable. Once it was considered inappropriate for a visibly pregnant woman to be seen outside her own home, or for women to wear trousers or skirts that revealed their ankles (and later, knees); women fought those restrictions and by flouting them, desensitized people to things that once might have shocked them. In the same vein, if enough people see women breastfeeding in public, we will reach a tipping point at which it will be seen as completely acceptable.

Unfortunately, some over-zealous breastfeeding advocates may be inadvertently working against the cause they espouse. In a reversal of the situation in which a nursing mother is asked to cover herself, some "lactivists" go out of their way to berate anyone they see bottle feeding in public, without any sensitivity or knowledge of the particular situation (and often mistakenly attacking women who share their views on the benefits of nursing).

I'm strongly pro-breastfeeding, but everyone's situation is different; some women are physically unable to nurse due to health issues (or because their babies are adopted), some babies refuse to nurse, some women decide for personal reasons that it's not the best choice for them. Whatever factors go into a woman's decision, it's her business and no one else's.

Moreover, personal attacks are simply counterproductive; I doubt anyone was ever convinced to breastfeed as a result of being harassed by a stranger, but I can't count the number of times I've heard the entire breastfeeding movement dismissed as hysterical fanatics, often by someone who's only had one negative experience.  I'm even a little leery of many of the pro-breastfeeding ad campaigns; I agree wholeheartedly with the message that breastfeeding is the healthiest choice for mother and baby, but the underlying implication of many of these posters and billboards is "You're a bad mother if you don't breastfeed."  Instead of targeting mothers with personal attacks and guilt-inducing ads that put all the responsibility on them, we should be taking positive steps to make breastfeeding the simplest choice.  There are cultural reasons why many American women don't breastfeed their children, and those issues can't be addressed effectively on an individual level.  As a society, we have to be willing to make accommodations so that breastfeeding is no more restricting to mothers than bottle feeding.  Breastfeeding will only become the true default when mothers no longer believe that they must choose between breastfeeding and living the rest of their lives.
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About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.

 

 

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