Author Ray Bradbury pointed out, chillingly, “You don’t need to burn books to destroy a culture — just get people to stop reading them.” Similarly, you don’t need to actually ban nursing to decrease the incidence of breastfeeding — just make it more and more difficult to do.
The ways our culture makes breastfeeding ever more difficult range from the insidiously subtle (hospitals’ goody-bag full of formula) to the outrageously overt (Bill Maher’s infamous rant equating breastfeeding — “a private thing” — with “farting or masturbating or pissing”).
Even when there is no baby-to-breast, roadblocks abound. Using a breast pump to express milk to take home to a baby is a far more complicated maneuver than nursing a baby, and does indeed require privacy. It was startling and eye-opening to read of political reporter Rachel Rose Hartman’s unsavory struggle to find a suitable place to pump her breast milk while working at… wait for it… the White House. Yes indeed, Hartman was reduced to months of hiding in an unsanitary unisex bathroom in the very place where was born the federal law requiring private, non-bathroom lactation rooms at workplaces!
A Culture of Hypocrisy
Breastfeeding in our culture is hard enough without such policies and attitudes lacing our admittedly two-faced position on breastfeeding: Breast is best, but not in my line of sight. Bless Olivia Wilde’s heart (and the rest of her gorgeous self) for striking a recent blow for the cause of normalizing the view of a breastfeeding mother in her recent Glamour shoot. (Not that nursing a naked babe whilst wearing a Cavalli dress and Prada shoes is exactly normal, but hey, that’s nitpicking!)
Don’t you find it odd that in today’s culture of boob worship everywhere we look — online, TV, billboards, every possible form of media — that breastfeeding can still manage to rattle our chains around modesty and propriety? This hypocrisy is vividly captured in the societal microcosm (or is it by now its own macrocosm??) of Facebook, where you can find myriad boob photos (and more), but where breastfeeding mothers have faced capricious, arbitrary harassment for years.
I have often wondered if maybe it isn’t an issue of our fairly coarse sensibilities about revealing the body…but an issue of something deeper?
Rather than the amount of bare breast revealed (usually not much), I propose that it’s the startling intimacy of breastfeeding that can stir discomfort when a mother nurses in public (even when that “public” is family and friends within a home!). Mother and baby respond to each other physically, emotionally, hormonally, while in direct skin-to-skin contact. In the minds of many, this is unconsciously associated with sexual activity — something that should indeed happen in private.
A Delicate Balance
This is touchy territory indeed. It is ground where beliefs, fears, neuroses, love and ideals collide. Raise this topic at The View table and you’re guaranteed to get a rant from Whoopie, who consistently equates support of breastfeeding with bullying women and making them feel like failures if they can’t or don’t do it.
We are all individuals. We all have different needs, different personalities, and different babies. There isn’t an all-encompassing government recommendation that will work for all of us, and there isn’t an all-encompassing solution that will make it all better, either.
If we want to help women breastfeed, we need to understand the two levels of advocacy — the macro level where it absolutely is best for society if the majority of mothers breastfeed exclusively for six months, and the individual level where we have no idea if that’s the case or not.
At the macro level, there is so much work to do — protecting the rights of mothers who want to breastfeed or pump at work, providing longer maternity leaves, and enacting policies in hospitals that support breastfeeding initiation.
On the micro level, there is also so much work to do — recognizing that “best for baby” and “best for mother” are not mutually exclusive, understanding that a multitude of factors impact a mother’s breastfeeding success, and removing stigmas attached to both breastfeeding and formula feeding so new moms don’t feel the added performance pressure attached to one or the other.
Of course there are circumstances in which nursing isn’t available to the new mother and baby — adoption, medical conditions contraindicating breastfeeding, and cases in which certain obstacles just cannot be overcome. In such cases, it is important that mothers process the feelings that go along with this, if it represents a loss — often including guilt, anger, grief — so that they can bring the same depth of uncomplicated presence to bottle feeding as they had hoped to bring to breastfeeding.
The peace-nourishing elements are not just in the flow of milk, but in the flow of connectedness.