By Sundae Horn
Issue 109, November/December 2001
Recently I read a sweet little how-to article about nursing discreetly in public. It offered all manner of well-meaning and socially acceptable advice, the gist of which was to make sure the breast never sees the light of day. The key to success is keeping covered. If all is done carefully, the article suggested, no one except mother and baby need know that breastfeeding is taking place.
This seemingly reasonable advice is offensive to me. I want people to know that breastfeeding is happening. I'm proud to say I have nursed my two children almost everywhere. We are not discreet nursers, and although I probably could have been more careful, I have chosen to let it all hang out for personal and political reasons.
Some of our indiscretions are built into the system. I have big breasts that are hard to hide completely while wrestling them in and out of bras and babies' mouths. My children have fought against having their faces covered (they want to see me), and both were born with the delightful habit of humming as they nurse. There's no disguising what is going on when the Mmmm begins. Everyone notices, even people who were trying very hard not to. As if that weren't enough, my 18-month-old daughter has named the act of nursing "boop," which she whines as she tears at my clothing. It doesn't fool anybody.
Then there's the issue of my wardrobe. I prefer to wear dresses, and my concession to nursing has been dresses that button down the front. I am comfortable unbuttoning my dress, opening my bra, and baring my breasts as needed.
I wasn't always this uninhibited. One of my first public nursing experiences, in a grocery store, was embarrassing and awful. I was a new mama with a screaming, kicking, purple-faced four month old. After trying to calm my son by singing, rocking, and plugging him with a pacifier, I desperately let him latch on. I was wearing a nursing dress that more or less hid my flesh, but it was still obvious what we were doing. An older woman came up to me and said, "Honey, I teach breastfeeding, and I always tell my girls to carry a tea towel with them, so they can keep themselves covered up."
"I'm trying to keep him covered," I replied meekly. "That's why I'm wearing this dress, but he won't let me cover his face."
"Well, honey," she replied. "You're making a spectacle of yourself. Nursing is wonderful, isn't it? Next time, you remember to bring a tea towel."
I knew that if I met her eyes or tried to speak I would lose control over the tears I was just managing to hold back. So I huddled over my baby and avoided eye contact with the other shoppers. Shame soon turned to rage however, and I began to seethe. "How dare she?" I thought. "How could she say she teaches breastfeeding yet be so unsupportive when I was obviously struggling and already embarrassed? How could I be a spectacle? He was screaming; now, because I'm nursing him, he's quiet. What does she teach her 'girls?' Shame?"
The encounter had the exact opposite effect on me than the woman had intended. It made me bound and determined never to use a tea towel--whatever that is. Her advice did not make me bashful; it made me brazen.
Since that day, I have nursed openly in some pretty amusing situations, including during an eye exam and while taking the written test for my driver's license. Neither the optometrist nor the DMV examiner asked me to stop. In fact, both were encouraging, if a little embarrassed, saying that it was a first for them, but that I should just go ahead and do what was best for my baby.
I have nursed while getting my hair cut and my oil changed. I have nursed in libraries, museums, and malls, at weddings and parties, in stores and waiting rooms, in line at the grocery store, and while waiting on customers in the bookstore where I work. Not to mention in restaurants, airports, parks, zoos, and the Morehead City Seafood Festival beer garden (I had juice, of course). Once I made myself at home on the patio furniture display at K-Mart. Another time I sat on the edge of the dairy case at the grocery store; a passing manager assured me I could sit there as long as I needed.
I have made a couple of observations during these blatant breastfeedings. One is that some people are embarrassed at first, but they recover quickly; the other, that most people are wonderfully supportive. I get a few stares now and then, but I have not been asked to leave, to stop nursing, or to cover up. Mostly I see smiles and nods of approval. If people comment at all, it's positive ("What a happy baby." "Breastfeeding is so good for babies." "Listen to her hum!" "I nursed my babies--isn't it wonderful?"). I'm sure this is due, in part, to my smiling confidence and approachable manner. Or maybe it's the "I am woman, hear me roar!" sparkle in my eye that keeps people in their places. Whatever it is, it has worked for me. But I often feel like the only mother nursing in public. I can understand being the lone breastfeeder in a restaurant, but why in the pediatrician's waiting room? At the playground? At PTA meetings? Where are all the other nursing mothers? Are they all so well-covered that I don't see them, or, as I expect, are they nursing out of the public eye? Some of my nursing friends even pack a bottle of expressed milk or formula in the diaper bag when they go out, to save themselves "the trouble." Well, I am one lazy mama-there's no way I would take the time to make up bottles just to spare myself some awkward moments. And besides awkward moments, what could possibly be inconvenient about nursing?
Why is public breast exposure still taboo even among breastfeeding proponents? Are we trying so hard to make breastfeeding palatable to society that we forget that its purpose is availability to the child, not service to etiquette? "Discreet nursing" advice hurts efforts to promote breastfeeding by perpetuating the myth that the act of nursing should be hidden. Even when veiled in friendly and caring voices, this advice can add to a woman's uneasiness about public nursing and does little to promote the healthy attitude that nursing is normal and socially acceptable.
So I have drafted my own "Indiscreet Breastfeeding Manifesto," to encourage women to bare their breasts with confidence and, in so doing, to enlighten others. I'm trying to spread the good news that breastfeeding is wonderful for mother and child and appropriate anywhere women are with their babies. I want to empower women who choose to breastfeed so that they never feel the need to hide behind a tea towel. I want people to know that breastfeeding is happening right under their noses, just as it has for millions of years. I want them to look, blush, marvel, and ask questions. I want boys and girls to see mothers who are relaxed about nursing, so they grow up expecting to see breastfeeding wherever they go. I want to see more men like my husband, men who are completely nonchalant when their wives or other women flash some flesh in the act of nursing. I want to see women out in the world, nursing their babies with abandon while passersby smile at them encouragingly. Maybe someday, breastfeeding moms will be ubiquitous (again), and it will be the bottle that gets the raised eyebrows.
Indiscreet Breastfeeding Manifesto
- I will nurse my child anytime, anywhere, no matter who is present or what I am wearing.
- I will bare my breast with pride and confidence.
- I will not apologize for nourishing and nurturing my child.
- I will not smother my child with a napkin or blanket.
- I will smile at everyone around me and ignore rude stares.
- I will know that I am giving my child the perfect infant food from the most efficient, ecological, and economical delivery system.
- I will know that I am giving my child the healthy start that is his or her birthright.
- I will set an example for women and girls, educate the public, dispel breastfeeding myths, desexualize the breast, and make the world a better place, all through the simple act of feeding my child.
Sundae Horn lives on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, with her husband, Rob Temple, and their children, Emmet (6) and Caroline (3). She is the editor of The Ocracoke Observer, the island's monthly newspaper. Although her own breastfeeding days are over, she remains an advocate for nursing mothers and is studying to become a breastfeeding counselor.