Young & Breastfeeding
By Aimee Campbell
Aug 17, 2012
If you're a mom that breastfeeds you know how important the timing to said breastfeeding is. Before a trip to the store? Check. Before bed? Check. Before dinner? Check. Before breathing/eating/bathing? Check. Check. Check. So when I traveled out to the beach with my nine-month-old nursing machine in tow I anticipated a day full of sand and surf and snuggled up boobie time.
This trip turned out to be more of an “extended family” sort of deal, and so included: Me, the baby, the sixteen year old cousin, the seventeen year old brother, the best friend, my father, and my mother. My dad carted us all out to the surf in his dodge caravan minivan, complete with cracked front windshield, crumbling roof and nonexistent air conditioning. The day was filled with the expected sand castles and layers of sunscreen and protective hats, and by the end we all piled into the van exhausted and sticky, expecting a peaceful trip back. Yeah, that's how it always goes with babies, right? As I buckled my little bundle of joy into his seat he arched his back into a warning that went something like, “Feed me and cuddle me to sleep or I will unleash on you the kind of fury that only a hot sticky baby in the middle of a packed van can procure!"
I yelled up to my dad and he immediately stopped the van so that I could pry my little butter ball out and we commenced to our normal nursing routine. He moved his chubby fingers up and down my arms, reaching for my lips, and I traced over his eyebrows and smoothed his hair. We both began to quickly drift into a contented lull, his eye lids dropping down and mine growing heavy with the promise of a quiet snooze on the trip back when a voice ripped through our little moment.
“THAT GIRL’S BREASTFEEDING!”
The loud, and quite accurate, observation was made by one 16-21 year old boy standing about ten feet away from the car. My eyes widened in horror as two boys, surely not much younger than myself, pointed and started at my exposed breast stuffed in my baby's mouth. The whole exchange took around five seconds, and luckily startled the baby only to the point that he had to re-affirm the nursing situation and settle back into sleepiness. I, on the other hand, was a bit more shaken.
I was initially shocked because I had assumed that I could see out of the car, but others could not see in, and had not practiced my normal level of conservative nursing. Apparently, having no tinting on the windows invites onlookers to peer into your vehicle, as though they were watching real life television. After that wave of confusion passed I still felt uneasy. Here was a boy that could be around my age, walking down the beach, probably hoping that he could spot a girl brazen enough to tan topless. Instead he spotted a bikini clad girl, nearly topless, breastfeeding. I imagined the shock and disgust that must have rippled through his brain. Two years ago I myself would have been a bit shocked to see a twenty-something girl using her boobs for anything other than recreational purposes.
At twenty-three I’ve found the stigma of breastfeeding to be one that’s hard for me to get past. When I was pregnant I did a lot of research on birthing and breastfeeding. Partially because I had a lot of free time and it was interesting, but mostly because I was terrified. The birthing part seemed intense and frightening. With descriptions ranging from “The worst pain I’ve ever experienced,” to “Orgasmic,” I had no idea what to expect. Breastfeeding, to me, was the easy part. It was what I would do, I didn’t question it. Then there was labor, and 21 hours later there was a baby, and then it was time for “the easy part.” When the time came to put all my Internet knowledge and word-of-mouth know how to use things didn’t pan out to be the utopian breastfeeding bonding experience I had envisioned. It was hard, and it hurt. My mother had warned me about this, but there was something about marriage and sex that she had warned me about as well that I didn’t quite seem to absorb. I stuck with it though and the pain and difficulty went away, but were soon replaced with a self awareness that I didn’t know I possessed. Suddenly, when my mammaries were being put to beneficial use, I was terrified that they would be seen.
Before I became a mom I had no issues with sporting sheer tops, or making the trek down to the nude beach to tan sans bikini lines; but now, with a rack nearly three times its original size, I loathed having to breastfeed in public. The prospect of juggling a very fussy, hungry baby, removing the appropriate clothing, covering with a cloth, and then trying to convince the baby to nurse was uncomfortable. This coupled with the stares from children, teens, and adults alike as I unstrapped and fastened and pulled, was horrifying.
My mom took me to a class called “The breastfeeding friends network” to get some support. The women there all seemed strong and confident, when their babies were hungry, they fed them, no fuss with blankets over their heads or extreme outfits designed to conceal what was going on. One of the mothers said to the group, “At first I felt awkward having to go out in public and whip my boob out to feed her, but now I just do it without thinking, my baby has to eat.” Their words were encouraging, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit out of place still. In the meetings it seemed I was always the youngest mom, and I was almost exclusively the only unwed mother. I felt like a silly preteen trying to play mommy. I fumbled with my shirt and stared at Jude for the majority of the classes. It was as though I was the only twenty-something unwed mother to ever nurse her child. Whenever I went out I searched for another woman my age with a baby strapped to her chest with a cloth over his head. I knew that some of my friends were having babies, but they had all seemed to start off breastfeeding in the hospital and switched to formula at around a month. There had to be someone else out there that felt like I did. Someone…Anyone?
According to the Center for Disease Control, in the United States 70% of women start off breastfeeding in the hospital. However, that number drops to 36.2% by six months, with 14.2% of those being exclusively breastfeeding. This is where my demographic is lost. In another study conducted by, Hills-Bonczyk SG, Tromiczak KR, Avery MD, Potter S, Savik K, and Duckett LJ., it was found that, “Greater age, education, and weeks of exclusive breastfeeding were associated with longer duration of breastfeeding.” So why are the younger moms dropping out of the race? In MTV’s hit series Sixteen and Pregnant, where the struggles and triumphs of teen parents are documented, of the over twenty girls documented thus far, MTV has only shown footage of one mother who choose to breastfeed exclusively. The choice of breast vs. bottle is a personal one, but it is interesting that so many women, and particularly young women, choose bottle. Is it that breastfeeding just isn’t cool?
If my beach experience is the standard, then it’s no wonder that women, and in particular young women, don’t feel at ease with a practice that requires nearly constant revealing of a highly stigmatized part of their bodies. Young women are inundated with a constant stream of boobs, butt, belly advertising. They want to walk down the beach and have young men find their boobs sexy, not…nourishing.
Women that have their children later in life, on the other hand, are more likely to have a life partner, and he or she would more likely look upon her breasts as both sexy and nourishing. Or, more likely, those women embrace a body that is both. It's no secret that young women and teenage girls are highly sexualized. With the stigma of the teenage mother in all her shame on the rise it would make sense that the young girl would want to separate herself from the “mom” image by keeping her newly swollen breasts to herself. The association with reproduction is not allowed. Hips are made for grabbing, breasts are made for squeezing, that’s it. I still find myself blushing when I need to nurse Jude and there are people of the opposite sex around. Even with my mind made up to breastfeed I find myself feeling jealous of girls that chose bottle. It just seems simpler, less invasive. My breasts could be my own, and not property of a (seriously cute) milk addict. But then I realize that this idea of what breasts are is not my own to begin with, it's something that has been imprinted in my mind by years of push up bras and Victoria's Secret ads, and to be honest it's not healthy.
Breastfeeding is not sexy, it is not sensual. You don’t slowly slide down your bra strap or tousle your hair, it’s quick and it’s crafty and it’s no nonsense. There’s a hungry baby waiting, and he doesn’t want sexy, he wants milk. In fact, in public when the baby is screaming and the blanket won’t stay put over his head and his feet are kicking and everyone is staring at you thinking that you’re suffocating your baby, that’s when it’s not only unsexy, but awkward and embarrassing too. Young women are given the message that we are only valuable in our youth. Once we graduate from “girls” and into women we begin to lose some of our value. That's why a nipple slip at the beach is sexy and cute and applauded, while a nipple slip, accompanied by the waiting lips of a baby is just plain awkward.
This is where as a young mother I say we need encouragement. Okay, so breastfeeding may not be sexy, but that doesn't mean that I'm not sexy. Confidence is sexy, so is being responsible, so is staying true to a decision that you think is the healthiest for you and your child. Maybe we need to change our view of breasts, maybe we need to stop sexualizing every part of a woman's body to the point that using it for something other than the titillation of men is taboo. And maybe I should be one of the flag waving twenty-something pioneers of this movement. So don't mind me while I pull a “spring break” for my growing little guy, I don't even mind if you sneak a peak.
Aimee Campbell is a twenty-something mom to an active and growing young boy. She juggles mothering, gardening, writing, and being sexy. And she does a darn good job of it.