Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Can Educating the Public be Gentle?

Recently I've seen, and participated in, quite a few discussions on the issue of breastfeeding in public. There seems to be a tendency for nursing mothers (which I am) to get quite bent-out-of-shape (justifiably) when people show disdain for this practice. I am wondering: can we educate the public, help them to feel more comfortable with public nursing, without a "revolution"? Without all the anger and attitude? Can we be gentle about it? I think the answer may be "sometimes, perhaps."

Many people seem to be fine with mamas nursing in public as long as they are doing so "discreetly". I recently read a great article regarding the issues with the definition of "discreet". http://findingsummer.com/the-problem-with-discreet/ Even my own mother criticizes nursing mamas who don't cover up "adequately", saying she doesn't want to see too much. What's "adequately"? And does the person sitting next to you, Mom, define "adequately" the same way? What if that person thought your definition of "adequately" was way too revealing?

Once, when my first daughter was an infant (she's 4 now), we went to the local science center for a special exhibit. My husband took the stroller (and diaper bag and "hooter hider") one way, and I took the baby, worn in a front-carrier, another way. Sure enough, she needed to nurse. I had no idea where he was, so of course, I just nursed her there in the front carrier, while walking around the exhibit. There was very little skin showing; baby's head was hiding most of that, and the carrier even helped a little with visual obfuscation. A woman walked up to me, with her two tweens in tow, and said "Could you cover up with something?" I was so astonished I just said "Well, my husband has my cover, and I'm not showing much at all." She said "I see, but there are children here and they don't need to see that." I just walked away, trying to pick up my jaw. As usually happens in my life, I thought of what I **should** have said, ten minutes later, after she was gone and the point had fallen flat anyway. What I should have said was this: "Excuse me, but with all the teenagers in this world who wear shirts that flaunt their breasts as toys, you want me to hide using mine for their natural purpose? Lady, just *what* do you want your children to *learn* about what breasts are *for*!?!?!" My good friend, who had breastfed two children of her own, said "Yes, you should have said that!" I have subsequently said something similar in a less heated way to a less heated confronter.

On the flipside, I have a good friend who was uncomfortable with being in my presence while I was nursing, and it hit me that maybe he was just **afraid** of offending *me* and so didn't know what to do, say, refrain from, where to look, or if he should just leave the room. He would avert his eyes, bury his face in his laptop, etc., every time I nursed the baby at the table in our game group meetings. I asked him, point-blank, "Are you afraid because you don't know what you're supposed to do?" and he answered "Yes, that pretty much sums it up." So I told him "There are two basic rules. Don't stare, and don't distract the baby. Other than that, you can converse with me just as any other time. Make eye contact with me, and the other people at the table, and your materials. I'm not going to slap you if your eye wanders down. That's perfectly natural! All I ask is the common decency of not letting it linger there too long. As long as you're not *staring* there is not an issue. At all. So relax, OK?" Things were much better after that.

It occurred to me that he's certainly not the only one who might just be terrified that some mama is going to slap him silly for whatever reaction he has.

Unfortunately, our society has so sexualized the breast that it can't quite take seeing it used in any other way. People know how they're supposed to react when the breast is displayed sexually. Whether that reaction is good, bad or indifferent, people know that ogling, shying away, or rolling their eyes in disgust are acceptable reactions to the sexually displayed breast. Nursing breasts are a relatively new thing in our modern American society. They are becoming more common, more accepted, but still a little scary. Scary? Scary, because people don't know what they're supposed to do.

It took a long time for people to realize that handicapped people just need to be treated like people, and that you don't have to look away from a person in a wheelchair; it's not rude to look if you're not staring. People in the presence of a nursing mother feel similar fear and confusion; they are in similar uncharted territory.

It is my opinion that obnoxious confrontation toward breastfeeding must be met boldly and firmly. It is also my opinion that people who are simply afraid of what to do must be handled as gently as possible, educated, and brought into an understanding in order to conquer that fear. You do not handle a person who is afraid of spiders with ridicule and a bucket of spiders poured over his head; you educate him. You take him to see the Bug Guy at the science museum to see how he handles the spiders and doesn't get bitten. You explain to him that spiders eat things far yuckier than themselves. Maybe he won't get over that fear anytime soon, but he might at least be able to see a spider without recoiling and fleeing or stomping it flat.

That's not to say we shouldn't defend ourselves when we are verbally or socially assaulted. Far from it. But revolution cannot be our only manner. We must know when to gently educate. Remember the old axiom about coins having two sides?

Perhaps if we are as gentle as possible with those who fear us, we will eventually normalize nursing in public. Less and less people will fear us, and therefore more and more will begin to understand. More and more tolerant ones will begin to outnumber the ones who deserve the figurative kick-in-the-head.


  1. Thanks for your post! I agree that education can be gentle. If you saw the Carnival of Nursing in Public guidelines, you would have read that we were only accepting positive posts - nothing judgmental or negative toward people who are uncomfortable breastfeeding in public. Our hope is that someone who is *not* comfortable with N.I.P. will read a few posts and have a change of heart - not be put on the defensive.

    The fact that women stage peaceful nurse-ins, write about their experiences, or join groups online of breastfeeding mamas does not mean that they are trying to bash people over the head with breastfeeding education. It's empowering to have the support of other women who you share something with; it's inspiring to learn about the journeys of mamas who have gone before you.

    My opinion about the best way to gently educate others and normalize breastfeeding? Just do it! Nurse where others can see you! Have pleasant responses and your state law handy (if applicable) for anyone who might approach you. Breastfeeding is not the norm because it is still not seen as part of everyday life. It's up to us to change that.

    ~Dionna at Code Name: Mama (www.codenamemama.com) and www.NursingFreedom.org

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  3. Well done, Hayley. Let's ship Ruth Asawa's Mermaid Fountain of SF's Ghirardelli Square here. Witness the mermaid breastfeeding her baby! Let everyone ogle, ruminate, debate, and then find something more important to worry about. We are discreet, we are feeding our babies the formula that science still hasn't managed to duplicate, and we aren't paying $23/can for it. Here's to public education! Drink up, baby.

  4. Dionna: I did read the guidelines. I just hadn't figured out how to say what I wanted to say yet. If I had, I might have posted this to the Carnival. :)

    Kara: Amen! There's a FB group called "Hey, Facebook, Breastfeeding is not obscene!" where mamas post pictures and artwork of nursing pairs. I found some pics of Jesus and Mary and posted them (and so did some other ladies). If you find a pic of that sculpture, post it here! (I have no idea how to do that of course, but you or I can figure it out sometime soon.)