For the past few years I’ve been trying to get a sense for how breastfeeding is seen in this country. My mom works in an office full of young mothers. Talking about feeding their kids, taking breaks to pump at work, filling the office fridge with little labeled bottles–it’s all completely normal. A bit embarrassing, yes, if you’re new and childless, but a great place to learn all sorts of things that may come in handy when you have your own kids. Because it affects the office environment it’s a topic of office discussion.
If that is your starting point, you might find it a bit amusing (and discouraging) to encounter other views of breastfeeding as you do a bit of traveling in different social classes, different cultures, and different lifestyles. My college students would freak if they saw a woman breastfeeding; for my colleagues, it’s something where they “just don’t go there.” For people who talk of sex and gender all day long neither group seems terribly interested in the female body in quite that way.
And from mothers themselves I’ve heard two different lines of thought: a) breastfeeding is a private moment between mother and child, never to be fully understood by anyone else b) breastfeeding is an issue we should be talking about in our legislatures as we decide what’s protected in our public spaces and in our workplaces. Sometimes I hear both lines out of a single mother when she’s thinking of two different contexts.
The thing is, I don’t think you can have it both ways. You can’t speak of the special, sacred bond that is that of the breastfeeding mother and her child, something employers would never understand, if you also want your employer to understand why you slip away from work at various times. Employers won’t get it, and neither will anyone else. If you want publicly-recognized exemptions from normal standards of public modesty or work-day length you have to be willing to talk about it and engage other people who raise questions about the fairness of such exemptions, the value of supporting breastfeeding as a society, etc. You can’t play shy and demanding at the same time.
Most of you know that I tend to be a bit on the brash side of things. Although reasonably modest in general, I feed Katherine at my dinner table (whether or not we have guests), on front porches, and even, though it took a bit of steeling myself, while sitting next to a fifties-something man (bless his heart) on a small airplane. Frankly, the first several months of feeding Katherine were trying enough to make me very much inclined to enjoy the ease of feeding her now. But I don’t think it’s helpful for breastfeeding mothers to adopt a crude “Get over it, people,” attitude when the rest of our culture teaches that that part of a woman’s body is there for only one purpose–and that one is not breastfeeding. It would be nice, in other words, if one could feed one’s child without having the creepy sensation of having accidentally taken part in a line-drawing cultural skirmish.