Breastfeeding in public is both essential and incredibly daunting, so why do we continue to punish women for it?
It's National Breastfeeding Week and Amanda Cassidy writes about her not-at-all-straightforward breastfeeding journey with her three children
Nothing prepares you for it. Your baby explodes into your life and — poof! — you are transformed into the role of somebody’s mother. And while it is a time you will hopefully look back on with fondness, joy, and nostalgia, the truth is it’s little more than a blur.
The thing is that nothing is written in the books about the emotions that come with such a huge disruption in your life. Disruption in a hugely positive sense, but more of an upending. Your days and nights are flipped, your body is alien and you have an overwhelming pressure suddenly to keep this tiny person alive, well, happy.
There is a lot written about breastfeeding — whether you should or shouldn’t, how long, how pure, condemnation if you give the wrong answer. “Did you even try?” wrote one clearly sleep-deprived woman on a breastfeeding forum recently.
But this doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario.
In July 2020, Myleene Klass took to Instagram to defend pictures of her feeding baby boy, Apollo. “Uh oh. Some of us mums are being chastised for ‘pumping’. No one bats an eyelid prepping their own breakfast, why choose to get flustered over my baby having his?… How funny that some fat, cells and glands could so deeply offend so many.
“Being a mum is hard enough. You can’t do right for doing wrong. Seemingly, everyone knows how to raise YOUR baby except you. If you feed with formula, you’re supposedly the devil, if you breastfeed, you’re offending those that don’t or can’t and worse yet, the patriarchy won’t be able to control themselves… stop titillating the menfolk!”
The 42-year-old continued. “My body, my baby, my choice. I’ve been exclusively breastfeeding Apollo for 11 months. He’s my miracle baby. It’s a part of our bond. I love, LOVE doing it for him.
“The photos of other women breastfeeding, pumping, normalise things for me and if mine, in turn, do the same for other mothers who feel embarrassed, judged or that they should need to stifle their baby under a Muslin lest they offend some wallflower with their life-giving, breastfeeding skills, I’ll continue posting.”
Isn’t this boring? Haven’t we been here before? Why are we still attacking women for the way they choose to feed their children? We live in a time where breasts have been sexualised to such an extent that feeding your child in public is still seen (to some) as something ‘seedy’ or offensive.
My own breastfeeding experience has been mixed, but I do remember the first time I fed my daughter in public. She was just a few days old and (inexplicably) I was in a major shopping mall in Dublin’s city centre (I clearly had something to prove about being ‘back to myself’). I was nervous, the nursing room in Mothercare was not available and I would have preferred to walk naked through Penney’s than feeding my precious baby while hiding in a toilet cubicle.
She was getting increasingly hungry and I was getting increasingly flustered, so I sat on one of those couches they reserve for people sick of shopping in the concourse and asked my husband to shield me from view (I also had a scarf). It wasn’t a pleasant experience. My daughter’s style was to drink, look around, pull back, drink some more, thrash her head around looking for her warm mouthpiece and repeat. I was hot, leaky, self-conscious. Bearing in mind that without a baby to feed, just casually pulling down your top in public is pretty daunting.
"Shame on those making women feel like they are somehow corrupting the population or offending in some way for keeping our child healthy and, you know, alive".
We got the job done but it made me realise that by not normalising this part of motherhood, we are making a rod for our own backs. It is the most natural thing in the world, or it should be anyway. I went on to become a nursing pro, shimmying into the back of the car to feed my hungry daughter in a flash. But my first breastfeeding experience gave me fresh perspective.
“Getting the latch right is a lesson in precision, angle, timing, degrees of hunger, degrees of pain you are willing to take”.
Shame on those making women feel like they are somehow corrupting the population or offending in some way for keeping our baby healthy and you know, alive. Or for making others feel less than.
It isn’t easy either. I got the hang of it eventually but then a new baby arrived, with a different style. My milk took longer to come in. The pain of those first few weeks was indescribable. I had every soothing tool under the sun lathered on my poor breasts. Getting the latch right is a lesson in precision, angle, timing, degrees of hunger, degrees of pain you are willing to take.
I still wince when I remember that particularly unique sting. But we do it for our babies, just like we would do anything and everything for them. Those that choose to speak with derogatory language about anyone who breastfeeds need to do a lot of soulsearching. While we are feeling vulnerable and exposed, that kind of language is making us feel judged, shameful and as if we are doing something wrong.
“Sleep deprivation, new mum fear and the pressure to do the right thing makes us all a little defensive over our parenting choices”.
It doesn’t help that some breastfeeding mothers get self-righteous about the “cause” nor does it help when online forums end in mothers pitching themselves against one another in the Great Breast or Bottle Debate. Sleep deprivation, new mum fear and the pressure to do the right thing makes us all a little defensive over our parenting choices.
I’ve done both and neither is easier or harder. Just different circumstances. But that we can forgive. We can bond over our early baby years mania — our obsessions over the smallest thing, the biggest thing, everything. We look back on those baby years and barely recognise ourselves. Responsibility does that to a person.
"The fact that women might have to reveal themselves in order to feed their child is a byproduct of keeping them alive."
What isn’t as easy to reconcile is those who seem to drive an agenda that women should feel grateful for things like nursing rooms (besides the bathrooms, of course) or getting time off at work to pump.
This isn’t a privilege, it is a bare necessity. It is easy to get militant about offending others but you have to wonder who would deny a baby’s right to be fed on demand (even if it happens to be on a flight to Germany).
The fact that women might have to reveal themselves in order to feed their child is a byproduct of keeping them alive. If we can only see breasts as a tool for sexual gratification or objects that can cause offence, we’ve sunk to a depressingly low level.
PS: While we are on the subject of babies, maybe male public bathrooms can get changing tables too so we can emerge from the 1950s warp we still live in? Just a thought.