I am a breastfeeding mom of twins and I have to admit that I don’t quite understand the whole breastfeeding in public debate. If you read online, you would think that there are only two sides; the breastfeeding advocates who take their entire shirt off to breastfeed their toddlers just to make a statement and people who are so outraged by breastfeeding that they think moms should go to the car or sit in the bathroom. As a result, two mothers with the exact same breastfeeding behaviors may end up on opposing sides of the breastfeeding in public debate.
When I read a story of someone shaming a mother for feeding her baby in the food court and telling her to go to the bathroom, then yes, I’m going to side with the no cover, pro-public breastfeeding mom. However, when I hear a story about a mother who woke up outraged that the flight attendant had covered her up after she fell asleep breastfeeding on the airplane with her shirt off, her boobs exposed, and her toddler sitting next to her, then I might take the side of modesty and discretion. Either way, I think most of these stories are exaggerated, staged, or at the very least, NOT an everyday occurrence. When people state their opinion on the matter, I think it’s a reaction against the two extremes, not against the 99 percent of breastfeeding mothers who fall somewhere in between.
The majority of mothers breastfeed in public rather discreetely and nobody cares or knows the difference. They wear the under tank or button down shirt and maybe a scarf or cover. Even in cases where the baby refuses to be covered or the cover gets left at home, moms still have ways to remain discreet. I personally don’t think I’ve ever seen a women breastfeeding in public with her boobs completely exposed.
I have seen a nipple slip, but it was not because the mother wasn’t being discreet or because she “popped out” her boob. In a situation like this one, it is not the mother’s fault that I happened to be staring. On the other hand, when a women lifts up her entire shirt, seeing boobs cannot be avoided. Just because I don’t sexualize them doesn’t mean I don’t notice them. There is just not enough separation from the chest to the face. If you’ve ever been to a breastfeeding support group, you know exactly what I mean. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable but I can certainly respect how it might make my brother-in-law feel.
For this reason, like most women, the way I breastfeed in public is slightly different than how I breastfeed in my home or among my breast-feeding friends. In public, I try to wear a cover and feed one baby at a time. At home, my entire shirt comes up and my entire bra goes down. For the first couple of months after my twins were born, breastfeeding, pumping, and supplementing was so difficult and time-consuming that I had a parade of family, friends, and neighbors coming in and out of my house to give me a hand. At that point, modesty was not really an option.
Fortunately, modesty went out the window long before my twins. During my daughter Cora’s labor, I didn’t even consider how taking a bath to help with contractions meant I would be naked for her delivery. Likewise, for my twin’s delivery, I naively requested a mirror. I didn’t know it was going to be a full-length mirror or think about how it would project my vagina to the 8 additional staff who were present at the delivery. Whatever shred of modesty I gained back after delivery I lost in recovery as a stream of nurses marched in and out to take turns playing a game of “who can pin the boob on the baby.” To be honest, after all that, it didn’t even occur to me to ask my female friends and family whether or not they were comfortable with me feeding my babies in front of them without a cover.
After labor, delivery, and breastfeeding, moms no longer see their boobs as sexual objects. So, it’s confusing to them why other people, including their husband, would see them that way or accuse them of trying to show off their bodies. Most postpartum bodies and breastfeeding boobs are not all that attractive anyway, so it’s difficult to believe that people would be threatened by them. I think it’s more likely that they are somehow ashamed by them. Perhaps the reason why people are unfazed by the full-spread model in the Victoria’s Secret window but shocked and disgusted by the breastfeeding mom in the food court is because they prefer the sexy, perky, air-brushed illusion to their sad, saggy, miss-shaped reality. Breastfeeding may threaten their idealization of the perfect body. Perhaps some of the breastfeeding backlash may come from women who are projecting their own shame about their bodies.
The real fight isn’t even about a women’s right to breastfeed in public, we’ve already won that battle. The new fight is about trying to change our culture’s views about the female body. I personally think it’s a losing battle and I don’t want views on public breastfeeding to be the casualty. It’s causing women who should be standing beside each other to start fighting against each other. Let’s put each other before our personal views about modesty. Let’s pause, reflect and think about what’s really worth fighting for.