I usually stay out of these kinds of debates, because they have a tendency to spiral out of control, with strong feelings on both sides. And if I’m honest the usual story structure of ‘mum gets criticised for breast feeding in public’ / ‘mum goes to the local press’ / ‘mass breastfeeding demo takes place’ / ‘everything goes quiet again’ is nothing new. If anything I think it’s actually damaging to those thinking of breast feeding; reinforcing the belief that there are lots of people and places who will disapprove of you feeding in public and even throw you out – of cafés, shops, museums, libraries, swimming pools, more shops, buses and even hospitals. And not all the stories are even true.
But this time it does seem to have reached a new level, going beyond local and national press and engaging even the likes of TV show The Last Leg, who put it far more acutely than I could manage here.
There’s lots of things that have quietly riled me when reading the comments on these stories. But one thing that has surprised me is how much talk there’s been about how breastfeeding in public makes the ‘spectators’ feel, and very little about how the breast feeder feels. If anything, breast feeders have a tendency to be portrayed as somewhat militant, feminist exhibitionists, with few qualms about whipping them out in public, and armed with a string of cutting one liners if anyone dares to challenge them. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
I feel lucky that I’ve never been challenged whilst feeding, and I’m fairly confident at feeding in most places. But I do go to great lengths to be discreet about it – picking out the most secluded table, facing the wall if I can, wearing only clothes I know I can hide it under and checking out who is in my line of sight before feeding. It’s really quite stressful, to be honest!
I’d love to have the courage to just ‘whack em out’ wherever and whenever I need to, but like many other people I’ve spoken to it’s just not something I feel comfortable with. Not yet anyway. Maybe one day…
Yes, when breastfeeding there is far less to be seen than on your average Friday night on the town. But if I’ve ever had a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ whilst out on the lash I’ve certainly never been sober enough to remember it the next day, and would be mortified if I did.
It might be the most natural thing in the world, but the reality is that feeding in public feels rather like being forced to do a solo stint on karaoke in front of your drunken work colleagues at the Christmas party, when you know you can’t sing and more importantly, you’re stone cold sober. Logic tells you nobody’s going to notice (or remember) your little performance, but that doesn’t make you feel any more confident about it.
When you’re already nervous or anxious about feeding in public, it feels like everyone around you is looking, judging, disapproving, ready to criticise your decision to feed there, or ask you to leave at any moment. Call it paranoia if you like, but that doesn’t make it feel any less real.
It takes a lot of courage to feed in public, and it’s easy to assume that everyone you see looking is thinking bad of you, even if they’re just being ambivalent towards it.
Before anyone thinks it, this isn’t about the whole breast vs formula debate either. I like to think of it like this – not everyone can run a marathon; not everyone wants to run a marathon; and I certainly don’t think badly of anyone who doesn’t run a marathon; but that doesn’t stop those that do run a marathon being deserving of a bit of cheerleading and support to get them through.
So what is the answer?
The reality is that however much press coverage this latest incident receives, attitudes won’t change overnight. And whilst normalising breast feeding is something we should be aiming for, I think we could do with a little bit more to get us there.
I hope most people reading this blog would be either positive or at least ambivalent towards breastfeeding in public, so I’m going to ask you to do one thing. Next time you see someone breastfeeding (and particularly if she has a very young baby so is probably new to feeding in public), go up to her and congratulate her on doing it. Look her in the eye – avoiding eye contact just tells us you’re embarrassed, and staring at baby is just a bit too close to the boobs.
It might feel a bit uncomfortable for you, but that’s nothing compared to how she’s probably feeling. And I promise you will brighten up her day and make a world of difference to her confidence, helping her to keep doing the most natural thing in the world for her child.