Friday, December 16, 2011

Breastfeeding in Public

Until last Thursday I hadn't gone to a La Leche League meeting since my daughter L. was one month old. Back then we were having problems latching and my nipples were sore. I went seeking help. A few weeks later I went back to work and wasn't able to attend any other meetings.

By the time we moved to Texas, my daughter was almost eight months old and we had worked through our breastfeeding challenges. We were successful. We didn't need help. It didn't occur to me to join a La Leche League group. My mom suggested it a few times but I didn't think I needed it.

A few weeks ago two things happened that changed my mind.

First, a friend from back home came to visit us with her almost-two-year-old daughter. As we sat in the living room nursing our girls I realized how rarely L. sees other babies nursing. When she does see other children breastfeeding they're generally much younger. We don't know any other two-year-olds in our area who are still nursing.

L. was overjoyed to see our friends breastfeeding. She would smile and squeal with excitement and ask if she could nurse too. I think she likes knowing she's not the only one.

The other thing that motivated me to seek out La Leche League also happened while our friends were visiting. On their first day in town we took them to the aquarium for the day. After running around for a few hours we settled down to watch the dolphins and let the girls have a snack. The viewing room was empty except for a 4th grade class on a field trip. The students were behind a curtain and facing away from us. The students couldn't see us but the teachers, who could see over the curtain, noticed that my friend and I were breastfeeding our girls.

Let me assure you we were being discrete (only 28 states have laws exempting breastfeeding mothers from indecent exposure laws and Texas isn't one of them). After two years of nursing we've got it figured out. Most people never realize what we're doing.

Nonetheless, the teachers noticed. They glared pointedly at us and whispered to each other while staring at us. They gave us dirty looks and talked behind their clipboards.

Long story short, the teachers had a problem with us breastfeeding in public. One of them came over to us and made it clear that we shouldn't nurse when the students were up and walking around. The students might see us and ask questions. She explained that she wasn't comfortable discussing it with them. She didn't think it was her place as a teacher to explain.

I was surprised she was more comfortable confronting a complete stranger than she was answering questions from her students.

I calmly told her I was really sorry she wasn't comfortable explaining to her students that I was feeding my child.

I told her that Texas state law protects my right to breastfeed in public spaces. I suggested that, if she were uncomfortable with breastfeeding and answering any questions her students might have about how I was feeding my child, that she let the parents know their child had questions. She didn't think it was her place to do this either.

Although she claimed to be "totally supportive of breastfeeding" and said she had breastfed her own children, she said I needed to be respectful of the people around me. I told her I was sorry she found the fact that I was feeding my child disrespectful. I told her I was not doing anything inappropriate by breastfeeding. I told her breastfeeding was not remotely sexual and reminded her that my friend and I had both been completely covered.

The teacher and her co-worker continued to tell me how inappropriate and disrespectful I was being.

I told them that I felt their behavior toward me and my friend had been disrespectful as we had done nothing illegal. I told them I was sad that their behavior was my friend's first impression of Texas hospitality.

I ended the conversation there.

My daughter turned two last month and this was the first time anyone has ever said anything to me about breastfeeding in public. I'm glad I live in a country where I have the freedom to breastfeed whenever and wherever my child gets hungry. I'm glad the law is on my side.

Yet, I was surprised and saddened by the views of these two teachers. It made me realize how far we have to go before breastfeeding is the norm, before breastfeeding in public is socially acceptable. According to the World Health Organization only 33% of infants less than 4 months old are exclusively breastfed in the United States. That percentage drops down to just 13.6% for children more than 6 months old (click here to see the complete data for the United States and other countries).

Those are incredibly low rates considering that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding until at least a year (exclusively for the first six months) and longer if possible. The AAP specifically states that there is no known psychological or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or beyond (read the entire AAP statement on breastfeeding here). The World Health Organization also recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months and then continuing for at least the first two years (click here for more info) or longer.

Let me be clear. I'm not making a breast vs. bottle argument. It's every mother's right to make an informed decision about whether breast or bottle or any combination of the those is best for her and her family.

I'm simply saying there is a lot of work to be done to make breastfeeding more socially supported and accepted and there are numerous reasons it should be both supported and accepted. 

My encounter with the teacher made me realize I wanted to connect with other mothers who are breastfeeding and supportive of extended breastfeeding. I want my daughter to see that it's normal for babies and toddlers to nurse. I've gone back and forth about whether or not we're ready to wean and have decided L. is going to lead our weaning process. I don't want to regret weaning her before either of us was completely ready. I love breastfeeding and I'm grateful we've been able to nurse as long as we have.

That said, I've realized that I'm in a position where I need support again. I've been worn down by all the passing comments about how it's time for me to cut her off and wean her for good. 

I wanted affirmation that continuing to nurse is what is best for me and my daughter. That's why I went to the La Leche League meeting last Thursday. 

But when I got to the meeting I realized that it wasn't just about me. It was bigger than that. I needed to be at that meeting for myself and my daughter but also for the other women who choose to breastfeed in my community. They need support just as much as I did when I went to that first meeting two years ago. I realized I had come full circle to a place where I could give and receive support and encouragement. 

Every woman who chooses to breastfeed should be able to feel confident with that choice.

She shouldn't have to defend that that choice to anyone.

But the reality is that women frequently do have to defend themselves. Just recently a woman was harassed at a Target store in Houston. (In case you're interested a national "nurse-in" in scheduled for 10am on December 28th at your local Target to raise awareness about a woman's right to breastfeed in public). It will never cease to amaze me that in a culture where breasts and scantily clad women are everywhere (on TV, movies, magazines, billboards) women are harassed for breastfeeding their children in public. Breasts have been so over sexualized in our society that we've become completely detached from their original function. 

That needs to change. I'm glad I went to the La Leche League meeting and I'm going to keep going back.

If you're looking for breastfeeding support and community, check out these sites:
La Leche League International
Cafe Mom Breastfeeding Support and Information
Mothering Magazine-Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding.com
Breastmilk Counts
Best for Babes
Breastfeeding Laws by State

Also, many state health departments have wallet size cards explaining breastfeeding laws that you can download, print, and carry with you. You can download a card for the State of Texas here.  

What has been your experience breastfeeding in public?

This post is part of the Breastfeeding Support Blog Party. 

5 comments:

  1. !!!!!!!!!
    Wow. I clicked the link for the Target story, and did that get my heart racing! WOW.
    My Lily turned 5yrs this last October. All these amazing nursing wraps with the boning and neck straps were not yet in vogue; they either were not very accessable, or I was super in the dark, or both; the point is, I didn't have one. I had blankets. And with a colicky baby with GERD, and my newly engorged triple D cup size, I really struggled with trying to keep a blanket over us. It really pissed her off to have it on her face; sometimes she got it in her mouth and she would scream; I'd try to look in to help, and then the blanket would fall and show everything (naturally, it would time with my let-down, so that a shower was likely in the forcast, know what I'm sayin'?) It sucked. I hated nursing in public. At first, anyway.

    Of course, we got better at it. It took her the better part of 3 months (THREE MONTHS!) to outgrow the colic. I did what I could to make her comfortable; we nursed often-- I even got the hang of nursing her while she was in the Moby wrap, if you can believe that. When she was about six months old, we switched to an Ergo carrier and I learned to nurse her in it with the hood up. I often walked downtown and around Capitol Lake, and we would nurse when she asked, but it was often while I was walking. People would look away suddenly (oh! she's nursing!)-- but I rarely received requests to go away. Mostly just uncomfortable, shifty-eyed looks. I was bummed, but not enough to stop nursing my kid!

    My favorite place to nurse was at Costco-- I found a really squishy recliner tucked in an isle-- I'd pull the cart in front of me as a sort of barrier, then sit cross-legged in the chair and nurse my baby. THAT was livin'! I got a lot of surprised looks and laughs; they were 98% encouraging (good for you! Wow, you figured out a great set up!)

    I wish I had gone to LLL meetings, though. I really could have used them for all three of my babies. Good for you for going! I'm glad. Keep rocking the nursing! Much love from Olympia.

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  2. It is so nice to hear I am not the only one with a toddler still nursing. In my area, it is basically unheard of, so I often feel the need to wean Eva, though she is far from ready, and in all honesty- I don't want to fight it with her! Sometimes I think I might like my body back for a few months before I get pregnant again, but when it boils down to it, I do still enjoy nursing her. Most of the time :D I do try to avoid nursing in public though, because I am not good at handling the stares and looks and comments. :( I wish I were more like you Em!

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  3. Claire, did it when you're ready! I know it's hard when you feel like you're the only one. I think when the kids get older people quit talking about it...and like you said, people nurse at home for a number of reasons. L. and I usually don't nurse in public much either because she's too distracted. But, if she sees someone else nursing she's totally down! You're awesome by the way...just so you know : )

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  4. I don't know why I never commented on this before, since half of it was about our experience at the aquarium. That was still the only overt request to stop breastfeeding that we've ever had, but I know it didn't happen because we were in Texas. I recently had a sales lady in a department store tell me that there was a place I could go in the bathroom if I would feel more comfortable. She may have meant well, or it may have been a thinly veiled attempt to get me out of the chair at the entrance to the dressing rooms. Regardless, I kind of laughed and told her I was used to it by now. FYI, I also love nursing in the big chairs at Costco and have gotten nothing but approving glances for doing so. People all over our country need to see that we're mammals and it's normal for us to nurse our young! I've only felt weird about it a couple of times, but I always nurse my nearly 3 1/2 year old in public when she wants to, especially because I hope to play a small part in normalizing something that's not only integral to the well being of our species, but just about the most natural thing we could possibly do.

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