Thursday, June 13, 2013

Militant Breastfeeding

I've breastfed both my children, and plan to do the same for any children I might have in the future.  There was never any question that I would choose breastfeeding as the way to nourish my babies.  Why pay money for an inferior food source, when my body makes a great one for free?

I've never read books about breastfeeding, or taken classes about how to do other words, I never took it up as an an important "issue" to support or to spread the good news about (as I've done for other mommy topics like cloth diapers or using a doula).  It was just the natural thing for me to do as a mother, like most of my ancestors before me have surely done.
I understand that it's not always easy or possible for women to breastfeed, and I don't spend time worrying about the decisions of other women on feeding their babies (breast or bottle?  on-demand or by schedule?  mother-led or child-led weaning?, etc.).  Because, well, it doesn't really affect me or my kids personally.  I trust that most mothers love their kids, and do what they believe is best.

I don't get rapturous about ("the womanly art of") breastfeeding, calling it "beautiful" or focusing extensively on the special bond it produces between mother and child (although I wouldn't disagree with those who do).

But when it comes to breastfeeding in public - in other words, when it comes to allowing other people to be aware that you feed your baby in just the way that nature intended - my feelings seem to become more and more militant as time goes on.
I have to be in the company of other people sometimes, and I have to bring my kids with me.  If the baby is hungry, I need to feed her.  This should not be a problem.  And yet many people find the sight of a woman breastfeeding to be indecent, disgusting, or at least inconsiderate.  Despite the fact that they probably don't actually see any of the breast (unless perhaps they're looking really closely, or watching for a long time), some people become uncomfortable with the idea of a woman nursing a baby anywhere near them.
So while I am absolutely not the type of person to ever be in the vanguard of controversial public displays, I find myself trying more and more to muster up the courage to breastfeed in public without a nursing cover.

...but still discreetly, of course!  I'm not trying to offend.  I'm just trying to show, through my comfort and naturalness, that feeding a hungry baby with that food which is perfectly designed for human babies is a completely normal and sensible thing.  I don't want to give the appearance of being ashamed of something which is in no way shameful.

I am fully in support of these basic facts: Breastfeeding is natural.  Breastfeeding is the normal and ideal way of feeding babies.  Breasts exist for the purpose of feeding babies.
I am interested in digging a little more into the history of when these obvious truths started to seem...not so obvious.  It is clear that a big part of the problem today is that breasts have become so incredibly sexualized, that people have trouble conceiving of them in another way.  And most of the negatives reactions against breastfeeding mother aren't actually concerned with the exposed flesh or "immodesty."  Rather, it is because she is using her breast in a way which is not sexual or objectifying.

These cartoons sum up what I mean perfectly:

It's perfectly acceptable to many people to be subjected to barely-concealed breasts in every ad, commercial, and personal encounter throughout the day...but present them with an image of a mother feeding her child - probably revealing much less naked breast, if any at all - and suddenly, they act disgusted and offended?  It's not the breast itself, it's what the breast is being used for.

I do have a fondness for images of the nursing Madonna.  But this has less to do with seeing Mary portrayed as the ideal of Motherhood, and more to do with the very humanity shown in this most basic of acts.


Some bits and pieces I've gathered about breastfeeding trends in the past 200 years:

In Europe throughout most of the 1800s, women who could afford to sent their babies to a wet nurse.  St. Therese (French) and all her sisters were raised this way, and their parents would only see theie babies on occasional visits.

In America, breastfeeding by the child's own mother has always been more common.

Towards the middle of the 19th century and through much of the Victorian Era, strong ideals of a "cult of domesticity" and a very specific and separate "sphere" for women developed.  Rather than working alongside a husband doing the tasks required to run the property, women were left alone to manage the homes and regulate family life, while husbands went out to work in an office or a factory.  Nursing one's own children became an important aspect of proving your worth as a woman and a mother.  Recently, the Daily Mail published a series of old photographs (actually, daguerreotypes) of women breastfeeding babies from the mid 1800s.  Even in an age of much stricter ideals of modesty (wait, do we even still have ideals on modesty?), breastfeeding was not only considered an acceptable practice, but one to be lauded.

The first formulas came out in the 1860s, and by the turn of the century, formula feeding had become considered more socially proper, and was the norm for those who could afford it.  [did the woman's movement have some influence in this shift?  That's something to look into]

By the 1950s, only 20% of women breastfed, most of them poor or non-white.

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a movement, started largely in the "hippie" community back towards breastfeeding (as well as natural birth).

And today, it has become in some ways the "trendy" thing to do, especially among white women and the upper-middle class (almost three-quarters of whom breastfeed, at least for some time).  It's essentially the opposite of the pattern in the 50s.

With many mothers in the workforce today, pumping and storing milk has become more common, as have special areas at the workplace designed for privacy while pumping.

Feel free to fill in any gaps in this rough timeline, because I find this to be a very interesting social and historical topic for study!


But again, it doesn't matter if all of society is doing whatever the trendy thing is in regards to breastfeeding or not.

Women have breasts.  Breasts make milk.  Milk feeds babies.  

Just let me feed my baby when I need to without calling me gross or indecent!  Geez, it's hard enough already to be a mother.


  1. Hi, I've been reading your blog for a while, but have never commented. I have a little extra time, and I have to comment on Bl. Zelie Martin, so here goes.

    Those cartoon are spot on. I wonder if part of the history is that the Victorian/Puritan kind of privacy shrouded all mention of sexuality and even pregnant women weren't "allowed" in public for quite some time in history in some places. It was all very hush-hush back then. Things slowly loosened up on the idea of sex not being taboo, and with The Pill, sex became disconnected from childbearing, thus breasts became disconnected from nursing. So now we have this backlash against the sexual "repression" of earlier ages acknowledging the natural beautiful consequences, both of children and nursing. I have absolutely no research to back this up, just conjecture.

    As a personal fan of Bl. Zelie Martin, mother of St. Therese, I would like to point out that she did nurse her first 3 children, but because of her developing breast cancer she was not able to nurse the rest of them. Indeed one of them died because of the neglect of the wet-nurse which gave her immense sorrow. This is from "The Mother of the Little Flower" by St. Therese's sister Celine...

    "What mother felt and complained of was that she could not, herself, nurse any but her first three children. She had to give the others out to be nursed, often at a distance in the country, necessitating very fatiguing journeys for her to visit the children." (pg 85)

    Bl. Zelie Martin's has always been a great inspiration to me because, for other reasons than cancer, I was only fully able to nurse my first and had to supplement with formula and only nursed for a short time with my 3 others.

    Blessed Zelie and Louis Martin, pray for us!

    1. Thank you for that clarification about Bl. Zelie! I am a fan of her myself, and have read that book, but I guess that detail totally slipped my mind (and it's a pretty big detail, so I'm ashamed!).

    2. I'm sure it only stuck out to me because I've had similar struggles and was looking for consolation for that exact problem. I read that book while I was pregnant with my third child. While nursing had gone fairly well with my first child, I was not as successful with my second. I was reading that book after those experiences and wondering how my nursing would go with the third and that particular point of the story was so salient to me as a sign to let go of my ideas of successful nursing and trust the Lord.

      I hope that I did not come off too critical, especially in my very first comment on your blog. I enjoy reading your blog and just normally don't comment on blogs in general, so I'm out of practice :-)

  2. I meant...earlier ages WITHOUT acknowledging...

  3. Great post!

    The idea of wet nurses makes me so sad. I mean, before the invention of formula they were necessary for the survival of babies whose mother couldn't nurse, but the fact that some mothers would *choose* to send their babies away to basically bond with another woman (and later to take them away from that woman) is so sad to me. I know some "militant" breastfeeding supporters say that if you can't feed your own baby for whatever reason, it is better to feed them another woman's milk before formula; I disagree.

    I would like to get more comfortable nursing without a cover in public. Not sure how that will work with twins, but we'll see! :)

    1. That is so ridiculous!! I fed Claire formula for six months because I had to. I would never, ever give her another woman's milk. I mean, I probably would have considered it back when she was in the NICU if I couldn't have provided milk for some reason. But then I would have switched to formula when she was healthy enough. Formula is not poison!

  4. Oh, and I love how the pictures of breastfeeding mothers from that article are labeled as "bizarre." What the heck?

  5. I didn't breastfeed because I was too sick with the preeclampsia to pump (my son was born at 29.5 weeks). When we qualified for WIC, the nutritionist (who was a Nazi about this and many other things) screamed at me because I hadn't breastfed him. (WIC had to actually pay for formula for me which is rare as they encourage breastfeeding.)

    I think that if you can breastfeed, that is your best option. I won't, however, fault a mom for giving her kid formula.

  6. You are an inspiration to many women! Thank you for being so open about this subject.

  7. I think a huge factor with my becoming more comfortable nursing without a cover is laying in a good supply of nursing clothing. Being able to nurse without having to expose my stomach makes me so much more comfortable. I feel more discreet nursing in a nursing shirt than I do nursing in a regular shirt with a cover. The reason is, I was always in danger of baby flipping off the cover, or having a hard time seeing what was going on and accidentally flipping it off myself, and then I would be flustered, and the whole thing was just more attention-getting. I'm still keeping my nursing cover, but I really love my nursing clothing. I strongly encourage pregnant women, when they choose maternity clothing, to consider buying some of the maternity/nursing clothing that is out there... it is rare for now, but the more women who choose it, the more companies will look into making it. Also, it really helps in that awkward post-partum stage where you're still kind of "inflated" haha.

    The brand I have is called Bis.Kot. But I know there are a couple other brands that do maternity/nursing clothing. Generally utilizing stretchy fabrics, ruching, and ties to look good from nine months pregnant to normal weight.

    Another option is to wear a camisole or tank top under your t-shirt... some mothers even cut holes in them to make them easier to use.

    I feel more discreet by far in a nursing turtleneck than in a normal top pulled up and a cover over the baby, because invariably people are going to see at least a little belly skin from the side when baby kicks or whatever. Plus the covers can be kind of dramatic. I'll still keep and use my cover, I just prefer nursing clothing.

    Also, you might be surprised, but "everybody used wet nurses" wasn't nearly as universal as the common myth suggests. The book Belinda (one of Jane Austen's favorite books) talks, in fact, about how there was a fad for nobility to breastfeed. I wish I could find the link, but just recently I was looking at a page of fashion plates from the Regency, and one of the plates was of a nursing dress (!). How did they show, discreetly, that this was what it was? They had a baby in the picture sucking on a ribbon at breast level! (I think that was meant to show that the ribbon was where the dress opened to allow nursing.) Pretty cool!

    1. I could not find the link I saw originally but here is a nursing dress from 1815:

      Which gives some idea!

      The plate I saw was very similar in design at the bust (but very different elsewhere), and you see the ribbon tie at the side? The baby in the plate was sucking on that.

  8. Hey Christine. I wrote a comment for you, but I put it on MY blog, since that's how long it was.

  9. I love this post. I totally agree...breasts are meant to FEED babies. Babies need to be fed frequently and mothers need to be able to feed babies anywhere they happen to be where baby needs it.

    1. So, I love this topic so much, I actually posted a whole blog post on it! :)

  10. When Michael was first born I felt so out of place and awkward when we had to nurse in public. Partly because I just wasn't comfotable nursing in general yet. I quickly got over that (trial by fire!) and now I do find myself a bit militant about it as well. I will do it anywhere now with very little thought about it. I once was at a crowded Starbucks with a former coworker of mine (who happens to be gay, not that it matters but it did make it a bit more awkward) and with no cover. I successfully nursed without anyone needing to see anything. I got a few side eyes, but I just brushed them off. It is totally normal. They would have side eyed my fussy baby too, no? So while I too feel pretty militant about it, I don't really like when people are fully uncovered just to make a point. I think that takes it too far and actually makes the situation regarding nursing in public much more awkward. Great post - sorry I didn't thoroughly read it sooner!

    1. *comfortable

      Forgot to spell check before I hit publish! ;)

    2. I agree about it being wrong to nurse simply to "make a point", and I think that I made it sound as if this is what I do. My thought is more like, "It is perfectly natural to feed my baby when my baby is hungry. I should not have to hide myself away while doing something that is not shameful." I'm not being uncovered just so people see me....but I'm not covering myself just so people don't. If that makes sense.

  11. I completely agree.

    The fact is that even as Christians, growing up in our warped society where women's bodies are seen only as sexual objects, we have lost sight of our original beauty. Our bodies are beautiful because God created them and we use our bodies to serve - our hands to comfort, our mouths to speak words of Truth, our feet to rush to help, our breasts to nurse, our bellies to carry our children until they are ready to come into the world...we have forgotten what our bodies are for! I honestly think a lot of the reason that Christian women feel uncomfortable about it is because it's hard to shake off the construct that our bodies are just sexual - sexual objects for consumption.

    I also think this is why people freak out. It upsets the pervasive concept that we (women) exist for male sexual pleasure.

    Don't mean to get all crazy feminist, just tossing my thoughts out there. :)