We’ve all heard it. Many of us have probably even said it ourselves.
‘I’m all for breastfeeding, but only if you’re discreet about it’.
‘I support breastfeeding, but it’s a bit much once the kid can walk and talk’.
‘Breastfeeding’s a wonderful thing, but for the sake of modesty you should pump and use a bottle while you’re in public’.
‘Of course I support breastfeeding, but you really should use a cover around children/men/teenagers/elderly people’.
Guess what? If you need to qualify your support with a ‘but’, it’s no kind of support. In fact, whatever you said before the ‘but’ is pretty much a lie.
The internet is awash with stories of women being publicly shamed for feeding their babies. Often they and their supporters are then shamed all over again in the comment section, for even talking on the internet about feeding their babies. Without fail, for every completely nutty ‘urination is natural too and nobody does that in public!’ troll-call, there are several of the more subtly damaging ‘I support breastfeeding, BUT…’ brigade.
I feel lucky to have only ever had positive remarks about my own breastfeeding so far, although as Baby Girl starts to look more obviously like a toddler (she’s tiny, so is easily mistaken for a younger baby) I’m starting to feel the eyes burning into me when I feed her outside of home. When she asks me for ‘mook’ at the shops or the library, I catch myself putting her off, telling her ‘soon’, ‘after lunch’, ‘when we get back to the car’, not because it’s actually an inconvenient time for me to feed her, but because I’m feeling embarrassed or vulnerable about what people will think or say. Enough! I’m done with this shame. I live in a place where my daughter’s right to breastfeed and my right to provide her with breastmilk anywhere, anytime*, are protected by both State and Federal anti-discrimination law. So, we’re covered by the same section of the law that protects my right to vote and hold down a job. Do I feel ashamed to do those things? Nope. Proud? Nope. I just do them, because they are my right and my responsibility. Feeding my kid in whatever way I need to should be the same.
*Before anyone attempts the old ‘but you can’t breastfeed in a moving car, so there!!1!’ argument – technically the law states that I can breastfeed my child without impediment anywhere we have a legal right to be. So, as long as I’m allowed to be there holding my baby, I’m allowed to be there feeding my baby. I probably can’t feed her while sitting at a poker machine either, but that’s no great loss.
To illustrate its unhelpfulness, I’ve found it handy to draw a comparison between ‘I support breastfeeding, but…’ and ‘I support XYZ, but…’. For example, would you say:
‘I support gay marriage, but I don’t want gay people to hold hands in public. They can do that at home.’?
No, because that’s stupid. You either support gay marriage, or you don’t. Likewise, if you support breastfeeding, you support it in public. Unless you honestly believe it’s reasonable for a breastfeeding mother to stay at home twenty-four hours a day, given that feeding on demand is recommended over scheduled feeds (for good reason), and on any outing longer than an hour there’s a good chance her baby will need to feed. If you do believe this is reasonable, then you be in charge of getting her older kids to school, doing the groceries, and arranging for all her family’s appointments to be conducted at home. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the opportunity to put her feet up.
‘I support the right of your child with Down Syndrome to go to school with other kids, but only if he wears a paper bag over his head because some people might be uncomfortable if he makes eye contact with them’.
What rubbish. Yes, some people don’t know where to look or what to say when they meet a kid who looks different. Is that the kid’s problem, or theirs? Likewise, some people don’t know where to look when they see a breast serving its biological purpose. Is that the kid’s problem, or theirs? Does my baby need to be taught to tolerate a blanket over her head (fat chance, I’ve tried), or can the horribly uncomfortable adult simply avert their eyes? Besides which, there seems to be no amount of coverage that’s adequate to hide the terrible act of breastfeeding. In a shameful incident in my local area last year, an elderly man abused a young mother for breastfeeding her newborn on a bench near the beach. The baby was completely covered by a towel. The man was wearing nothing but Speedos. Let me give you a moment to digest that… And let’s not forget the Claridge’s debacle in London, when a woman who was already feeding her baby without so much as a hint of skin showing, was forced to swathe her child in a giant napkin lest she frighten the other diners.
‘I support the right of couples of different races to be together, but not if one of them’s too old. That’s just gross’.
Maybe you feel icky when you see a white guy in his sixties with a young Asian wife. Maybe you feel like there are all sorts of assumptions you can make about them. But maybe you don’t know anything about them and she’s actually in her fifties and just has really great skin. Or maybe she really is in her twenties but they’re ridiculously happy together and newsflash: it’s none of your business anyway! Same with that lady breastfeeding her toddler in the cafe. You don’t know anything about them. He could be a big ten-month-old, not that it matters. Feel icky? That’s okay! Nobody’s asking YOU to breastfeed him. Those feelings are yours. You own them. Just don’t say anything, especially if it starts with ‘I’m all for breastfeeding…’ because guess what? You’re not.
‘I support the right of Aboriginal people to vote, but only if they go discreetly to a separate polling booth where nobody has to see them’.
Of course, that would be an appalling thing to say, and totally hypocritical. Do I really need to spell this one out? If you support breastfeeding, you’ll be happy to see babies being breastfed anywhere and everywhere they need it. You’ll realise that, while some mothers may appreciate the comfort and privacy of a well-kitted-out parents’ room (they’re rare. More often they’re smelly, noisy and have inappropriate daytime TV blaring), others would prefer to just pop the baby on for a feed and continue to enjoy their lunch/ chase after their preschooler/ finish the shopping/ whatever. And these visible feeders are doing the rest of us a favour by not disappearing. They help to normalise breastfeeding by calmly doing what they do. In this fantastic article, the author draws a great analogy between learning to breastfeed and learning to ride a bike. Imagine preparing for a big bike race, having never seen a bike ridden before, and not having access to a bike of your own until the day of the race. That’s what it’s like to learn how to breastfeed in our culture, unless we see other women doing it before our baby is born and the ‘bike race’ begins.
Every day, I see things that make me uncomfortable. Portly gentlemen wearing low-slung pants. Tongue piercings. Crocs. Toddlers drinking Coke out of sippy cups. Jeggings at a wedding. People letting slobbery dogs lick them right in the face. Grammatically incorrect tattoos. But it takes minimal effort to look away from these horrors, and they’re easily forgotten when I’m distracted by something lovely. Like looking into my little girl’s sleepy eyes during a breastfeed. Maybe it could work the same way for you?