Breastfeeding is one of those issues that quickly polarizes people. I just learned of a woman complaining that Target employees harassed her for breastfeeding in the store, and mom’s everywhere staged nurse-ins in response. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know if she was actually out of the way, covered up, or if the employees were rude as she claims. I don’t know if maybe during the Christmas rush, with customers running around everywhere, she might have inadvertently been in the way of customers or tired employees just trying to get their jobs done and get home to their families. Or maybe she was just one of those people itching to start a fight and plopped herself down in the way on purpose, hoping someone would say something. Only those involved know. One thing we do know from the story is that she was offered a place to nurse in private and opted not to do so. Some people argue that breastfeeding is perfectly natural and should not be hidden. Others argue it is gross or at least shouldn’t be done in public. And thus the two sides of the ongoing argument. Should someone who does not have children, doesn’t agree with or feels uncomfortable with breastfeeding have to see it in public? Should a mom just trying to feed her baby have to hide? Here is what it breaks down to:

1. Breastfeeding is natural, healthy for mother and child and cheaper than buying formula.

2. Some people are uncomfortable with breastfeeding.

3. Those breastfeeding need a clean, safe environment to nurse in.

Let’s look at point three:

The woman in the story complained that she shouldn’t have to hide in some bathroom. That is actually not an issue in this case, since she was offered a fitting room to sit down in. As someone who was forced to pump in a bathroom at my job when my first son was born, I can tell you there is a difference. I was forced to use the bathroom, with other people doing their business in the next stall, because my boss (who was female and had children) thought that was the appropriate place to do it. When someone complained to HR, they finally offered me empty offices to use. I was later told I had to use the restroom instead of the kitchen to clean my pump pieces and bottles, since people were complaining I took up too much space in the kitchen the few minutes a day I was in there cleaning everything. That was the excuse I was given. Of course, they didn’t really know what to do with me, since only two other people in that company had ever breastfed (an issue I will re-address shortly).

By contrast, a fitting room is much cleaner than a restroom, it offers more privacy, the lighting is not as harsh as one would experience sitting out in the middle of a store, you could feed your child without having to cover up, so you can actually share eye contact and make it a more enjoyable bonding experience, you aren’t in people’s way, and you don’t have sick people walking around coughing on you and exposing your child to illnesses. I’m not saying every mom should run and hide in a fitting room, but in this case I really do not see the down side.

Point two:

Some people, even breastfeeding mom’s can be a little uncomfortable with exposure and public nursing. I pump to breastfeed my son, but I don’t feel comfortable doing so in front of friends and family. If someone is over and I need to pump, I put on a shawl or go in another room. If I’m at a party, I ask for a spare room I can use. Even when I tried to nurse at the hospital when my son was born, I was offered privacy screens just like every other mom in the NICU. The fact is, most women want some privacy. If breastfeeding moms want privacy, why is it so difficult to understand how non-breastfeeding moms, or single men or women may feel uncomfortable about it?

This brings me to point one:

If breastfeeding is natural, been done for thousands of years and millions of women do it every day, why are we all so uncomfortable  or shy about it? Consider these facts; Most of us are formula fed. Now, I don’t have any statistics to back up this statement, and I’m sure the numbers vary depending on where you grew up, but going off my own personal experience, I don’t think I know a single person over twenty-five or thirty who was breastfed for more than a month, if that. The advent of decent formula, coupled with more women in the workforce, left a couple of generations of people with little to no exposure to breastfeeding. Is it any wonder many of us who do try are embarrassed, have problems picking it up, struggle with low milk production, etc? A hundred years ago, a girl would learn breastfeeding from her mom. Every mother she knew would be an expert who could answer questions, give instruction or help with problems like mastitis and low milk production. I had a couple of lactation nurses at the hospital who helped me for the few days I was at the hospital right after my son was born. Other than that, I am on my own. Many moms don’t even have that support. So we are all re-learning something our ancestors took for granted. For those of us with no support system and no prior exposure to breastfeeding, having a child is the first time in our lives where we are told to view our breasts as something non-sexual. We do not live in some European country like Spain or in some isolated National Geographic tribe where women walk around topless. For the most part, breasts are considered sexual here. We are told repeatedly in childhood and adolescence to cover up. Then all of a sudden we have children and we are told we should feel comfortable exposing our breasts to breastfeed. It can leave a lot of conflicted feelings. When girls had babies from puberty to menopause, breasts were always for breastfeeding. But now, women are waiting until later to have children, having fewer children or none at all, and we live in a society that rates a woman’s attractiveness based on her cup size.

We are left with a general public who is a little uncomfortable with or completely grossed out by breastfeeding and a generation of shy, defensive breastfeeding moms angrily pushing it in everyone’s face as we over react to our own insecurities and conflicted emotions. Now, before I get a lot of angry responses, let me add that of course not every breastfeeding mom falls into this category and we should not be afraid to insist on certain rights when feeding our children. But I think we are lying to ourselves and not helping anyone if we pretend these issues aren’t at the heart of many breastfeeding conflicts. So where does that leave us? The public pretends they are okay with breastfeeding to avoid lawsuits and moms become political pawns, fighting over the right to offend people instead of focusing on what breastfeeding is all about, the bond between the mother and child. If  you are all focused on people’s reactions to your breastfeeding, you aren’t focusing on the child and bonding with that child. Everyone needs to exercise a little common courtesy. Don’t strike out to catch people or look for a fight. When I go to a party, I don’t pull it out and start pumping in the middle of the living room. I ask for a room where I can go and pump in private. I know nursing mothers who do the same to nurse their children. Yes, you do miss a little conversation or some excitement, but that is the price you pay for wanting to breastfeed. You have to ask yourself what is more important, that you heard some gossip or spent time with your child. Why should you force other people to be uncomfortable because of a choice you made to breastfeed. And if there isn’t a private room, or you can’t get away, at least use a shawl to cover up unless you are with someone you know isn’t uncomfortable with breastfeeding. And to everyone else, breastfeeding isn’t icky or gross. It is a natural thing, so try to keep that in mind. If you are offended or uncomfortable, ask if the mom wouldn’t mind covering up, but do it nicely. It took up a couple of generations to forget how to breastfeed. It will take some time to relearn this skill.

-A.D. McLain