It’s Not Really About Breastfeeding

In 1954 my grandmother left the hospital with zero education about breastfeeding. Of course she knew of the activity mothers were supposed to do, but within a day, not knowing what colostrum was, she decided she didn’t have any milk so fed my mother formula and started my mom on solids (baby cereal) at 3 days old.

Fast forward to the late 70’s. My mother nursed me, but when faced with difficulties nursing my brother, she switched to formula the first week. She ended up with a terrible case of mastitis, several clogged ducts and struggled with breast health until breast cancer took her life at the age of 56. I wonder if she had had more access to resources when my brother was born if she would have been able to continue to nurse him. Could the outcome have been different for her?

When my first daughter was born in 2004 in Berkeley, I was given so much information and support I knew that I would be able to succeed with my breastfeeding goals. Even then, I didn’t feel totally confident with myself and had reservations about nursing.

I remember pumping before a plane flight when my daughter was 3 months old because, “How would I nurse on a plane?!”

At a certain point I lost all concern about who saw me nurse, what other people thought about my nursing and the role I chose in feeding my children.

The San Francisco Bay area is generally very tolerant and this likely was a factor in my freedom to nurse in any way I pleased without even a second glance. I nursed while waiting in line at coffee shops, I nursed in restaurants, I nursed in stores, I nursed at church and pretty much anyone who has spent time with me these past 10 years has seen me nurse one of my babies at some time or another.

I only found out recently that nursing in public was a problem for some people. That mothers have been asked to leave, that photos of nursing mothers have been viewed as pornographic, that women are told nursing is disgusting, or are judged for their choices concerning the care of their babies.

I was shocked. From my view, any ban on the care of babies, sexualizing of breastfeeding or judgment cast on mothers, is not only an attack against breastfeeding rooted in ignorance or hate, it is an attack against women, their health and society as a whole. It is an attack against basic and fundamental human rights.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

It is interesting to note however, if I was faced with a situation of being told I needed to leave some public place because of my breastfeeding, I would leave. I would not stand up for myself in that instance because I would be more concerned for the care and protection of my baby and sheltering them from a potentially confrontational or emotionally charged incident.

This makes mothers and babies an easy target for discrimination, isolation and degradation. In their efforts to protect their children, they may sacrifice their fundamental human rights.

The issues surrounding breastfeeding are much bigger than just breastfeeding. It’s how we treat each other, it’s how we regard our bodies, it’s how we educate ourselves and others and it’s how we stand up and defend human rights for all against fixed views, bigotry or authoritarian ignorance and hate.

All women have a fundamental human right in the care of their children and when we are talking about breastfeeding let’s steer the conversation away from breasts and ideas of decency. Let’s talk about human rights and the prevention of their perversion and destruction.

Nursing Phoebe near the Mammoth Hot Springs two years ago.

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One response

  1. A friend of mine was refused a haircut because she was breastfeeding her daughter at the time. She took it to the media and it turned into an enormous national debate here in Australia. Was she denied one of her basic rights? Or was she putting her baby in danger by potentially holding her under a sharp pair of scissors / hot hairdryer? It was a heated debate exasperated by some narrow-minded tv ‘personalities’ that sadly got very ugly for my friend for even raising the issue in the first place.

    Thankfully, most people I know personally think of breastfeeding as such a non-event that it doesn’t even register as an activity of interest, regardless of location or company present. Nor do they judge those who formula feed, either by choice or necessity. I wasn’t able to breastfeed my first baby (for numerous reasons, some of which have hopefully since been resolved) but I have a renewed determination for my second, which is due in a few weeks. Either way, I am grateful that I won’t be made to feel like a bad mother or, in fact, human being, by my friends & family, for whatever reason others might try to find. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

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