Blast from the past: A letter in defense of public breastfeeding

I recently came across this letter I wrote in October 2005 — a year and a half before the Boychick was born. Although there are a few things I would write differently now — places where I would soften my language or add disclaimers about the value of formula or pumping when called for, claims I might seek out literature to support or would discard, analogies I might rethink or clarify — I’m still proud of and stand behind most of it.

This was written in reply to a specific anti-NIP (nursing in public) article, and some of the quotes and references (Paris Hilton? What on Earth was that about?) reflect that, but for the most part I think it stands well enough on its own, and I shan’t bother linking to a five-year-old piece of drivel just to have this make a little more sense. Tell your blood pressure I said you’re welcome.

Dear [author],

I’ve tried to start this letter a number of times, trying to find an inoffensive way to say it. I could start with the statistics about how important public nursing is to public health, but that’s too “safe”. I could start with the disclaimer “At the risk of sounding like some ‘militant’ ‘La Leche activist’…”, but that’s too, well, apologetic. So at the risk of offending, I will start boldly and without apology.

You want to talk about offensive? Offensive is comparing public nursing — which by responding to the child’s cues is healthy for them, and by showing people nursing is normal and thus increasing breastfeeding rates is healthy for the country as a whole — with public urination, public smoking, and loud music, all of which actively cause or risk physical damage to those nearby. (The dangers inherent to public smoking are well known, although I will take a moment to say that breastfeeding appears to negate some of the risks of secondhand smoke exposure to children; loud music, especially loud bass, damages the hearing of anyone nearby, and can trigger headaches, even migraines, in those susceptible; and although most urine is sterile, anyone with a bladder or urinary tract infection risks spreading those infections to passersby, not to mention it leaves a stench and residue behind. The same cannot be said for nursing.)

You say that “bared breasts can make some people very uncomfortable”. I say that halter tops, low-rise jeans, black or brown skin, and two men holding hands can make some people very uncomfortable. Are all those who make certain parties uncomfortable, by their actions, their dress, or their very selves, to be told “The problem arises when an essentially private activity becomes part of the public domain” and that they or their actions will be “allow[ed]… in certain areas and prohibit[ed]… in others”? Or is it only those actions that offend you, no matter how natural, how healthy, or how necessary to “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness”, that will be shoved out of public sight?

You offer women a solution, of expressing milk (“at home” of course, although I presume in a public bathroom, out of sight, would please you as well) and offering it in a bottle while in public view, and that “This way, the child gains all of the benefits of mother’s milk while society is spared the sight of a human Playtex nurser.” There are a number of inaccuracies and problems with this statement.

Let me start here: the benefits of nursing are not just due to the substance of mother’s milk. Sucking at a rubber teat, even if the teat offers mother’s milk, increases the risk of ear infections (the method and functionality of nursing at the breast is quite different, and offers no such risk).

By nursing at the breast, the child exposes the breast to whatever viruses she has picked up (much more likely to happen while out and about, don’t you agree?), which then creates immunities to that specific virus and gives them back to the child, all in the same session. But I suppose you would rather have caught a cold from an ill child than have to view such a private event?

Further, breastmilk’s composition changes throughout the day; on a hot day, the child can take “sips” of foremilk to stay hydrated; in the morning, certain nutrients are present; in the evening, others. Expressed milk offers no such customization.

Finally, you compare a nursing mother to a “Playtex nurser” – do you not see how exactly backwards you have it? The mother is the real deal; the Playtex is the mimic, the second, the fake. Every bottle you see has on it a nipple, designed after the human breast the public sight of which you find so offensive.

You accuse your friend of shallowness, of caring only about image when she responds to your suggestion to offer pumped breastmilk in a bottle with “But then people would think I was feeding my child formula!” Instead, I propose she knows how important the sight of public nursing is, and how detrimental the sight of public bottlefeeding. As social beings, we pay attention to what those around us do, and we learn from it. When we see racism all around us, promoted and celebrated, we expect it and mimic it. When we see bottlefeeding, presumably formula, we think that only right and proper, regardless of what the scientists say about its deficiencies and the damage it does.

However, there is hope: when we see people with differences getting along with each other, when we see peaceful resolution to conflicts, when we see women comfortable in places of power, not just tolerated but supported and seen as a matter-of-course, then we expect that and mimic that. The best, most powerful way to encourage breastfeeding, and the short and long term health (and health-care-savings) it offers is to have women and men who will someday be mothers and fathers see it as natural, as accepted, and as supported. Wanting to take part in that public dialogue, with something as simple and easy as public nursing, is not shallow, it is courageous and commendable.

You are correct that nursing is intimate; it is intimate in the way that offering a hug to a person you love is intimate, in the way that drinking when you are thirsty is intimate, in the way that saying “I love you” is intimate. All these intimate, personal, even private activities are allowed in the public sphere when the participants are all adults. Are they to be disallowed in public? Are they to be disallowed when you are uncomfortable with the parties involved, because one is an infant, or both are women, or the drink comes in a container you find offensive (perhaps it has Michael Moore’s face or Paris Hilton’s logo on it)?

You have a preference not to be exposed to nursing in public. Well, I have a preference not to be exposed to anti-nursing drivel. You even have a right to state your preference in the public arena, as do I. But neither I nor anyone else has the right to say that you cannot publish such offensive, damaging, annoying filth, just as neither you nor anyone else has the right to say that a child cannot nurse wherever she and her mother find themselves.


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20 Responses to Blast from the past: A letter in defense of public breastfeeding

  1. I love it Arwyn. Thoughtful and confident.

  2. As relevant now as when written!

  3. *slow clap*

  4. What’s super-amazing to me is how you penned this far before you had a baby. For me, before I had babies I was one of those “mimickers” often espousing whatever mainstream gobbledegook I’d heard.

    This is probably one of my favorite bits:

    Finally, you compare a nursing mother to a “Playtex nurser” – do you not see how exactly backwards you have it? The mother is the real deal; the Playtex is the mimic, the second, the fake. Every bottle you see has on it a nipple, designed after the human breast the public sight of which you find so offensive.

    I’m glad you didn’t post the anti-NIP original post. Just reading some of the references made my head want to asplode.

    I hate, hate, HATE the seemingly “reasonable” alternatives (pump and give them a bottle) ppl propose that are just ill-disguised hate, ignorance, and prescriptive asshattery.

    Wonderful stuff.

  5. I’ve always been pro-breastfeeding. Kinda comes from my mom having nursed the three of us (she was LLL, etc). Now that I’m a mom who’s nursed my own child, I feel even more strongly (although I’m also beginning to be able to be more understanding of special situations), and I have better language and data. You had much better language than I did at that point in time!

  6. Great letter Arwyn.

    I’ve always been supportive of breastfeeding, but perhaps that is because I always thought it was just what mothers did. I was the oldest of four children who were all breastfed. It wasn’t until I was pregnant and reading up on things that I realized that not all babies are breastfed. Sure, I’d seen bottles, but I didn’t realize the politics behind it all or the fact that some mothers only used bottles and never did breastfeed.

  7. Awesome letter. Sadly, before kids I was so sheltered that I never realized there was an issue with breastfeeding.

  8. It’s pretty cool that you wrote that before you had kids.

    And one of my biggest peeves is when people use terms like ‘human pacifier’. It’s very similar to ‘human Playtex nurser’, in that it normalizes formula-feeding over breastfeeding. The pacifier and the bottle are both imitative of the breast, and second to it. There are cases where they are useful, but if someone chooses to opt for the biologically normative act of breastfeeding, we shouldn’t suggest that they are acting in place of a piece of technology.

  9. I didn’t think about before kids. Now that I’m nursing my third, my blood boils at comments by people without kids who are pretty much saying or commenting much as I did pre-kid… “Oh, he seems kind of old to be nursing still” and the like. It didn’t offend me, I just found it odd and sometimes vocalized. Now I know how incredibly isolating thost kind of comments can be for a nursing mom to hear. Especially from friends and family. So now? Now I unashamedly nurse in public, in private, and plan to nurse my 10 month old at least til he’s 18 months, hopefully til 2. And when I see a nursing mom out and about, I make sure to smile and if opportunity presents, to thank her for helping to make the world realize that nursing is as natural as breathing.

    Awesome letter, thanks for posting.

  10. Before kids, when I was about 16 I remember asking my mom’s friend a million and one questions about why she wasn’t breastfeeding. She had done no research and it bothered the hell out of me. I also remember my head hurting, everyone getting mad at me and giving up because I couldn’t make any sense of her reasons.

  11. You rock my world, Arwyn. Thatisall

  12. A nice letter, indeed. Growing up I rarely saw breastfeeding. Mother didn’t do it, and it was extremely rare in public…point-and-whisper rare. But one woman for whom I babysat breastfed openly at home. She was someone I admired, and I always thought I would probably breastfeed. When pregnant the first time, I read The Womanly Art and made up my mind to try to breastfeed for six full months. My firstborn nursed for 13 months, my second for 20 months (by which time I was pregnant again), and my twins, who were severely asthmatic, nursed for 27 months. I remember being at a party with my ex before we had kids, and seeing a mom nurse her toddler, and saying to each other, “When they can walk over to you and climb onto your lap for it, they are too old to breastfeed.” My apologies to all nursing moms of toddlers! I was so wrong. Public breastfeeding is an act of courage, unfortunately, and one that benefits us all.

  13. To amend my first comment, I was supportive of breastfeeding (as it runs in my family) but I remember quipping, “Once they’re old enough to ask for it they’re too old.” WTF?! Why did I say this? What the hell did I know about it? (hint: nothing).

    The journey of parenting and my pursual of social justice concepts have made me try harder and harder to A. be more careful with my speech and B. think of how my personal convictions on things can hurt others if I’m not careful.

  14. I just have to say that I am so impressed with your journey Arwyn. Like others here babies and breastfeeding were simply not on my radar before the birth of my first child. The only thing I knew was that a good friend from high school breastfed her son for 2.5 years *GASP* before weaning and I thought that was ‘a bit odd’ but knew her so I decided not to go all “Squick!!1!”

    You are so articulate (even back then with the things you would change now) with your message and I bet there were a lot of fist pumps when people read your rebuttal.

    I love this quote by a friend of mine. It’s exactly what you are saying when you point out how backwards the author is regarding the ‘human Playtex nurser’ comment.

    “You are not a pacifier; you are a Mom. You are the sun, the moon, the earth, you are liquid love, you are warmth, you are security, you are comfort in the very deepest aspect of the meaning of comfort…. but you are not a pacifier!” — Paula Yount

  15. Was this in response to Bill Maher? It sounds just like the rants I composed in my head but never took the time to write down. Good for you (and me and all of us who feel this way!) for sending this letter.

    I wonder, did you receive a reply?

    • Eilat: No, it wasn’t to Bill Maher. The original letter was addressed to Ms Somethingorother (honestly, I didn’t even go reread the original crapola — my stress levels are plenty high enough already, thanks).

      I did not ever receive a reply, sadly. It was well publicized at the time among lactivist circles: she probably got a hundred such emails, of varying politeness, so I’m not surprised she never responded to mine.

  16. You are so spot on about the visual importance of breastfeeding. For me, nursing in public isn’t just a right, but my duty to other women and my love for all babies.

  17. Pingback: How to lose my business in one easy step (today’s lesson thanks to Vistaprint); also, breastfeeding on business cards? You betcha! « Raising My Boychick

  18. Pingback: Nursing and nuance: breastfeeding isn’t creepy, except when it is « Raising My Boychick

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