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.
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.