June 7, 2005

Lactivism.

Nursing mothers protest Barbara Walters. Walters dared to say she felt uncomfortable sitting next to a nursing mother on an airplane.

Lactivism has been rather successful:
[S]ix states have recently passed laws giving a woman the right to breast-feed wherever she "is otherwise authorized to be."
Got a problem with that? I don't.

I know what it's like to need to breastfeed and be in a situation where there's nowhere private to go. One time, back in the early 80s, I breastfed my baby at the Baseball Hall of Fame. I remember feeling I was doing something really wrong and that I was about to be discovered at any point and treated harshly. So I like these laws. What are you supposed to do on a plane? You can't occupy the bathroom that long, and anyway, that would be a disgusting environment for a baby.

Breastfeeding mothers, like anyone else who has a right to be in a public place, should attend to their and their babies' physical needs discreetly and try not to trouble people. That means minimizing how much you expose yourself and not going out of your way to sit right next to a stranger. It's not shameful to be breastfeeding, but that doesn't mean it's in good taste to flaunt it.

As a rough comparison, imagine if you needed to blow your nose and you were in the middle of a store or a restaurant. We'd think it was outrageous if the owner kicked you out for doing it and rude if the other customers gave you dirty looks -- assuming you did it discreetly. But it would be rude of you and you'd deserve those dirty looks if you blew your nose loudly and sloppily right next to someone.

UPDATE: If anyone had ever told me that one day they'll be talking on TV about about my breasts and the Baseball Hall of Fame, I would have been amazed. Amazed and perplexed. (Does he make it sound like I was looking for a place to breastfeed, so I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame? I was that desperate.)

44 comments:

Kevin said...

Ann,

Just another thought. When Walters does the View, she's sitting next to Elizabeth Hasselback.

She just had a baby. Isn't she nursing?

price said...

This is outrageous! First people being allowed to blow noses in public, now breast feeding? Where does it end? Pretty soon women will insist on breast feeding their pets or parents or husbands in public. What happened to this nation's sense of morality? The founding fathers would be appalled. Basically what's happening here is the destruction of society as we know it. Every revealed bosom is like a WMD aimed at the heart of this nation. Public breast feeders are trying to destroy the institution of child rearing! It's a slippery slope, Professor Althouse, and I, for one, fear for our great nation.

Allison said...

Ann, I agree. There's no good reason a woman shouldn't be able to feed her baby in public, and no good reason for a breastfeeding woman to show any skin while doing so. If done discreetly and matter-of-factly, many times no one will even notice.

A little more awareness might be a good thing, though. Once, an elderly man at a mall lifted up a receiving blanket that was covering my nursing baby's face so he could see her (he thought she was sleeping). Awkward.

Kathleen B. said...

I also agree Prof. Althouse, but mostly because I just can't understand why anyone would care. How could someone breast feeding her baby be upsetting to another person, and especially upsetting enough to actually complain about it? Anyone out there who could enlighten me?

TallDave said...

I've been reading you for some time and never realized you were a fellow Wisconsinite. Sadly, work recently drove me south and now I'm just another FIB.

Given the numerous benefits of breat-feeding, it's ridiculous that women shouldn't be allowed to do so discreetly.

Ann Althouse said...

Kathleen B.: The physical reality of another person's body is something many people feel an aversion to, without fair cause. People don't like strangers standing or sitting near them. And people feel a special aversion to bodily functions and bodily fluids. And breasts just play havoc on people's minds.

Tall Dave: Drop one more letter and you'll have brat-feeding and can really reminisce about Wisconsin.

Dave said...

Ann, I agree with you. I don't see what the big deal is.

I picked up on the NYT story as well, here.

I ask a question in that blog post, which I'll repeat here (you have more readers than I, so maybe one of them can answer it): to what extent is public breastfeeding an issue in South America or southern Europe? I would imagine that, at least in places like Brazil, Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy, with their generally more relaxed attitudes toward both sex and public nudity, public breastfeeding is not an issue. Perhaps I am wrong.

Gregory said...

That means minimizing how much you expose yourself and not going out of your way to sit right next to a stranger.

But what happens when the airline forces the mother to sit next to a stranger? I know our situation is extreme, but we have twins, and my wife and I are not allowed to sit in the same section. Not enough airmasks. We've raised hell about it, but they are quite inflexible. As a result, my wife and older son are always sitting next to 'a stranger', with one of the twins, while I sit across the aisle with the other.

We manage, but I've noticed said strangers to get uncomfortable at times. Tough!

Ann Althouse said...

Gregory: You've done the best you could. That's as minimized as was possible. People need to deal with it because they can't say you should have done more. They are rude if they show they object.

Mark Daniels said...

Ann:
I agree with you.

Having said that, I must say that as a man, and an admittedly somewhat demure one at times, I'm made a bit uncomfortable when I spot a breastfeeding mom in a public place or at gathering in someone's home.

But that's my hang-up. It seems to me that I, and everyone else, needs to get over our hang-ups. Breastfeeding is healthy for the baby and contributes to the bonding between mother and child.

My wife didn't breastfeed our children. I'm not sure that she would have done so, even without her hectic schedule. And, though I know there would have been ways to have provided our children with breast milk in any case, some of the fondest memories of my whole life involve those times when I fed our children. (Because I always took the middle-of-the-night feedings and due to quirks in my own scheduling in those years, I was able to feed them about half the time.)

But, I digress--as usual. Back to the point: I say that we make it unanimous and remove the laws and the stigma attached to mothers breastfeeding their babies in public.

Legislation allowing it just passed in at least one house of the Ohio General Assembly, by the way.

Mark

Mark Daniels said...

Pardon the lapses of grammar in my comments above. I didn't check them thoroughly enough. Those sorts of mistakes drive me nuts!

Joan said...

I nursed each of my 3 children for a year. Believe me, one of the joys of being a nursing mom is not having to lug bottles and formula and all that other junk around. Not to mention how expensive all that other junk is! For me nursing wasn't just about the health of the baby, there were many other intangible and economic benefits as well.

So as a mom who nursed, a lot, I can say that for most women/infant pairs, there's no reason for anyone to know you're nursing. But there are times -- when the baby is older, for example, when you don't have as much control over the situation as you'd like! There are also women who, regardless of the situation, make a big show out of the fact that they're nursing, as if they somehow won't get "credit" for it unless everyone knows it's happening. I've known a few women like this, and I've never understood it, but every child is different...

I think it comes to the fact that yes, some nursing mothers will be obnoxious about it, just as there are people who sneeze and cough without covering their mouths. But the majority are sensitive and discreet whenever possible. I think it's a bit ridiculous that we have to be legislating what should be common sense and common courtesy, but at least the laws in this case are on the right side.

Too Many Jims said...

Actually I think that the pro-breastfeeding bill passed both houses of Ohio's General assembly, but only after a house member abandoned his attempt to require that a business owner be given immunity if a person slipped on spilled breast milk or baby spit-up.

spacemonkey said...

I don't see what the big deal is about her (Babwa Wawa) complaining about soemthing that made her uncomfortable.

People complain about everything all the time. It doesn't mean they want to make it illegal.

Otherwise, farting on an elevator would have been outlawed decades ago. Even though it certainly does make people uncomfortable enough to gripe, usually after they egress.

Jim Gust said...

I never gave this any attention until my wife became pregnant and we received literature from La Leche League in support of breastfeeding. At the time I thought they were rather strident. But after my wife began nursing and we encountered the occasional difficulty in finding privacy, I realized that the League was doing what was needed to "push back" against our societal presumptions against nursing.

Why is breastfeeding the exception, and not the rule? Why does anyone give it a second thought? This is what breasts were made for, after all!

It only seems strange because it is no longer familiar.

RUTH ANNE ADAMS said...

I recently finished nursing my twin daughters, and always at home. I only wish I could have nursed in public. I always needed extra pillows and I felt so clutzy unless I was at home....oh to be a free-flowin' mama, baby at hip, nursing whenever the spirit moved me! I've seen lots of chastising looks, too, when a child is loud in public. Perhaps a well-timed breast might mollify the babe?

jeff said...

Nursing is fine - but do us all a favor and drape a blanket over yourself and the baby...

...was the woman sitting next to Babs W. covered up, or did she just haul it out for all to see - which does happen.

Ann Althouse said...

Ruth Anne: I'm sure Barbara Walters would have been even more unhappy if the baby had cried through the flight. We just don't live in a culture where babies and children are naturally integrated with adult life. This makes it hard to feel comfortable bringing babies along everywhere. I really understand that feeling of just wanting to stay home where everything is simpler. Unlike Joan, I didn't find it easy to be out and about when lactating. It might be a drag to carry bottles around, but if you put the lids on right, they never leak all over your clothes. I never even attempted to combine working with lactating. I simply could not have done it. I did take a bar review course and lactate at the same time -- wearing black overalls! -- but nothing more than that.

Mark Daniels said...

Jim: According to news accounts I've been able to find that breastfeeding law did pass both houses of the Ohio General Assembly. But in looking the thing up on the Legislative Services Commission web site, I was unable to determine if the governor has signed it yet. That's because I'm working on an older and sometimes recalcitrant computer right now.

Mark

dax said...

I have zero problem with a mother discreetly breastfeeding her child in public.
Sure there are some people that object just like you'll have some mothers that will openly expose themselves while breastfeeding. What are ya gonna do???

amy said...

Jeff...

I, personally, kept a very lightweight blanket with me to cover up while nursing, but it's not always possible, or preferable to cover yourself and a baby up with a blanket while nursing. Especially if the baby isn't a little newborn anymore. I was always a bit nervous about breastfeeding in public, and generally tried to find someplace else to do it (a changing room at the mall, a quiet corner, the car!) but there was a time or two when the baby had to be fed, and he sure wasn't going to stand for a blanket smothering his face while he ate.. no one paid any attention to us, thankfully.

TWM said...

I saw Walters when she said this and it wasn't like she was complaining -- she just said she was a tad uncomfortable sitting next to the lady while she did it. And you must remember that people of her age were not raised when breastfeeding in public.

Also, normally if you are uncormfortable with something like this you can get up and leave, but Walters' issue was that she was stuck there.

Being discrete is the key.

Jamie said...

I was once an "expert" witness in a civil case on the Oregon coast. My oldest was an infant, and my husband actually quit his job to be home with him (returning a year later - but is this West Coast or WHAT?). The two of them came along with me - we lived in Seattle at the time - and I brought my breast pump, hoping I'd be able to find a place in the courthouse to do my thing at reasonable intervals.

It was something else. My company's lawyer, a young woman, spoke privately with the judge, a man probably my dad's age or older, about my situation. He then told me, privately also, that whenever I needed to take a break I should just let him know. The whole courtroom just shut down and waited on me when I was back in the room behind the courtroom taking care of business, and the judge would practically pat me on the head, smiling indulgently, when I emerged.

On the one hand, I've never felt so conspicuous while actually breastfeeding in public as I did coming out of that room with my giant black "briefcase" of a breast pump, everyone in the room knowing exactly what I'd been up to. On the other hand, everyone was beyond accommodating of my "special need."

I second everyone's comments about being discreet, and I also sympathize with those who are bothered by simply knowing that a baby is being fed beside them but applaud you for recognizing that the botheredness is not the mom's problem as long as she's not waving in the breeze. And I'll say too that, depending on the age of the baby, they can get pretty wacky with the blanket you're trying to keep covered with - fairly young babies, four months or so, can be VERY intent on looking you in the eye or on viewing the room while filling the tummy, and you do all kinds of acrobatics to keep your own flesh to yourself while your baby's doing his or her best to advertise it.

Shannon said...

I am a huge supporter of breastfeeding and strongly encourage it because of not only the economical benefits but because of the health benefits. But because of situations such as this many moms are afraid to breastfeed and therefore, in my opinion, jepordizing an infant's health.
I understand when mothers can't or choose not to breastfeed, granted, but I don't approve of formula feeding. Would I get upset or feel uncomfortable about a mother that was formula feeding next to me on a plane? By no means! That's her choice and that should be respected.
The point is that Walters, and most of America, is ignorant to breastfeeding facts and information.
With so many things to truly feel uncomfortable about...this is not one of them. Find another hill to die on!

Concious said...

Lactivism?? HOORAY for Boobies!

its about time people stopped hatin on the human body. breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world, so how can anyone knock it?

Silicon Valley Jim said...

It may be worthwhile drawing a distinction between what people (including me) think and what they feel. Intellectually, I think that women should be able to breast-feed in public. I'll admit, however, that it makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable to view it. If it's covered up, I'm fine. I can't really give a reason why this is; I just know that it's the case.

I will not complain if the baby and breast aren't covered; I'll just feel uncomfortable. It would be rude of me to complain. It would be nice, although not necessary, for nursing mothers to cover up when it's possible.

Ann Althouse said...

SV Jim: I agree. People get polarized and they shouldn't. Breastfeeding women shouldn't flaunt it. They should be as discreet as they can. I don't think this requires putting a cloth over the baby's entire head however. Several people have written that older babies rebel, and and I say these babies are right to do so. The trick is to get the baby on the nipple, without anyone seeing the nipple, then covering the top of the breast up to the baby's mouth. There might be a second of overexposure at the beginning and the end, but if you do it right, it's not much. People just need to deal with that. But at the same time, it's a simple fact that breasts are intensely interesting to people. They are interesting to babies and we never get over it. It's just part of life.

Jim Gust said...

The trick is to get the baby on the nipple, without anyone seeing the nipple.

Sorry Ann, I just don't get this. Why is everyone so fascinated by/offended by women's nipples? When no one gives a hoot about men's nipples? It's just skin! Frankly, this nipple obsession by both sexes seems, well, infantile.

henny said...

Some women actually feel uncomfortable, even horrified with the physical realities of motherhood. Perhaps Walters, who has an adopted daughter feels this way. Still, even if that's so, that's her issue! We should all let mommies do what they gotta do...

Maura in VA said...

I'm pretty surprised by the number of people who are equating breastfeeding with farting or sneezing. I mean - it's FOOD, not bodily waste!

Likewise, I just don't get the position that it's sort of okay, but only if it's thoroughly covered up. We're talking about the natural way that humans feed their young. Why would that ever need to be covered up as if it's a shameful secret?

I've never had a child and I'm not saying that I'd be out there flauntin' my boobies for the world to see if I did. :-) But what I find so ironic about all this is that we live in a society that is totally obsessed with breasts. We see women all over the place - on TV, on the beach, in music videos, etc - with the sexualized breast prominently displayed (if usually covered by a tiny scrap of cloth).

Why should the most natural and non-sexual use of the breast be so stigmatized? If a baby is suckling, far more of the breast is covered than is covered by a typical bikini top. Why force a woman to cover her baby's face with a blanket, making it hot and uncomfortable for the baby and preventing baby and mom from having eye contact with one another?

I just really don't get it.

lindsey said...

"Some women actually feel uncomfortable, even horrified with the physical realities of motherhood."

I fully intend to breastfeed one day when I have kids, but I'll be the first to admit that I find it gross that there will be food in my breasts. It's like I'm a cat or something. I guess I should just be thankful I don't have rows of nipples.

It doesn't matter if it's the most natural thing in the world though. Some of the most natural things are disgusting. Going to the bathroom is also one of the most natural things in the world, but we don't allow people to go in public any time or anywhere they feel like it. Also, being uncomfortable when someone is breastfeeding in public is not ignorant. People tend to be uncomfortable seeing bodily functions in public. They are entitled to their own feelings on this matter just so long they don't bug or harass the woman who is trying to feed her kid. I suspect the woman breastfeeding in public is as uncomfortable as the person witnessing it.

"But what I find so ironic about all this is that we live in a society that is totally obsessed with breasts. We see women all over the place - on TV, on the beach, in music videos, etc - with the sexualized breast prominently displayed (if usually covered by a tiny scrap of cloth)."

But we don't see lots of women wandering about with exposed breasts, do we? That scrap of cloth is usually much larger in real life.

HaloJonesFan said...

Beyond that, the idea of the "teeny-weeny bikini" is that it is scandalous, that it deals with social taboos.

Bruce Hayden said...

I would suggest that to a very great extent Walters' problem is more generational than anything. She is old enough that it just wasn't done, esp. by progressive mothers in good society.

I remember my mother confessing that she was quite happy that she was unable to nurse me (the oldest), so she could use formula on me and my four younger brothers. (I suspect that she just didn't give it enough time, etc.)

And indeed, I would suggest that most of my generation who were breast fed, had parents who had much more recently immigrated here than had WASPs like my mother.

By the time my daughter came along though (almost 14 years ago), it was accepted that "good" mothers breast fed. Not doing so was treated, at least in many circles, as evidence of inferior parenting and, really, a character flaw.

My ex though I think was secretly relieved when her milk dried up. She had the normal job, so I stayed home (practicing law). She refused to express milk in the Women's Room (due to hygene problems). The result was that going 8-10 hours without nursing every day resulted in her body shutting down milk production. So, this let her be a "good mother" without the fuss and bother of nursing (and could get me to do most of the feeding).

I, for one, don't find nursing the least bit worrisome - as long as the woman tries to be a little discreet. Ann's guidelines are perfectly adequite in my estimation. I am only really bothered by women who make a big production out of it, flopping out their breasts (esp. nipples) in public.

Bruce Hayden said...

I do think that nursing though has many ramifications. My sometimes girlfriend is a lot bigger chested than her daughter. And I suspect her daughter takes it as a rebuke to her motherhood and feminity when her sons try to nurse with their grandmother - after all, the older (3 1/2) has not nursed with his mother for over 3 years now. And I suspect the grandmother isn't as quick in putting a stop to this behavior when she is playing power games with her daughter. After all, she nursed her two kids each for two years. But since she is more feminine (i.e. bigger breasted), this is only expected. (The real reason for the later, of course, is that she is Type-A and O/C and the daughter is not).

Ann Althouse said...

Well, I'll just say that it isn't easy to breastfeed, and anyone who does it, even for a short time before going back to work, should be given credit for it, and anyone who declines should not be criticized. If you haven't done it, you can't really know what it is like. Going to work while lactating is incredibly hard, because the milk soaks your clothes, it runs down your body, and even sprays through visibly sometimes. You can't control it. Your breasts hurt when they are full too.

So don't look down on someone who refuses to go through with the difficulties of pumping and storing bottles of milk at work. I never attached myself to a pump, and I find it really unappealing. Add to that the problem of leaking, and any woman who goes to work while lactating is being heroic. Don't blame women for refusing.

Also: the ability to breastfeed is not related to breast size. The milk-producing tissues are not what makes large breasts large.

sena b. said...

As a breastfeeding mother I am uncomfortable feeding in public but I am not going to put my life on hold and never leave my home just because I am breast feeding. I think people should understand that. You can plan things around a baby's feeding schedule because as I have found babies don't allways stick to a set schedule. It is nice that they have laws to protect women and also I appreciate the stores that have rooms set aside for nursing mothers. All we are trying to do is provide the most healthy choice we can for our children and we should not be prosecuted for it.

Murky Thoughts said...

This sounds a lot like the gendered bathroom business in which you were all for separation, Ann. I guess if people all did their toilet stuff alongside one another in big and crowded public places you wouldn't mind breasts and penises mingling. For some reason you're comfortable nursing in public but not defecating or practicing feminine hygiene in public, and because culturally that's mainstream, or perhaps more because it's traditional, you get the gendered bathrooms you desire. Meanwhile the nursing tradition seems not so fixed and we may not have a good idea how many people feel like BabaWahWah about it. If mothers were paying attention to WahWahs besides their own, maybe they'd carry around nursing veils.

Ann Althouse said...

Yes, human beings nourishing themselves in front of each other is a very well established practice, as is seeking privacy for excretion. We don't require babies to eat in bathrooms.

Murky Thoughts said...

All kinds of thousand year-old social conventions are "established" in Saudi Arabia, but people over here don't consider all of them enlightened or inelligible for "reform." Incidentally, I doubt Saudi women expose breasts to nurse in downtown Riyadh.

Allison said...

Re: nursing, pumping, working, etc.

After I had my first child, I went back to work when she was not quite six weeks old out of dire economic necessity. I purchased a pump, tried it once or twice, and hated it. Luckily, my husband, who watched my daughter during the days I worked (he was in law school and managed his schedule so we could do this) was willing to bring her to me at lunch so I could see her and nurse. Other than that, I breastfed when I could, and she got a bottle or two of formula during the day. My milk supply adjusted and the engorgement/leaking stopped (thank heaven). When I stopped working, the formula feedings stopped, and after a while, my supply increased. It worked for us, and was a solution that we all felt happy about.

I've never understood why breastfeeding is considered such an all-or-nothing proposition by so many, as if supplementing is somehow cheating, or as if not making enough breastmilk automatically necessitates total weaning to formula. Again, though, I think it's good to do whatever the mom and baby are happy with.

Kathleen B. said...

Allison - just FYI, it is my understanding that sometimes babies won't breastfeed once they are introduced to formula and/or a bottle. I guess you are lucky you did not have that problem.

Allison said...

Kathleen, I know I was lucky that my first daughter would take both. My second daughter refused a bottle entirely (wouldn't even put her mouth around one, and I attempted it fairly early). Many babies will take both happily, though.

Christine said...

I always kept a blanket with me when nursing my children. If someone was obviously uncomfortable with the situation, I would offer it to them ... to cover up their own head! :)

The sad thing that is not being discussed here is that we have created an environment and way of thinking that makes public nursing not the norm. So, we're talking about the importance of women learning to put light blankets over their babies in 98 degree weather, or sit on stalls in bathrooms for upwards of 45 minutes ...

Where is the importance of more women nursing ... and nursing whereever and whenever their baby is hungry ... and society slowly changing back to the way it was ... centuries ago? The way it is in countries where Babies-R-Us and Avent don't exist.

I don't picture the tribal chief in a south African village leaning over to the mother with a wailing baby and saying, "Um, dear, could you squirt that milk into a coconut shell at home and pour it down the little guy's throat? Better yet, could you drape some palm leaves over him while he does that?"

The Mommy Blawger said...

Murky Thoughts said:
"Incidentally, I doubt Saudi women expose breasts to nurse in downtown Riyadh."

They do, in the "women only" section of restaurants, or under their abiyahs.

Or so my Saudi cousin tells me.