I've spent years as a breastfeeding advocate, so my son's negative reaction to seeing a nursing baby totally threw me.
I had just finished writing an article about breastfeeding in public and was searching for a photo to add to it, when my 8-year-old son looked over my shoulder. He gazed at the image on my screen of a mom breastfeeding a baby with a confused look on his face. "What is she doing?" he asked, his brow furrowing. "That looks weird."
Photo by Johan Ordonez/Getty Images.
I tried to hide my surprise as I explained that she was just feeding her baby, but inside, I was floored.
I have spent most of my 17 years of motherhood advocating for breastfeeding moms. I've written multiple articles about breastfeeding. My own mother is a retired lactation consultant. All three of my kids — including my weirded-out son — nursed through toddlerhood.
How did that statement really come out of my child's mouth?
After a few minutes of reflection, I recognized where we'd gone wrong.
My son is the youngest child in our family and one of the youngest among our circle of friends. My older two kids had the benefit of seeing their younger siblings breastfed, in addition to seeing many of our extended family members and friends who had nursing babies. Because of that fairly constant exposure, they'd never blinked an eye at breastfeeding.
Photo by Ezequiel Becerra/Getty Images.
But I realized my son, by sheer circumstance of birth order, had rarely seen babies nursing. And seeing breastfeeding is the key to normalizing it.
A simple lack of exposure, plus immersion in a society where breasts are highly sexualized everywhere we look, equaled a kid who saw a baby on the breast as "weird."
It didn't matter that no one in our family had ever made breastfeeding out to be anything other than the natural way babies eat. It didn't matter that his father makes it a point to never make sexualized remarks about breasts. It didn't matter that he himself nursed until he was 3.
My son thought breastfeeding looked weird because he had not regularly seen babies breastfeeding. Not seeing it is what mattered.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
It's hard to believe that in 2018 it's still controversial to see a baby eat the way pretty much every mammal on Earth eats. But it is.
People can get way up in their feelings about breastfeeding in public. I've got the hate mail to prove it.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post diplomatically refuting every argument I've ever heard against women breastfeeding in public. It has received hundreds of comments — the vehemence with which some people argue that moms who breastfeed in public are disgusting, immoral, looking for attention, or half a dozen other offensive, unsavory qualities is kind of unbelievable.
[rebelmouse-image 19346772 dam="1" original_size="682x460" caption="One of the angry responses to my suggestion that women not feel shamed for breastfeeding in public. Who knew that nursing mothers were responsible for crime, poverty, and divorce? Screen shot from Motherhood and More." expand=1]One of the angry responses to my suggestion that women not feel shamed for breastfeeding in public. Who knew that nursing mothers were responsible for crime, poverty, and divorce? Screen shot from Motherhood and More.
One lengthy email I received accused moms who feed their babies in public of "feminist tyranny," "digital lynchings," and a host of other transgressions. It's worth a read, if only for the jaw-dropping entertainment factor of it.
[rebelmouse-image 19346773 dam="1" original_size="604x469" caption="This is a mere excerpt. You can read the whole thing with my responses here. Screenshot from Motherhood and More." expand=1]This is a mere excerpt. You can read the whole thing with my responses here. Screenshot from Motherhood and More.
While extreme, these comments are also a window into how some people really feel about breastfeeding.
Society will never accept seeing breasts as anything other than sexual if we don't see more moms breastfeeding in public.
Yes, breasts have a sexual function. So do mouths, but no one has an issue seeing mouths being used for other purposes.
Breasts are not, primarily, sex organs. (And they are not genitalia, which is why comparisons with seeing penises in public are moot.) Their primary biological purpose is feeding babies. And if we don't see them being used for that purpose — regularly and out in the open — we will continue to see breasts primarily as sex toys, and people will continue to be uncomfortable with breastfeeding.
Photo by AFP Contributor/Getty Images.
That discomfort can have a detrimental effect on breastfeeding rates. Moms have all kinds of reasons for choosing not to breastfeed, and we all need to respect that. But feeling uncomfortable because breasts are hypersexualized should not be one of them.
Some people argue against breastfeeding in public because children might see it, but I would argue that kids are the ones who should be seeing breasts used for their original function without fuss or fanfare.
Please, moms, if you are choosing to breastfeed, and you're comfortable nursing your babies in public, do it.
Kids who see breastfeeding their whole lives don't see it as weird. But they do need to actually see it in order to counteract the constant messaging in advertisements and media that breasts are sexual.
Photo by AFP Contributor/Getty Images.