I’m sorry, but breast-feeding is a bit creepy

A former breastfeeder says of course mums should be free to nurse in public, but why do so many of them want to?

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

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It’s going to be a long summer. It’s only June and already there have been three breastfeeding rows. Here in the US there was Kim Kardashian’s controversial tweet about her disgust at seeing a woman doing a bare-breasted feed at a Los Angeles restaurant. Next up, Denver mum Sandra Snow was harassed by security guards while breastfeeding her baby at a Colorado Rockies Game. Coors Stadium later apologised. And finally Kathryn Blundell, deputy editor of the UK’s Mother and Baby magazine, wrote an article calling breastfeeding ‘creepy’.

Breastfeeding is one of those issues guaranteed to stir things up. Career in the doldrums? Criticise breastfeeding, or defend it from your high horse, and things might start looking up. Need a few more eyeballs to bolster your magazine circulation? Call breastfeeding ‘creepy’. Get it right and you’re laughing. Get it wrong, like Coors Stadium, and it’s a PR nightmare.

But why does the breastfeeding issue continually cause such a storm? Is it something about the act of breastfeeding itself? As a formerly breastfeeding mother, I have a theory about this. Breastfeeding, unless you are doing it or have done it in the past or have been intimately acquainted with someone who has done it, can be a little creepy.

I remember receiving a book about breastfeeding while pregnant with my first child. It was recommended by a friend, who gave me her guarantee that it was a low-key book: no gushing, no poems; just the mechanics. And yet it was still a completely jarring experience to open a book with photo after photo of latching, nursing, expressing, etc. Intellectually, I was on board with giving it a try, but the impending actuality felt surreal. It wasn’t just the oft-discussed shift from breasts-as-erogenous-zones to breasts-as-baby-food. It was more profound and all the more disorienting than that, because my learning curve about breastfeeding was happening at the same time as the impending arrival of my first baby was turning everything else upside down.

With the birth of my son, breastfeeding became mainly exhausting. I spent a great deal of time worrying about the whole enterprise: ‘Why isn’t he gaining weight faster? Is this thrush? (No.) Will tea bags help? (Yes.) Why the craving for oatmeal cookies?’ But there was a moment in the dead of night when, in my sleep haze, I had an insight. I was thinking that nursing my baby was like something a dolphin or a cow would do. ‘I’m a…’ I hesitated, grappling with the thought. ‘I’m a mammal!’ Obvious yes, but it struck me then how rarely we’re confronted in a such a personal way with this odd peculiarity of our own humanity: the fact that we are of the natural world and yet apart from it, too.

It’s because we are both natural and social beings that the biology of breastfeeding isn’t the whole story. Instead it is about something more than nutritional values or ounces consumed, whether through breast milk or infant formula. Breastfeeding is a natural process, yes, but it is filtered through our cultural outlook. How do we value women’s time? Do we want fathers to be able to be primary caregivers for their infants? All these factors and more help to determine what is best for any given family. It is all about the people involved, which is why it is impossible to generalise about what is best in any particular case and to say, for example, that all mothers have some natural duty to breastfeed.

One reason why people get so hot and bothered about breastfeeding is because we invest our lifestyles with so much importance these days. There was a time when no one cared very much how a baby was fed, just so long as he or she was well-nourished and healthy. But breastfeeding is about much more than how a baby receives nourishment. It is not just a means to an end. It is a statement about who you are and what you value. To breastfeed is to be authentic and uncorrupted by the trappings of modernity (one reason, perhaps, why it loses some of its charm when it involves spending quality time locked in a room at work with a breast pump). It is the mark of a good parent. It says you want the best for your baby.

This is why public breastfeeding has become so contentious. Because breastfeeding is no longer just about feeding baby, and rather has become bound up with mum’s identity, it can no longer exist in a vacuum. Unless it’s done in public, as publicly as possible in fact, then there is no chance for social validation. There is nothing unusual in understanding who we are in relation to other people, of course, but when the source of our prestige and social standing shifts from the things we do in public to the things we do in our private lives, then that creates a pressure effectively to perform private activities in public.

In other words, just breastfeeding in private doesn’t count – it doesn’t make The Statement. Of course it is perfectly possible for mothers out in public to feed their baby breastmilk from a bottle, or to keep the act of breastfeeding fairly low-key or finding a quiet place to nurse – but then it wouldn’t be obvious what a good parent the nursing mother is. Even worse, if you fed breastmilk from a bottle, someone might think the bottle contained infant formula! Let’s face it, nothing says ‘I’m breastfeeding’ – and in essence ‘I’m a good mother’ – like doing it Boadicea-style.

This begs the question: why has breastfeeding become synonymous with being a good mother? Why are we assailed with campaigns to get us to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months? Breastmilk is good for babies, certainly, but as Joan Wolf, Hanna Rosin and others have pointed out, both the benefits of breastfeeding and the downsides of not breastfeeding have been hugely overstated.

The reason why breastfeeding is now taken as a sign of good motherhood is probably related to the point about breastfeeding highlighting humanity’s peculiar nature. We are both creatures of the natural world and also the creations of our own cultures. In society today, women are generally considered to be equal – or in some cases superior – to men. The problem, however, is that we have not found a good, systematic alternative to the jobs women have traditionally done in the family setting. The organisation of those aspects of life still falls to individuals, and more often than not women take on most of the responsibility. They pay the price, whether it’s actual loss of income, damage to their career or simple exhaustion. Poll after poll highlights women’s (and men’s) dissatisfaction with this state of affairs.

This lack of certainty about how we raise the next generation seems to contribute to a sense of uncertainty amongst policymakers, too. The instinct of people who deal with these issues at the social level has been to highlight the crucial role of parents – in doing everything from basically raising children to helping to solve future social and political problems by raising children in ‘the right way’ – and while it is unusual to hear anyone proclaim that mothers should be the ones with the primary responsibility, choosing to campaign for breastfeeding on the basis that it is ‘best for baby’ does emphasise the biological aspects of motherhood over everything else.

Is breastfeeding creepy? Yes, sometimes it can be. It can also be lovely and rewarding, depending on the individual. Breastfeeding is a great way to feed babies but it is not the only way, and it certainly shouldn’t become some sort of civic virtue. As for breastfeeding in public, it’s probably just a fact of life that until women habitually go about bare-breasted in the normal course of events, many people will be a little uncomfortable seeing bare breasts in public – even, or perhaps especially, if they happen to be nursing. That doesn’t mean women should be prevented from nursing in public or should be made to skulk around toilets in order to feed their babies. Ideally, we should not allow these issues to be politicised in the first place, so that breastfeeding in public becomes a badge of honour, but rather cultivate a culture of genuine tolerance in which people can negotiate these situations with empathy and common sense.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Nancy McDermott interviewed Hanna Rosin, author of an attack on breastfeeding. She also objected to the self-righteousness of breastfeeding mothers. Brendan O’Neill told militant lactivists to get their hands off Jordan’s breasts. Jennie Bristow denied the idea that pregnancy will damage your child. Jane Sandeman asked: ‘Do we need the “right to breastfeed”?’ Ellie Lee asked: ‘Is bottle-feeding a mark of bad motherhood?’ Mick Hume said you shouldn’t lose your bottle in the face of militant lactivism. Or read more at spiked issue Breastfeeding.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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