Saturday, March 8, 2014

on reclaiming public spaces

 I've just finished feeding my baby. 

This time, I was feeding her in the comfort of my own home, in bed, snuggled up together, one of us, at least, pretty sleep-deprived. The other, just hungry.

As she fed, I had time to wearily think. I've blogged about breastfeeding before: about feeling coerced to breastfeed at all costs while I was pregnant,  about my own ambivalence towards it, whether it is feminist or not, and public shaming of women's feeding choices that create unnecessary and hurtful divisions between mothers. I wrote these posts largely in retrospect. The first was when my older daughter was well on her way to weaning, the others once she was long weaned. This time, I'm thinking and writing about breastfeeding as a mother going through the challenges and joys of exclusive breastfeeding for a baby yet to properly wean (although she has just had a first taste of pureed apple so there is a dimly-glimpsed light at the end of the tunnel.)  That means it is still round-the-clock, time-consuming, physically demanding, and provided solely by me. 

I'm not saying that to be a martyr, and absolutely not at all to criticise bottle-feeding, just noting that this is our reality at the moment. My tired reflections on breastfeeding that follow are similarly not intended to critique any other feeding practices, rather to think about the more radical implications of breastfeeding, specifically, breastfeeding in public.

Confession time. I  don't like breastfeeding in public very much. 

It makes me uncomfortable to be 'on display' and is often physically uncomfortable too given that public spaces do not always contains sofas, armchairs, beds or cushions. However, it would be totally unrealistic for me to stay at home most of the time. And I don't want to, either.

I've tried timing feeds to make it to a parents' room, or a trusted cafe with sofas, so I can at least be comfortable. And I've even sometimes used the old-blanket-over-the-head to not feel quite so exposed. From my experience of this, I agree with blogger Katharine McKinney's thoughts:

There are many people who suggest a nursing cover as an acceptable alternative. I invite those to please commit to eating all meals under a blanket. It's hot, it's annoying, and most babies will scream, squall and push the blanket aside. Not exactly discreet.

What is making me uncomfortable? Although I've noticed averted gazes and the odd look of discomfort from others, I've never been asked not to feed, to go somewhere else to feed, or to leave a place because I am feeding. Is my discomfort, then, just in my own head?

Partially. But it also comes from a wider culture that is very conflicted about women's breasts, and the fact that women breastfeeding in public spaces is not as normal and everyday as it is for the woman in the photo above (nor this breastfeeding mother talking to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez). There are plenty of stories about breastfeeding images being censored on Facebook (while images of more 'normal' sexually objectified breasts still roam free) and women being asked to cease and desist from feeding their babies in public to support this view. Ideas about what is 'normal' for breasts on display relate more to bras than babies.

With this idea of normal, it can be easy to forget that basically, before the twentieth century, breastfeeding - and breastfeeding in public - was so normal, that nearly everyone who was alive owed their lives to it. Even the Virgin Mary did it (apparently).

Events like the international Big Latch-On, which takes place during August each year, seeks to empower breastfeeding mothers to come out of the private sphere - the domestic space thought to be the 'proper' site of mothering - and feel comfortable about feeding in public. As a secondary aim, it seeks to make public breastfeeding a more normal sight, one not shrouded in discomfort and embarrassment. In making breastfeeding a normal part of the public sphere, these mothers send the message that breasts aren't just meant to sell cars or lingerie. They aren't just there for aesthetic appeal. They work, they do something; in fact, they do one of the most important things of all: they sustain the life of another human being.

That is why I'm trying to get over my discomfort - which is really my pre-emptive feeling that I am discomforting others - and put myself out there, literally and metaphorically. Trying to be more sanguine about public feeding means my baby is also likely to be more relaxed about feeding in public, and I'm less likely to experience the 'double embarrassment' of wrestling with her to try to get her to feed.  

So here's a list of public places I have breastfed recently, and tried to feel beatific, calm and relaxed:

- the back of a shearing shed propped against a wooden beam for back support (yes, it was pretty much as uncomfortable as it sounds)
- in an underwater observatory watching trout, salmon, and slightly menacing long-finned eels swim by
- on not one but two different boats
- in several different cafes (some furniture more supportive than others: yay for the sofa in Glenorchy cafe, boo for the backless stools and tiny buggy-unfriendly spaces in Vudu cafe)
- on an airplane, and at the airport (yep, baby and boob have both recently been on holiday).
- in the staffroom at work
- at the library
- at the local rec centre while watching daughter number one play
- at the playground
- on the beach
- and in the back of the car.

Pope Francis has recently been lauded for encouraging a woman to breastfeed in front of him. That's great, but it'd be good to hear her side of the story too (and isn't just a wee bit weird that a celibate man is being lauded for granting 'permission' for her to feed her baby in public?) 

Many women are attesting to their experiences of breastfeeding in public, seeking to make it normal, end the embarrassment, and come out of the toilet. McKinney opines that if you don't support breastfeeding in public, you don't support breastfeeding.  Kate Fridkis in the Huffington Post is one of many mothers who acknowledge the radical aspects of breastfeeding in public, but affirms that she feeds in public not to 'be a rebel' but to meet her baby's most basic need. And, brilliantly, poet Holly McNish's impassioned verse on her embarrassment about feeding in public concludes:

So no more will I sit on these cold toilet lids
No matter how embarrassed I feel as she sips
Cos in this country of billboards covered in tits
I think we should try to get used to this.

Speaking of reclaiming public spaces, I have decided to make the time to write posts from the front-line of mothering a very young baby. In my previous post, I wondered how I would juggle blogging with all my other tasks, with the implication that it was likely to fall by the wayside as the 'least important' of them. Sure, it's not keeping someone alive in the way breastfeeding is. But blogging is helping me through a difficult time, so it is playing an important role too. 

It is also reclaiming a small part of the public (blogger)sphere, for the 'private' experiences of a breastfeeding mother. It's a modest part to be sure, but it is in small acts like feeding our babies in public, like speaking or writing about our experiences 'warts and all', that mothers can work to transform the public sphere, to influence damaging attitudes about women's bodies that affect all women and girls (not just those who breastfeed), and, most importantly of all, fulfil our babies' most basic right: to be fed.