Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nursing in Captivity: On Bethenny, Gorillas, and Why It Really Does Take a Village

Photo of lactation consultant in the wild?

Another day, another internet kerfuffle about nursing in public, semi-fondly abbreviated as NIP. Just this morning, a friend of mine was quite rudely told to relocate to the bathroom at a YMCA, despite living in a state where the law is very clear on supporting breastfeeding anywhere the mother already has the right to be.

I was asked to go to the bathroom or locker room to breastfeed, and not nicely. To clarify, there was NOTHING obscene about it either, because I had a blanket covering myself. I even asked the guy if I had a right to be there and if so, then I have the right to breastfeed my child there. To which he replied, "I don't care."
And many of you have no doubt heard about Bethenny Frankel and Rachael Ray dissing "public breastfeeding" (which is in itself a bit of a problematic term, just like 'extended' breastfeeding; both imply a deviation from the norm by virtue of the modifier) a few days ago. Best for Babes reported on the exchange and transcribed this:
Shea: “I’m expecting my second child and strongly thinking of breastfeeding. What are your rules for public breastfeeding, like where is it appropriate?”
Bethenny: “I think, unless you are Pamela Anderson, you shouldn’t be showing anyone your breasts besides your husband and your baby.”
Rachael Ray: “Exactly.”
Bethenny: “I really do. I think you should find a corner, or there is always a back room, I just think it makes other people uncomfortable. When you are a mother you think everyone is ‘in on’ what you’re ‘in on’, [. . .] but they’re not. Because I didn’t know anything about [breastfeeding] until I was pregnant and I was sensitive to the fact that it would have flipped me out. So I think, just keep it private. But definitely breastfeed and do things your own way, but in that one way, I would keep it a little bit private. Whipping out your boob at the dinner table is a good diet tip for everyone else.
So let me make sure I'm clear on this . . . it's okay to show your breasts in public as long as they are of Pamela Anderson quality, but if they're substandard, you should refrain from risking even exposing a tiny square inch of skin to use them for their primary biological purpose? Having a tough time wrapping my head around the logic. I certainly do think breasts can be appreciated aesthetically as part of the female form, but to render them shameful and even nauseating (thanks for the diet tip) in any other context is just ridiculous. As an aside, I wonder what Pamela Anderson herself thinks of this? She's known to have nursed both her boys.

But here's the greater point: I sometimes wonder if the reason this issue is so important is understood by those outside of our inner lactivist circles, which, let's face it, just like any other circles, can become a little echo-chamber-y. I worry specifically when clogging up my Facebook feed with the latest insult to nursing mothers, wondering if I'm annoying that random 8th grade friend I reconnected with. Is she in a similar camp? What was her experience like? Does she just think I'm a rabid, intolerant member of the Breastapo? Why is this all so important?

The issue of nursing in public is not just a matter of supporting the rights of individual mothers and their babies, though this is also vital. The issue of nursing in public is important because nursing in public is important. In itself, it is important. Why? Because to normalize breastfeeding, truly normalize it, we need to SEE IT. All of us. We need to see it as kids, we need to know that's where most babies get their milk, we need to grow up watching our mothers and others mothers and then our friends and sisters and neighbors.

It sounds overly simple. Certainly there is more to it than that, but it is a vital component of the societal change that needs to happen. How's this for timing? An interview with James Akre, author of The Problem with Breastfeeding, that came out last week says it all, and then some:

Q. Can you explain what you mean when you say that it’s not really mothers who breastfeed after all?

A. Essentially, what I’m saying is that it’s not just women who breastfeed, but entire cultures and societies that do – or variously don’t. In other words, cultures and societies as a whole are responsible for producing and sustaining the complex value system that results in more or less breastfeeding by the mothers and children in their midst.

I base this observation on a single universal constant across time and geography: With only the rarest of exceptions, all mothers love their children and want what is best for them. And translating this love into “best” feeding behavior is invariably a culturally determined value. Thus, our best hope of seeing more mothers and children breastfeeding longer lies in transforming the society in which they are born, reared, come of age, beget, birth and nurture.

We often talk about the role choice plays in our lives, which is understandable given how fond we are of describing our behavior in terms of rational decision-making. But where child-feeding mode is concerned – to breastfeed or not – do we “choose” whether to breastfeed based on carefully worked out criteria? In the main, I think not. We respond the way we have learned to respond, which is why I insist that if we want to change a society’s predominant artificial-feeding mode we need to change society in all its structural complexity and not just focus on one or two contributing factors in isolation.
I'm applauding everything here, but I especially appreciate his point in the last paragraph regarding choice. If you read this blog, you're likely a consumer of other social media as well, and of social media that addresses this topic, so you've seen it. You've been there. An article or incident involving nursing in public (or another breastfeeding issue) is brought up, and if enough people are involved, more often than not, the conversation slowly winds around into women talking about their choices, defending them, or explaining them, or talking about how they feel attacked for them. I think that while individual choice is ALWAYS part of the equation, and absolutely always needs to be respected, we sometimes lose sight of the greater context.

So when it comes to nursing in public, when we advocate for it, it's not about trying to force our own standards of modesty onto other individuals for the sake of winning an argument or feeling like a superior mother. It has everything to do with normalizing breastfeeding, helping to return it to its status as the societal as well as the biological norm.

Now, all my pontificating might very well feel like an awful lot of pressure for those individual mothers, and let's be realistic, for all my talk of the collective, we still experience our lives as individuals. A young mother who's just learning to breastfeed and doesn't feel comfortable breastfeeding in public (perhaps the word "yet" can be applied, perhaps not) shouldn't feel guilty for wanting to nurse in more privacy, whether that means using a nursing cover or going to a more secluded spot. But the more common it becomes, the less likely it is she will feel uncomfortable in the first place, and moreover, the more likely it is that she will be able to troubleshoot some basic breastfeeding difficulties should she encounter them. We NEED to see breastfeeding.

Sometimes the sentiment is expressed: "But if breastfeeding is so natural and normal, shouldn't it come naturally?" Some things that are natural and normal also require a degree of learning, most importantly, modeling. Consider the case of the gorilla who had difficulty nursing her first baby.

I first learned of this story when doing my postpartum doula workshop with DONA, but it's also cited in "So That's What They're For". In a nutshell, a gorilla raised in captivity got pregnant without ever being around other mother gorillas and their young. When her baby was born, she just plain didn't know what to do - would hold the baby close to her breast but facing the wrong way, and so forth. The zookeepers eventually had to intervene and artificially feed the baby.

When she became pregnant again, someone had an anthropologically intriguing idea. The zoo contacted the local chapter of La Leche League and had some members start going to the zoo with their babies, feeding them in front of the gestating gorilla so she could see how fellow primates did it. And when her baby was born, she ultimately was able to nurse. Even when she stumbled a bit at first, the LLL taught her by example, and she prevailed. It wasn't by convincing her with studies on the benefits of gorilla milk. It wasn't through guilt or judgement. It was just by example.

If we are ever able to restore breastfeeding as the norm, what of the mothers who, as we often repeat but sometimes are not heard, truly cannot breastfeed? I know it's a sensitive matter, and feel strongly about two points on that: First, if breastfeeding is the norm, then obtaining donor milk or a wet nurse would not be prohibitively difficult or expensive, at least not more so than formula feeding. And second, whether using donor milk or formula (because as rare as galactosemia is, it does exist), it would be understood that if a mother was not nursing, she had a good reason for it, and that mother would be treated with respect and compassion.

O fanciful utopia, I know. But let's keep reaching for it. Continuing with the uncanny timing, another article came out last week, a characteristically great piece from the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. Most of the content focuses on workplace support specifically, rather than public nursing, but the title could just as well apply here, too: It takes a society to breastfeed a child.
Only when breastfeeding is normal, when society allows space for this normal behaviour, when children are part of our society and when breastfeeding is part of our society, it is possible for the majority of women to fulfil their own breastfeeding goals.
Protecting nursing in public is not merely about preventing the violation of individual rights, it's about transforming society altogether. Somehow, we need get to a place where we stop treating breastfeeding like it is a special bonus rather than the ho-hum ordinary thing that it is, as Akre puts it; where we can drop the double-edged language of "benefits" and "best" feeding. And for the reasons I've discussed here, nursing openly is a part of that path. When we can finally drop the "public" and the "extended" from references to mothers feeding their children whenever they need, for as long as they need, and just call it breastfeeding, period, we may have finally made it.


  1. OMG, she really said it is OK for Pamela Anderson to show off her breasts?
    She needs to read my post
    Breasts are not for entertaining others! They are for feeding babies!

    Wow, that is really sad.
    Thanks for your thoughts. I am sharing on Facebook and Twitter!

    1. I believe that saying breasts are strictly for feeding babies is the same as saying intercourse is strictly for procreation.
      Life should be about pleasure, too.
      Beggers can't be choosers and if you are one of those openly-nursing advocating moms who thinks that breasts' primary purpose are to biologically feed our children, well, then you are a complete hypocrite if you've ever had sex without the intention of getting pregnant. Enough said.

  2. I love that post. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Odd that someone so concerned about modesty and not making others feel uncomfortable is fine posing nude for PETA or peeing on a stick on national television!!!!!!! She's had WAY more exposure than I could ever dream of nursing in public!!!!!

  4. Two points:
    1. I find it so odd when anyone complains about breastfeeding in public. I have never, ever seen a woman exposing her breast while breastfeeding in public. I've seen mothers breastfeeding with a cover, and I'm sure there have been mothers breastfeeding whom I didn't notice because breastfeeding without a cover is just not noticeable. all these people who complain really see women exposing themselves, and I just never have? It seems unlikely.
    2. I breastfed my daughter exclusively for 6 months and then slowly weaned her to formula because of my work situation. She is now 8 months and nurses twice a day. I went through some grief with weaning her from nursing, but I also felt a weird sense of pleasure when I started giving her bottles. It was like she was doing something babies are "supposed" to do, and it was cute and satisfying to me. The influence of culture is strong.

  5. Yes. Yes. Yes. All of it. "Breastfeeding in public isn't the problem: it's the solution"

  6. excellent point. i'm not sure at what point i'll be comfortable breastfeeding in public (currently almost 8 mos. pregnant with my first child) but i will definitely keep in mind what you wrote here. thanks. ;)

  7. Excellent post, and I am still laughing at that picture. That is one happy baby gorilla.

  8. I love this post- and that story about the gorilla mama is AMAZING! I always feel slightly uncomfortable when I see women nursing with covers, but I make sure that I don't say so. I've found that just nursing my babes in groups while we're talking is much more effective than telling them why they should do it. Then they can see that nursing in public- naturally, unashamedly- can be discreet too! But I love your points and quotes- it really is going to take a change in our culture- which starts with all of us!

  9. I was 18 (barely) when my first child was born and it never crossed my mind to bottle feed him. The concept of formula just seemed foreign to me. Nursing in public wasn't something optional or scary it was feeding my baby and I nursed where ever we were. He hated the nursing covers on the few occasions Itried to use them he would scream bloody murder, flail and tug until he got them off so I had to learn to nurse discreetly. So I am always a bit confused by mothers who find NIP intimidating or embarassing. Kudos to you mama for breastfeeding but don't ever let anyone else make you feel poorly for your choice.

  10. I think nursing with a cover brings even more attention in a silly PC trendy fabric-y kind of way ;-) I drew my own line at tandem nursing my twins in public. Definitely too awkward and too much exposure for me, but when I could do it one at a time, I think only once got a sideways glance in an airport restaurant. What? He's eating too! I am so much more embarrassed for the cigarette dangling mom with a bottle dangling child. I just am.

  11. I stop in and read your blog fairly regularly and I would love to see your take on this comparison:


  12. I feel that way about my Facebook posts too. I believe that I have alienated a dear family member because she feels that I am posting breastfeeding article for HER, when she's usually not on my mind at all on the subject unless she replies to one of them. I had a similar issue with a cesarean post that her mother responded to.

  13. I've been so slow to getting around to my blog-reading (and thus blog-commenting) this past week, but I can't help but share how thrilled I am with this post. It captures just how important of a *political* act breastfeeding (and breastfeeding "in public") is. And of course, I'm struck by the somewhat mushy thought that each time I or any other women nurses our children in front of others, we are sharing wisdom with other women.

  14. Right on! My mom breastfed me in the 40s and I breastfed my two kids in the 80s. My kids are very healthy and fit, me too, and we have a great relationship. I had to go to the car (where we had rigged a little curtain) or behind the closet door in my classroom to nurse them when my wonderful husband brought them to school on my lunch break. In that huge high school, there was no private room I could use -- and I don't know if there is yet! Advocate for yourself and other mothers in your workplace too -- it's worth it!

  15. Kristen, I really appreciate that. Thank you! And yay for the mushy.

    Anon, right on!

  16. Boobs are for porn, not for feeding babies! Yeah, tell that to my babies. Our society is so WEIRD about boobies. Like exceptionally super weird, someday there'll be a sociology class about it and people will be like, they thought WHAT?

    Wonderful article. I agree wholeheartedly.

    When I nurse in public (I've been nursing for 5 years) I'm no longer self-concious but I am conscious of the fact that I am normalizing breastfeeding -- for my children and the other incidentals who see me doing it.

    Canada (where I live) has a very high population of immigrants and everybody is more or less just trying to blend in and be "normal." Of course immigrants have to look around and use their own two eyes to figure out what normal is. If all they see is bottlefeeding, how could they conclude anything other than that breastfeeding is not normal in Canada? I like to think I'm helping normalize breastfeeding for immigrant populations by showing that breastfeeding whenever and wherever the need arises is how normal Canadians like me do it. I've been to other countries where that is the case and it's what I want for Canada.

    1. ok i am a mother of 4 and i am all for breastfeeding allthough i have never been able to do it comfortably and i have tried several times with little success ,i am not against it at all but as long as you are in a public setting i believe you should cover your self to a certin point and if you cant then maby just face the other direction away from a crowd but to be told to leave the room or told that it is nasty is just stupid .now i do believe that bottle or breast feeding after the age of three is just ridicolus unless it is medically needed.god has even given the animals an instinct to wean their babies after a certin point.

    2. First, I'd encourage you to read the post in its entirety. If YOU are not comfortable with it, you certainly don't have to, but the central point here is that something is amiss as a culture around breastfeeding. This needs to change, and women nursing in public is a big part of how this will change.

      Second, the matter of animals weaning is an interesting one. Katherine Dettwyler studied this extensively and concluded that a biologically normal age for humans to wean is anywhere from 2.5 to 7 years, based on a number of criteria observed and examined in various mammals. This doesn't mean the WHO will change their recommendation of minimum age for weaning (note: not maximum) from 2 year to seven years, but it supports human dyads who choose to nurse longer if mutually desired.

    3. In some cultures, the breasts aren't sexualised at all. Imagine how bizarre they would find this discussion.

  17. What a wonderfully articulated post!

  18. Excellent post. For sure one of the reasons I still nurse my 2 yr old in public is to help normalize it. I attend a parenting class every week where a lot of babies are bottle fed. At every class I nurse my daughter and a couple of weeks ago I was asked a breastfeeding question by a new mom. It felt good, like all that time I've been NIP has "paid off" by being a good example to another woman.

  19. I can't believe this is STILL an issue! My daughters are now 25 and 24 years old, and I breastfed them both until they were a year old (wish we'd done so longer!). And yes, I have a bachelors degree (so it isn't that I was uneducated and didn't have a career, because I Was Educated and did have a career!) and yes, I did work full-time and would pump at work. My girls got bottles of my breast milk when Dad or the sitter was in charge of their feeding. I breastfed in public, around friends and family and others. It was MY norm, and my daughters' norm, and others just accepted it. If they didn't like it, well, I really didn't care, because I just thought they were closed minded and ignorant of the biological purpose of breasts.

  20. Wow..I found this blog through a facebook post about a gorilla..I can not believe Bethenny Frankel and Rachel Ray are that conditioned as women to even sell that ridiculousness to their audiences. If people are uncomfortable it is their issue not the nursing mother. We have sexualized something that if it weren't performed during our evolution we would be an extinct species. Something that is as natural as breathing is now being made to be done in backrooms like it is a criminal drug deal or something..We are a sad society indeed!

  21. Is it really any surprise that a woman who has made her career on physical appearances and public perception of such would think this way? Not to me. As for Rachel Ray, she seems clueless about everything, so again, not a surprise she would just agree with whatever someone else says.

  22. Thanks for sharing and blogging. A very interesting and awakening read.

  23. I breastfed both of my kids and I hate, hate, hate my boobs. I would never want to show them off to anyone. I breastfed in private only, even if it was in a corner. I don't need anyone knowing what I am doing. I at times wish that I could get rid of my boobs. There is no more use for them as I am done having children. You are all being silly!

  24. I don't think rachel ray or the other lady are crazy for thinking you ought to keep your breasts to yourself. I nurse in public, but brest tissue has very rarely needed to be exposed to feed my son. At home, whether there are other people here or not, I am fine with "whipping out" the boob, still, my husband is concerned that there are people who do see breasts as sexual and even those who will become "excited" by just the idea. For that reason, I desire to limit the exposure of breasts in public, but that is not the same as limiting breastfeeding! Citing that modesty is the main issue for a woman who has posed nude for public consuption, or that those with exceptional breasts wouldn't be a big deal is of course still ludicris.

  25. When I had my 1st child in 1991, I was 21 years old and don't remember anyone asking me if I wanted to breastfeed my baby. Not one nurse or doctor. I bottle fed. Subsequently, I had 2 more babies in my 30's. I nursed both anywhere and everywhere. When it was hot out, I didn't cover (maybe just a receiving blanket but definitely not covering the baby). No one in my family was comfortable with me nursing and I did it anyway! They got used to it. It was two of the most rewarding and satisfying times of my life. To see that I was sustaining the life of my babies and that they were growing and thriving because of me alone! Amazing! What a special time.