Dear family and friends of a breastfeeding mother, strangers that support breastfeeding too, I have more to share with you about ways you are possibly being unintentionally unsupportive in your efforts to help. What you may not realize is that offering unsupportive support is quite damaging and though I understand that you probably really are just trying to help it’s worth understanding how these efforts can actually cause more harm than good. This series of posts on unsupportive support is intended to help you be a better support person and strengthen your relationship with the mother you’re close to.
How not to support and how to avoid being unintentionally unsupportive- part 4.
Unsupportive support is…
Saying “You’re going to do THAT here? Wouldn’t you like some place more private?”
She’s probably too nice to point this out but I’ll go ahead: when people say this and other similar comments what it really communicates is that you think she’s doing something that is shameful and should be hidden or secret. It says more about what the speaker thinks of breasts, women, and the act of breastfeeding. What you’re telling her by saying that is that you are uncomfortable with breastfeeding. Which means you’re uncomfortable with her. Which is your problem, not hers. If she’s already started to breastfeed or is getting set up to do so then clearly she’s comfortable doing “THAT” there. Offering her some place private if she seems anxious or looks uncomfortable could be helpful but it’s probably best to just wait for her to ask because chances are strong that she’d seek it out on her own if that were the case. It’s not helping to offer another room for her to go to and be ostracized from everyone else and it’s just plain old disgusting to suggest the bathroom as an alternative. Do you know what people do in there? Moms can start breastfeeding in bathrooms when restaurants can meet health code and serve diners in the bathrooms. Unless you’re going to be the first to sign up to eat your dinner in the bathroom, don’t suggest it as a dinning place of choice for an infant. Since in the majority of the world her right to breastfeed wherever she is happens to be is legally protected what does it matter where she’s going to feed her baby? The needs and comfort of her baby are her first priority, the comfort of everyone else that has their own issues with how they view breastfeeding and the female body, not so much. Those individuals just have to deal. And grow up. And get over their selfish little selves that put their issues before a small child’s need to eat. In fact, the more women breastfeed as though it’s a normal part of life and parenting (because, you know, it IS a normal part of life and parenting), the more comfortable society will become and the more women will breastfeed. She’s actually doing the world a favor by breastfeeding wherever she is. To really support her look up the laws about breastfeeding in public in your/her area and be informed. It may take some practice but you’ll get more comfortable with it too. Just practice whispering to yourself “I’m the one with the problem, not her.” And start carrying “Thank you for breastfeeding in public” cards with you to hand out when you do see a woman breastfeeding in public (you’ll be shocked at how rare a sight that actually is) as penance.
Encouraging her to “plan ahead and just pump” to take a bottle or suggesting formula when going out so she doesn’t have to breastfeed in public.
Saying this just makes you look really uneducated about breastfeeding. And maybe you are but it’s also very rude. Don’t say it. It’s not always that simple plus, why should she? Because you are uncomfortable with her breastfeeding in public? Because others are uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public? Is there something wrong with breastfeeding in public? Is there something wrong with feeding a baby in public? Is there something wrong with taking a baby in public? No, there’s not anything wrong with any of those things and the law agrees with me. Not all breasts respond well to breast pumps and it’s far more complicated to “just pump” and take a bottle of breast milk than for her to lift her top and feed her baby perfectly mixed, perfectly heated, perfectly ready breast milk from the tap. If she wants to pump and take a bottle, I’m sure she is capable of deciding that for herself. By suggesting it without her seeking your advice you are undermining her feeding choices and suggesting she does yet more work in caring for her baby. Best not to say anything at all unless you are asked. Even then you should start with “aren’t you legally allowed to feed your baby anywhere you have the right to be?”
Along with the previous two acts, freaking out “oh my gosh! You need a blanket, here, let me help shield you from view while you cover up so nobody can see!”
It’s not always that dramatic. Sometimes it’s much more subtle like “You can breastfeed in public, I just want you to be covered.” Which really isn’t subtle at all. Perhaps most discouraging is when this comes from her partner. I can’t tell you the number of times women have expressed to me how hurt they are when their partner tells them this and how unsupported they feel. When it comes from someone else, a mom, a friend, a sister, etc., the message that comes with it is “I’m embarrassed, what if someone sees? I don’t like you doing this because breasts are for sex and people might get the wrong idea.” It wraps up the idea that women are responsible for when men think sexual thoughts about them, that the idea of a baby on a breast is possibly giving the mom sexual pleasure and should be “private,” and that there is something “gross” about breastfeeding and throws a blanket on all of it. Mostly though it communicates that the individual is ashamed of the mother breastfeeding. This attitude clearly puts what others might think before supporting the mother in breastfeeding. Coming from a partner it’s even more loaded, beyond what is already present. Jealousy and protective ownership are heavily implied. A conversation where both parties express their feelings and thoughts is warranted with both actively listening to the other and an agreement coming from that discussion. If a couple can agree on a way that makes them both comfortable with a mother breastfeeding in public after listening to each other, great. What’s not called for is the partner laying down some kind of law or giving her permission to breastfeed in public but with stipulations. If my husband tried to give me permission as to what I could do with my body I can assure you it would not go over well. It’s something a couple can come to together but it’s her body and her mothering the partner is trying to control with reactions like this. A woman’s breasts belong to her, she shares them with whom she likes. If she is more comfortable covered, fine, her choice, but insisting she hide is full of misplaced responsibility and concern that only adds stress. And making it an issue of modesty, a subjective social construct at best, is even more controlling by trying to add shame. I could point out that when she’s feeding a baby her bare breast is actually covered by the baby’s head, at least more than many bathing suits and tops. But that’s not actually the point. She is not responsible for what others think and the truth is nobody can control what people think anyway. No matter how covered and “protected” one may be, the individuals that would use others with their mind will do so regardless. Instead of being concerned about what they are thinking, ask yourself “am I more concerned about what she needs or the issues of others?” Support her, worry about her comfort, and let others deal with their own issue without saddling her with the responsibility of taking care of them too.
If a woman wants to cover or go somewhere private to breastfeed, she can probably figure out how to do so, right?’
If she starts breastfeeding where she is, why assume that she needs a cover or to be encouraged to go some place private (like a bathroom? Yuck.) to breastfeed? I don’t see that as support, I see it as projecting one’s own discomfort as a way of offering support. Sure, they may think they are helping but it’s not really helpful. A better way would be to simply ask “can I get you anything?” and if she wants a blanket or a private room she can ask for one. But maybe that’s just me.
To really support her, have her back. Even if it makes you a little uncomfortable because you’re just not used to seeing breastfeeding as a normal part of life. If you can let go of the internal dialogue in your own head that buys into the objectification of women as sex objects you’ll be able to see her breastfeeding in public for exactly what it is: a woman feeding her child. It may take you time to get comfortable with it, that’s ok, bucking years of societal program is hard work. Just remember that she’s bucking it too and together you’ll bond over the experience if you let yourselves. Take a deep breath and decide that the adorable small person that is nourished and comforted by her breast has no clue why anyone would think there was anything wrong with them having their supper in public.
How are you most comfortable breastfeeding in public?
Does it bother you to get negative reactions to you feeding your child?
What would you say to those that would give a mom a hard time about breastfeeding in public?