by Jessica Martin-Weber
Recently in a Facebook group for people of faith who are interested in egalitarian theology, I ran across a thread that surprised me. Not because there was debate, debate is common in that group and usually inspires quality conversations promoting reflection. No, what was surprising about this to me was that in a group that at least believes in the equality of the sexes and the cultural conditioning of controlling women, breastfeeding in public and how exposed a woman’s chest should be while feeding her baby was somehow debated with the same old arguments I’ve heard against breastfeeding in public and how women should be covered when feeding their babies in other settings.
It had never occurred to me that this would be an issue in that setting.
I’ve moved beyond the debates, the arguments are tired as far as I’m concerned. Five and a half years into running The Leaky Boob I’ve heard all the arguments and not just online. People will say they never experience any negativity except online, as though it must not exist because they haven’t encountered it personally. But I have, I’ve heard all the arguments in person, to my face. Every day I hear from women who’ve been criticized and shamed by a family member, lost friends for breastfeeding in front of their husband, and been isolated for feeding in public. I actually had a business owner of a brand that makes nursing covers tell me, to my face, that he feels breastfeeding covers are important for society and women that breastfeed in public without a cover, whipping their breast out in front of others to feed their baby (his words, not mine) are just “selfish bitches, no offense.”
Yes, he said that even as I stood there with a name tag that read “The Leaky Boob.” And yes, offense taken. I walked out and will never work with his company.
I don’t engage in the infant/toddler feeding debates often but I do continue showing up for them. Not because I enjoy it, believe me I don’t. I hate it and I feel burned out. But I will be the voice for those reading or overhearing saying what needs to be said. For that mom reading or listening and heartbroken to hear the harsh words someone she loved said to her echoed in the words of a stranger, shaming her further. It is assumed I must not understand the reasons why this is an issue but the fact is, I do understand them. I get it. I’ve processed them. At one point in time I may have agreed and argued that position myself.
It’s just that they are wrong. Be the arguments and shaming debates about breastfeeding, breastfeeding in public, bottle feeding, pumping, formula feeding, donor breastmilk, or even introducing solids, often the arguments are short-sighted, limited, and full of vitriol. The arguments are full of fallacies and more often than not are missing the real point.
Babies are being fed.
When it comes to feeding support and advocacy (and really, anything else), you don’t get to control women. Not even if you’re another woman.
But why do I keep fighting this fight?
Because I believe that every parent should be able to parent with confidence, free of harassment and shaming from others. Because parenting is hard enough. And because women get enough shit about their bodies as it is.
Why be a parenting and feeding advocate? The biggest reason I continue fighting this fight is because I have daughters and I want better for them.
Every day I facilitate online support for thousands and thousands of women who are breastfeeding, planning to breastfeed, or have finished breastfeeding. I travel and speak all around the country on breastfeeding and parenting and sit with women as they share, in tears, the agony they have felt in being rejected by people who have told them that they “don’t want to see that.” Every single day I hear from women who find themselves struggling with confidence in feeding their babies, something that may shake them to their core because, after all, feeding your child is one of the most basic aspects of parenting.
For a parent, struggling with feeding their baby can easily lead to self-doubt in their parenting capabilities at all.
Often, it does.
These parents, for obvious reasons, mostly female, regularly express anxiety about feeding in public. That they may attract unwanted negative attention, fear someone being upset at them for what they may be exposing or even for the act of breastfeeding itself, dread that they may be asked to cover up or leave- maybe a waiter, a relative, a pastor, another woman at church, a mall security guard, an angry bus passenger, etc.- humiliating her and anyone she is with. In the quest to feed their children the best way, as society loves to claim but fails to back up with genuine support offering instead isolating platitudes that it is best but must be “discreet” or “with tact”.
Worse, so often these mothers, in a very vulnerable place as they embark on a new life stage with a new tiny human, hear they are somehow not only responsible for feeding their child the “best way” but also to be respectful of anyone else around them, to be sure grown men aren’t caused to stumble in her attempts to care for her child and that grown women aren’t threatened by her body.
And then the baby needs all her attention and lots of room to latch properly and not cause excruciating pain and damage to her nipple, or they overheat under a cover, or their personality causes them to experience anxiety under the cover, and it is impossible to manage without “whipping” it out and “flashing” the whole world.
All she wants to do is feed her baby.
Instead of being able to focus just on that she knows that some are demanding that she focus on their comfort about what they see of her body as well. As if the worst thing wouldn’t be a baby going hungry but that they may see the skin of her breasts, her stretch marks, the fact that a child is attached to her nipple.
Eventually they either think they can’t do it or they aren’t cut out for it or that they should just never leave the house. A few get angry that this is how our society treats them and their fellow mothers. And they muscle through and turn off a part of themselves that had hoped their would have at least been solidarity from other women. They have had enough and decide to keep feeding their child as if they were doing nothing wrong- because they are doing nothing wrong- and eventually they start to believe it. So to show other women who may be struggling too, they keep going. They know they are being judged but if it helps ONE other mother to not feel isolated, judged, and fighting off shame, it is worth it. And it is the hope that it will help lead to a gradual shift in our society, and someday every new mom will feel confident in their parenting, their bodies, their personhood and it will no longer be considered brave to feed your baby however you feed your baby.
Because we must believe that some day our bodies won’t be scandalous and feeding our children won’t be shameful and discussed with outrage.
Until that day, this is an issue I will help wrestle with. Because I know what it like to support mom after mom who feels like maybe she’s not good enough to be a mother because she couldn’t handle the stress of feeding her baby the best way while making sure nobody ever knew that it was happening. I know what it is like to hold them as they weep over the shame they have felt when someone said to them to be more discreet as if feeding their baby was something shameful and their bodies something dirty.
For those women and the ones to come, I will continue on.