Breastfeeding. I’m pretty open about the fact that, at 16 months, my daughter is still a breastfed baby (or toddler). She and my upcoming son will most likely tandem nurse in fact; I wonder how this will turn out_ my daughter doesn’t like to share her milk supply with her own dolls, so how she will share it with another human is something I’d actually pay to know.
I’m very lucky to have found it easier than many women who attempt it, and have actually come to appreciate that, when I am bfing, my entire attention is fixed on my child. It is a moment when I can do something for my child that no one else can do, that no one will be able to do again: supply them with a healthy, unique start in life, one that cuts their obesity risk dramatically (always an important thing to consider, but moreso perhaps when, as a mother, you are obese), and cuts MY risk of developping breast cancer even more.
But at the same time as I’ve been learning to breastfeed, I’ve also read all the stories about women being treated badly BECAUSE they were breastfeeding. Stories of people telling women to go “do that in the loo” (this was featured in a video by Mylene Klass I think?), stories of facebook taking down pictures of a baby on the boob because of its “sexual content”. Lately, the actress Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy in The Big Bang Theory while (still bfing her 3-year-old son Fred) came out to silence critics on the topic. The article is titled “Mayim Bialik Proclaims Once And For All, ‘Breastfeeding Is Not A Sexual Act“
My first reaction is “um… duh?” Of course it isn’t a sexual act. I know it, my husband knows it, my daughter (who breastfeeds) doesn’t know it (but neither does she know what a “sexual act is”), the entire world of women who have tried to breastfeed knows it.
That is hardly the point though, is it? Because for all us enlightened individuals who KNOW that breastfeeding is about a mother and her child, about nutrition, health, bonding, whatever… there are people who somehow apparently think that breastfeeding is somehow a woman knowingly, unrepentantly, and deliberately getting sexual gratification from their infant’s suckling mouth, from their baby’s hunger.
Does that sound sordid? Yes. That’s because sordid is precisely what it is! Let’s call a spade a spade here; the assumptions that fuel the fire of the anti-breastfeeding camp are of the basest sort; not to mention the most ignorant.
I will start with the ignorance involved: it would seem that no matter what scientific reports come out explaining the science behind breastfeeding, no matter how many times the World Health Organisation re-iterates that breastfeeding is best for mother and child, no matter even the undeniable fact that women’s breasts lactate naturally in the post partum period, some people will somehow, and with neither scientific backing nor evidence, insist that breastfeeding is somehow indecent.
Naturally my first question here would be, what is indecent about a baby eating? In Japan and other eastern cultures, the act of seeing another person’s open mouth is considered indecent, but this doesn’t apply to a nursing child to begin with. In western cultures, we do discourage people from eating with their mouth open; but the act of eating itself is not viewed as a matter of decency/indecency. Furthermore people don’t seem to give a damn if a baby has a bottle in his or her mouth, so very clearly, it’s not the baby/eating part that some are bothered by, it’s the fact that the baby is eating from a breast.
The breastfeeding support groups have accurately picked up on this, and have gone to great lengths to point out that the prime and primary function of the breast is nursing, feeding children_ that it has been so for thousands of years, and has been either designed or evolved for this express purpose. That reducing the breast to a sexual object is, in fact, making an incredible oversimplification.
They have gone even further, actually, by highlighting the messages that are only implicit in the anti-camp’s argument: a line of thinking so sordid and disgusting that you may want to skip past the italicized words ahead. the breast is a sexual object. By feeding your infant with it you deprive your husband of his rightful property. Your breast belongs to him, use it at his sufferance and only as little as you have to. Don’t damage your husband’s toys by subjecting them to an infant’s mouth. They’re his playthings, aren’t they? get his permission before you expose them, either to your child or to the world when you feed said child.Do you want to wash your brain after reading these words? I know I do. And they are just the lightest, least objections to breastfeeding. I’ll deal with the more objectionable ones later. As it is… I’d like to introduce a distinction here: my post is about calling a spade a spade. If you have a bone to pick with these thoughts, pick it with the person who is thinking them_ the same men or women who think of breastfeeding as something dirty. That is what’s implied within their view. That, and worse.
You see, when one defines the breast as a purely sexual object, saying that it belongs in a man’s hand and not an infant’s mouth… what one actually implies is, that women breastfeed because the experience is physically pleasant and sexually stimulating. That a mother who offers her baby her breast is doing it for her own sexual gratification and not for some mundane reason like, oh, I don’t know… FEEDING THE BABY.
It’s hard indeed to understand how such views may continue to survive in our day and age, because anyone who googles “breastfeeding” will know it’s hardly a walk in the park; the learning curve is steep, even if your baby is a champion feeder; nipples bleed and crack; milk ducts get clogged and infected; the act of breastfeeding itself hurts even if new mothers do not have to reckon with teeth (most babies are born without); breasts get full from the excess of milk, and the fullness also is uncomfortably painful.
It doesn’t sound like a sexual fantasy, does it? In fact, from my vantage point, anyone who so much as dares to claim that breastfeeding is sexual has just given us proof positive that he (or if it was a woman, HER LOVER(S)) have TERRIBLE technique. And I hope I am forgiven for further poking fun at such incompetent sexual prowess when I say that, if you are causing your partner’s nipples to bleed, scratching them, chewing them, and having the same effects as the jaw of a rooting baby… You have a very funny idea of what “pleasure” means. So funny, in fact, that I recommend you go to the police station and report yourself as a sexual abuser of the worst kind. Likewise, if you happen to be a mother or mother-in-law who views her daughter (-in-law’s) breastfeeding as her indulging herself, you need therapy. And probably a gentle knock on the side of the head, to get your brain back into gear. Eeesh.
To return to breastfeeding… all these difficulties are not the point; we accept them when we decide to breastfeed, because we hope to either overcome them, or to hold on long enough for our baby’s immune system to strengthen itself until he or she no longer needs the antibodies and enzymes present in the milk. It’s difficult to subject ourselves to this exercise every two hours during the day, and every 3-4 hours at night. No one who decides to do it is under the impression that it will be simple… And yes, we do take consolation in the fact it won’t be for ever.
Now, with my baby aged 16 months old, I’ve written several times about how wonderful it is to see her breastfeed. Yes. It is wonderful. I am by now tough enough that if she bites me I can pull away, tell her sternly not to hurt mommy, and get back to it once the pain from the bite goes away (even if the teeth marks haven’t yet faded). I need not hold or lift her any more; I am only breastfeeding once or twice a day, and usually my baby was so cranky prior to being offered a breast that it really feels good to know I can offer her some unique thing that will calm her down as if by magic, while being the healthiest meal I can put on the table for her. And yes, I love looking at her breastfeed; maternal love suffuses me, so much so that I forget the reality of the jaws using me as a teether (she seems to prefer to soothe her gums on my breasts rather than her teether), and the fact that the little hands holding said breast have claw-like nails. I would love it, mind you, for no people to be around while I breastfeed, but the choice between feeding my baby in public and not feeding my baby until we are private… is not a choice at all. At least the sort of choice a good mother can reasonably make.
People who breastfeed, whether in private or public, don’t do it because they are exhibitionists. They don’t do it because they are shameless show-offs. Not at all. They do it because, to them, it is what their baby needs. When it all comes down to it, I don’t really care whether shops provide nice areas where mothers can breastfeed comfortably or whether they and their patrons simply decline to bother a breastfeeding mother; either is acceptable to me, the person who is feeding her child_ a totally unexceptional, totally non-dirty, totally non-sexual act.
In a very essential way, when it comes to breastfeeding… shame, sexual thoughts, and disgust are very much in the eye of the beholder.