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How Do You Define 'Breastfeeding Etiquette’?

Michael Brian

There always seems to be some drama going down when it comes to breastfeeding; but more relevant and realistic than the “You Should Breastfeed” vs. “You Can’t Make Me” debate (which I think is largely overblown by media hype, and simply outdated – moms fighting moms just shifts the attention from, say, the roles of policy and public institutions) are the controversies around breastfeeding in public, internet censorship, and public support -- or its lack thereof -- for women who do choose to breastfeed. These topics are relevant because they impact women’s lives out in public, in the workplace, and in their self-representational spaces.

Just this past week, a mom who breastfed while getting her art appreciation on at the L.A. County Museum of Art was asked by a staffer to cover up. She spread the word, threatened to sick a nurse-in on the museum, and promptly received an official letter of apology. Parade magazine, meanwhile, has fielded a flurry of emails and Facebook comments surrounding some advice on public breastfeedingthat was doled out by the publication’s etiquette expert. A reader, who teaches first grade, had written in asking how to handle requests from parents that she ‘say something’ to another class parent who breastfed her one-year-old at school events. The advice, in a nutshell: beware of breaking the law (public breastfeeding is protected in many states), perhaps suggest to the principal that a private breastfeeding space be created in the school, and, said mom could “perhaps consider the feelings of others” before breastfeeding at a school event.

Comments came from both sides—some said removing nursing moms from the public eye is not the solution to onlookers’ discomfort, and others said covering up, bringing the milk in a bottle or taking other measures not to bare a boob in public are options moms should utilize, as a matter of manners. This prompted a follow-up note from Parade’s etiquette guru. She made a point about the child being past the infancy stage and well into solids territory (i.e. mama’s milk is not the only option for this fam), and continued: “The mother breastfed at other school events, with both husbands and children there, and yes, we still live in a culture where that is not entirely comfortable for everyone. None of us would argue that we all have the legal right to, say, eat our own meals on a bus or subway, but there's a time and a place. (And yes, I do find it rude and unacceptable for people to chow down entire meals on public transport, though plenty of people do it.) There is feeding your child and there is ostentatiously making a political point, and I believe this was the latter… I also believe that along with rights we have responsibilities, including the responsibility to be consider the feelings of those in our community.”

I’m fascinated. On the one hand, I think that the child could eat other snacks when this family attends school events is an apt point. Not enough so to tip the scales, for me, into ‘breastfeeding’s not appropriate here’ territory, but this is a different situation than, say, a mom with a BABY who needs to eat, in public or otherwise. (I’m a big fan of mama mobility, and all for breasts facilitating that). And, I also find it really gross when adults stuff their faces on public transportation; so yes, the ‘time and place’ point is well made (except I’m willing to bet lots of other people besides the 1-year-old alone are eating at the school events in question). But I’d hesitate to assume that the nursing mom is necessarily making a political statement, just because she’s breastfeeding her child when there are others around. Breastfeeding becomes VERY normal for moms who do it (because, well, kids eat a lot). That this mom would necessarily think “Hmmm, I might be offending someone by feeding my child in this way” isn’t a safe assumption to make. And to suggest that she should be thinking it isn’t, well… that crosses into some weird territory.

Do we really have a responsibility to modify our own (legal, natural, not-harming-anyone) behavior based on the feelings of others? I mean, isn’t everyone offended by different things? Aren’t some of those things based on cultural conditioning we’d all do well to evolve out of? What if no one had challenged the (vast majority) of offended feelings at lunchroom counters when African-Americans ordered sandwiches alongside their Caucasian peers during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s? If sitting at a lunch counter, at the front of a bus, or in an integrated classroom was political, it was because of existing cultural morés that desperately needed changing. It wasn’t because sitting at a lunch counter is in itself an offensive act. It might be hard for the breastfeeding mom to miss that breastfeeding offends some sensibilities, but whether she has a responsibility to care—that’s definitely debatable. She’s not walking around naked without a purpose. She’s… breastfeeding. What’s the big deal?

As for the presence of husbands and kids… If you’re worried about your husband’s gaze, or mind, wandering around a nursing mama, that’s on you and your relationship. Kids? I take Kaspar to the grocery store and he sees more boobs there—sexualized boobs, fake boobs, EVERYWHERE BOOBIES! – via Budweiser ads , magazine covers (tabloids AND magazines aimed at women), etc. than he sees when a mom nurses her child in front of him. I’d almost prefer my nursing friends don’t get too private about it, so that he knows at least that breasts serve multiple purposes... They sell things, sure, but they also feed babies. (Which trick do you think is cooler?)

Despite my personal feeling around all things breast-related (not a problem for me), I also think that if I were breastfeeding a one-year-old, I might reserve that activity for home, simply because I’d want my child to eat other foods, as well, and because nursing is more of a special kid-and-mom time thing at that point (rather than an every-two-hours feeding routine thing). But, I’m not that mom. So who knows? I do wonder, however, if there is some kind of breastfeeding etiquette that we could, or should, all agree on that allows mamas to feed their babies publicly without pissing off the passers-by? Is there such thing as breastfeeding etiquette, or is this ALL subjective, and thus forever doomed to drama and debate?

Let’s hear your thoughts! What constitutes good breastfeeding etiquette? Is it necessary? Is it nice? Is it annoying? Do tell.