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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Thoughts on the Breast Burka

It's Breastfeeding Week, and Month, and many of my favorite online forums are discussing the Issues. One that caught my eye (and brain) this morning was a guest post on the Blacktating blog. There are two basic categories of mothers who nurse in public: the covered and the uncovered. Within the range of "uncovered"  there are those who try to make a political statement about it, aggressively daring onlookers to, well, look on, and those who are so casually matter-of-fact about it that you may not even notice that the baby is nursing. Prompted by a question on The Leaky B@@b's Facebook feed, I've been doing some reflecting about the mothers who choose to cover up.

I am a proud veteran of breastfeeding, with enough experience under my belt to make perhaps a few readers blanch when they do the math. I did extended nursing, including tandem nursing. And no, nursing was not always easy. I'm not here to throw stones. I'm not here to make anyone feel guilty for not nursing, or not nursing as long, or to be smug in any way. I'm just saying I've been there.

While I've been the confident and comfortable NIP (nursing in public) mom (and honey, I nursed my babies everywhere), I've also occasionally been the one wishing for that "air conditioned room with a comfy chair". Or, heaven help me, yes, something to drape over the baby. Not for my own modesty (for me, I was always far more concerned that someone might inadvertantly see my post-pregnancy belly flab than my—gasp!—boob), but because Some Babies are very easily distracted by the world around them. My first son could have nursed under the spotlight at a three-ring circus and stayed focused on the task at hand. My second son was far too interested in what he was *missing* while nursing, and was constantly breaking away at the sound of voices or a peripheral flash of movement. He also liked to keep his hands busy by grabbing the bottom edge of my shirt and thrusting it all the way up to my throat. So much for subtle. I was tempted many times to use the blanket as a blind so we could get through a feeding session whenever the need arose and we couldn't duck away to a more secluded spot. All the same, the few times I did try draping a blanket over him, he fought it wildly. I can only guess why...whether it was frustration at being denied the surrounding stimuli or just a flicker of claustrophobia...but it didn't work, even in those moments that I wanted it to.

There are certainly good reasons to want a little more privacy, and although I quickly got past caring who saw a flash of—let's be honest here—utilitarian skin engaged in its intended function, I do respect those women whose sense of modesty or propriety make them shy about taking that risk. I hate to be anti-coverup if it's the one thing that allows an otherwise reluctant mom to feel comfortable enough to NIP. But I have always felt that using a cover supports the idea that what the mother is doing is something of which to be ashamed, and it makes me very, very sad. Maybe my feelings on the subject are unfairly negatively colored by the woman I know who only nursed under cover, including in her own home lest her (18 months) older daughter see what she was doing. (Why? Are you doing something dirty? Something wrong?) Or the first new mother I met as a young adult who was my age, demonstrating by example that this was how things are done. How are we to encourage the mothers of the future to make this healthy (digestively, ecologically, and emotionally) choice for their babies if we don't allow them real access to learn from observation?

Furthermore, I come from a place of practicality. Or perhaps laziness, LOL. I was really struck with what the author of this blog post said: "Breastfeeding by its very nature is designed to be simple. We have complicated it. We have made it shameful and difficult." With the exception of a few things to treat (largely temporary) problems, there really is no necessary stash of breastfeeding "products" one must acquire or have on hand to be successful. Boob. Baby. That's it! Rehydration is nice; a comfortable place to sit as well, but do we really need to rely on paraphernalia just for the default task of each feeding? Okay, I loved my nursing bras. But all of the cleverly designed nursing outer clothing was quickly discovered to be infinitely more attention-grabbing with all of the contortions required to actually use them, and discarded in favor of just lifting a plain old shirt. Why are we complicating things with buttons, flaps, and OMG...Hooter Hiders? If you need or want to cover up, what is wrong with just draping the baby's blankie over your shoulder (or your blouse over baby's nose) as you adjust the baby into position? When I see one of the specifically designed products for shielding the event, I am reminded of a matador's cape. It's a large piece of obvious fabric. It's eye-catching. It looks like a freakishly large lobster bib. And I want to know...just WHAT is that woman doing under there? Changing her outfit? Protecting herself from X-rays? What?!?

I'd like to formally appeal to the shy amongst us to consider the difference between modesty and shame. Between the way in which LDS women dress, and women under the Taliban. There's a huge difference between shunning a plunging neckline and denying any view of the body. And yes, I believe there is just as huge a gulf between quietly nursing a baby under a baggy shirt and donning a tent. You can indeed nurse discreetly without the "Breast Burka".

With all love toward mothers and babies everywhere, I wish you could just nurse and not worry about it. But if you do feel the need to cover, don't waste your money and make a spectacle of yourself. You don't need a designer bib. The more blatantly you advertise the fact that you're *hiding* what you're doing, the more attention you will actually attract. The best way to avoid calling attention to nursing your baby is simply to not advertise the fact that you're nursing your baby. I can't tell you how many times people came up to admire me cradling my "sleeping" son and had no idea that we were otherwise engaged.

To hide what you're doing sends a strong message that it's something you *shouldn't* be doing. And with all due respect, if you feel that conflicted about the choice that you've made; perhaps it isn't the best choice for you at all. I think that a mother who provides bottles with conviction would make a much more peaceful parent than a breastfeeder who is wracked with guilt and shame, or constantly stressing over it.


  1. very well said! I never had the need arise much to NIP- but I was a bit modest about it- due to my own body issues, not anything else (and I WAS far more worried someone might see my horrid tummy than my boobs, which are magnificent ;-) ) But I never let any lack of "cover" deter me from feeding a hungry baby!

  2. Great post! I'm a big fan of a cami layered under a tee. One goes up, one goes down, flabby white tummy hid from view. :)
    Seriously though, I feel more self conscious bottle feeding in public than I ever did NIP. It may be breastmilk in the bottle, but no one around me knows that. It's almost like I'm doing breastfeeding women a disservice by being one more mom normalizing bottles.

  3. Aw, Robyn, that makes me sad! You know what, though? Because of you and another good friend of mine, who also pumped for a preemie who never established a good latch, I'm far less likely to judge those toting bottles. It's quite often more complicated than just "choice", and I applaud you for doing it perhaps the hardest way possible. <3