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How They Do it in . . . West Africa. Public breastfeeding around the world. By Kim Brooks for Babble.com.

How They Do It in… West Africa

Breastfeeding in public is okay anywhere, anytime. by Kim Brooks

June 15, 2009

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I distinctly remember the first time I saw a woman’s boob in a baby’s mouth. I was twelve. The woman was my aunt. The baby was my cousin. And the boob, pendular, big-nippled and bulging with milk, seemed like an alien appendage, closer to a turtle’s shell or a camel’s hump than the budding cleavage I stuffed into my training bra each morning.

One could hardly call this a watershed event, and yet I remembered it the evening my husband and I attended our first post-natal get-together, a babies-welcome gathering of our closest friends, most of whom had an infant and/or toddler of their own.

When it came time to feed, rather than excusing myself to the living room and sitting through forty minutes of boring silence like a child in a time-out, I found myself surprisingly un-squeamish about the idea of taking care of business right there amidst the homemade gnocchi and adult conversation. At first I attempted to cover up with a blanket I’d brought for the occasion, but I was never very good at this. I’m not sure if it was my lack of coordination or the baby’s claustrophobia or both, but it quickly began to look and feel like a WWE Wrestling match was taking place inside my shirt.

“What’s going on in there?” a friend asked in her most non-judgmental voice.

I threw the shroud on the floor. I turned a little to the side. I got comfortable, dug into my gnocchi, joined into the conversation. There were six of us at the table – three couples – people I’d known for years, but as the baby nursed contentedly in the sling, the conversation grew stilted, as though the Pope or a customs inspector or someone’s persnickety grandmother had entered the room. I thought of my aunt’s camel hump boob. Beside me, I could feel my husband blushing. In between sides, I decided to retire to the living room after all, forgoing a precious half-hour of the adult company I so badly craved.

In case you were wondering, I do not live in a cloistered, religious compound or Puritan enclave. Many of my friends are artists, writers, editors and students. These are people who champion gay marriage rights and teach Sabbath’s Theatre to eighteen-year-old undergraduates from Kansas. And yet a single breast, my breast – humble, leaky creature that it was – had the power to derail them. It occurred to me that culturally, something strange was taking place here.

If nursing openly at a casual dinner party could create such social awkwardness, what, I wondered, would happen if nursing mothers all across the country began unlatching their brassieres at gas stations and ATMs, on subways and at podiums? What would have happened if a certain former vice-presidential candidate whose name shall not be uttered were to have nursed on the stump? Would the fabric of civilized discourse unravel? Was there something so inherently erotic about the female breast that even in open-minded, mixed-company circles it needed to be hidden?

My first inkling that something might be amiss came a few months back when a friend of mine, an industrial designer, visited Guiana for a few weeks as part of an NGO program to teach local artisans how to prepare their goods for export. Many of his students were nursing mothers and most of the classes were taught in small villages. When I asked him what the greatest element of culture shock had been, he blushed, looked down, and his girlfriend ended up answering for him: “Tits. William has never seen so many tits in his life.”

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