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Am I the Only Mother Who Ever Felt Embarrassed Breastfeeding in Public?

I’m not saying I should have, but I did. Which is maybe why, after two months of peeking in and out of bathroom stalls trying to feed my kid, I was told I wasn’t producing enough milk. Or, more precisely, I was scolded in a thick French accent by a doctor who was subbing for my pediatrician at the time. “Your babee is zo skinee! You’re not making enough milk!” she shouted as she poked my breast with her index finger. “Do you use ze pump?!” I told her that I had a hand pump, but it didn’t really work and that I couldn’t afford a hospital-grade mechanical one. “Okay zen,” she replied. “You need to feed ‘er formulyuha!” I nodded silently, a bit teary from the shock. Realizing I was overwhelmed, the doctor then smiled and said, “Your daughter is beautiful. Let’s ‘elp ‘er gain some weight.”

That night, I told my husband we’d have to start feeding the baby formula. He glared at me with disdain. “What is wrong with you?” he menaced. He meant what was wrong with my body and why was it ruining our plan to breastfeed — for free. I felt like a failure for not being able to provide my daughter with the milk my body is supposed to naturally give, but let me say this: If my own husband was not able to support me without shame in the feeding of our daughter via bottle, how can we rightfully expect a society that objectifies breasts as sex objects to support and understand breastfeeding?  I didn’t understand breastfeeding while I was doing it, and I know I’m not the only one.

I was very hurt by what my husband said to me — it was just one of his many extraordinary betrayals. But it left me wondering for a moment if there really was something wrong with me, something inherently sub-par about my womanhood. Did I just not try hard enough to breastfeed? I never really did go for the football hold. Maybe if I’d tried standing on my head? Or if I’d only asked my friends who pitched in to buy the baby a play mat to get me the Medela Freestyle Hands-Free Breast Pump for $379.99 instead? If ten people each chipped in 38 bucks …

I fear that breastfeeding in this country, at least when it’s difficult, is only for the wealthy. If breastfeeding comes easily to you, that’s wonderful. But if for some reason you’re not producing enough milk or you can’t get your baby to latch on, your ability to breastfeed often depends on whether you have the cash to spend on some seriously pricey equipment or a private lactation consultant or donated breast milk available online at a premium. And if you ain’t got the do-re-mi for that kind of luxury, you’re not participating in the breastfeeding movement, and therefore you’re less apt to understand it. Eh voila, that leaves us with a group of working-class Americans who feel just like Kim Kardashian, a single girl without a child, who recently infamously tweeted “EWW!” at the site of a woman breastfeeding in a restaurant. By which she presumably meant, what is that boob doing in here and why is it feeding a kid when you could be using a bottle? And yes, I know — first hand — formula is expensive, too. But it’s much easier to drop $25/week on Enfamil when you live check-to-check than it is to find $400 up front.

For millennia, if a woman couldn’t feed her infant with her own breasts (or someone else’s), her child risked starvation. But women of my mother’s generation often chose formula without even thinking about breastfeeding because of the societal trends that told them to ignore their natural abilities to nourish. Today we’re engaged in a debate about whether or not boobs can be both sensual items of desire and conveniently portable milk bags, courtesy of Kim and Kourtney Kardashian. I think Kim Kardashian ewwwing over breastfeeding is the best thing that’s happened to motherhood in a long time because it’s engaged us in this discourse. All of us — not just lactivists and hippies and affluent Park Slopers. (Sorry, guys.)

Her Bad Mother has written a very thorough piece about how simply pointing a finger at Kim Kardashian for her hypocrisy in eschewing public breastfeeding while leading day-to-day life as a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen is nothing more than “slut-shaming” (as she calls it) in retaliation for nursing-shaming. An excellent point. I agree, in theory, that “nursing boobs are awesome (and) sexy boobs are awesome, too,” and that there’s “not necessarily anything counter-feminist or counter-maternalist or counter-lady-power-in-general about that.” But, I’m going out on a limb here by admitting — as a mother who is pro-breastfeeding wherever you want to do it and with the full understanding that “breast is best” — that I am more comfortable seeing boobs in music videos than I am watching a baby suck on them in the park. There, I said it. Whew!

And — grab your pitchforks now, La Leche — it weirds me out when toddlers breastfeed. Wow! Okay. These confessions actually feel really good.

Now, I’m not saying toddlers shouldn’t breastfeed, and I think if you want to pull a boob out on the subway to feed your baby, you should totally go for it. I’m just admitting that, though I wish it weren’t this way, I have been influenced by American social norms. I was raised in a small town where women don’t breastfeed in public. I both support and fear breastfeeding because of the “culturally imposed dichotomies (such) as Madonna/Whore, Smarty-Pants Feminist/Unthinking Tart, Dutiful Asexual Mom/Lusty Young Woman” that Her Bad Mother notes we’re exposed to before being told, effectively, to pick a side. I think of myself as a moderately intelligent feminist, and I truly want to be completely comfortable myself with whipping out a boob to feed my kid at will, but precisely because of the continued public wincing at breastfeeding, I’m not there yet. And now that I’m divorced, I don’t know if I’ll have a second child, so I may never be in a position to get there. As I said, I still wonder if having been less ashamed of breastfeeding in public might have helped me be better at it. But I don’t want to have any shame about my shame, either. The mothers out there who deal with others’ judgments by becoming self-righteous about bottle-feeding rather than discussing it as little as possible, as I did, don’t seem a lot better off to me.

Unless we all admit our real feelings about breasts and all of the various and wonderful services they provide, we’ll never get over our biases enough to see them as both the “sexy cakes and nurturing-mama cakes” as Her Bad Mother artfully describes them.

This morning, on Twitter, Her Bad Mother got fired up over a comment left on her post. The commenter says, “I can’t help but wonder if some mothers who advocate public breastfeeding so adamantly are actually exhibitionists.” I understand why this would make her or any breastfeeding mother angry, and I totally disagree that breastfeeding mothers are exhibitionists. But without this kind of statement being put out there for rebuttal, breastfeeding will never be fully accepted by those who view nipples exclusively as sources of pleasure, not vehicles for public feeding.

Photo: c r z via Flickr

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