The Humanist Dilemma: Should Breastfeeding Go Public?

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Performance Anxiety: My husband and I are excited about our first baby on the way, but we are having some disagreements about breastfeeding. He thinks it’s just the greatest thing, wants me to nurse as long as possible, and thinks I should feel perfectly comfortable doing it anywhere in front of anyone. I, on the other hand, am aware of the benefits and so will give it a sincere try, but I’m not sure about how long, and I really don’t want to have any witnesses other than my husband. I’m a very private, modest person and I don’t want anyone else watching me nurse, even ever so discreetly. Is this my call to make?

—No Other Boobs in the Room, Please


Dear No Other Boobs,

In a word, yes—this is your call to make, assuming it works out between you and your baby (many mothers have difficulties breastfeeding, and no one should make them feel guilty about that). It sounds as though you’re well informed about the benefits and are game to give it a good try, but that doesn’t mean you have to make it a spectator event or continue until your child can read. I know many moms who invariably retreat to private spaces to nurse, and are clearly flustered if someone happens upon them. I also remember a movie theater soundtrack augmented by loud smacking noises coming from under a towel draped over a nearby woman.

In fact, even if you were inclined to breastfeed in front of a crowd, I would remind you that not everyone is comfortable in the presence of breastfeeding, no matter how heartily they may approve of the practice. Although you could say that’s their problem, it’s nice to be considerate of other people’s sensitivities when you can. I once attended a picnic where I was talking with a woman when a little boy, about four, walked over to her while he was eating a corn on the cob. He then undid the buttons on her shirt, pulled out a breast, took a swig, put it back, buttoned her up, and marched off munching his corn. Although she didn’t miss a beat, I was dumbfounded, and vowed that when I had kids, if they could undo fasteners and had a full set of teeth, they would not still be nursing.

It could be argued that breastfeeding is a normal and natural thing and we should all just get comfortable with it. But breastfeeding has been fashionable for decades (there was an era in the mid-twentieth century when “modern” women bottle-fed their babies formula), yet it seems its public display has quieted down, even if nursing remains widely practiced. Places of business create areas where women can nurse or pump privately, rather than encouraging them to do so in the conference room—during a conference. Many people don’t relish being around people feeding young children when Cheerios and applesauce are splattering the vicinity, let alone being in the presence of a woman nursing a child.

Everyone has natural bodily functions, but in our society we don’t invite people to use bathrooms with the doors open or have sex in the living room with company around. Many don’t want an audience or live-stream when they deliver a baby either, which can also be considered natural and awesome (or natural and awful). Those who find breastfeeding a thing of beauty are welcome to share it with moms who agree, but I don’t think we all have to be subject to public lactation, especially involving a reluctant mom. Stand your ground (in a nice, private space)—and enjoy motherhood!