I start with a confession: at first, I was not wholly supportive when Kara, the mother of my first child, raised the prospect of breastfeeding in public.
She was pregnant, and it was our intent to breastfeed our baby. Breast milk is a sufficient source of nutrition for newborn infants. It provides all the necessary nutrients, and the mother’s body calibrates the composition of nutrients a baby needs at a given time. Breast milk also provides the baby with important immunological nutrients like ‘antimicrobial factors, digestive enzymes, hormones and growth factors that are important for passive protection against infections and immune-mediated diseases and modulate immunological development.’ The bonding experience between mother and child also provides health benefits for mother and child. It is a shame that the absence of widespread paid maternal leave in the U.S. prevents many women from experiencing this bond as extensively as they otherwise would.
The decision to breastfeed was not without some anxiety. For one, Kara worried about whether she would be able to produce sufficient milk (she ended up having no problem). She also worried about being out in public, in a restaurant or elsewhere, and encountering people who cast her a dirty look or had the gall to come up and tell her she should breastfeed in a private place, like in the bathroom.
She was especially anxious that I would not come to her defense.
When she initially broached the topic, I was skittish about the prospect of seeing the mother of my child baring her breast in public. I asked her why she wouldn’t go out to the car, or go to the bathroom. She was quick to reply, and not without taking umbrage: would I go out to the car to eat my meal? Would I eat my dinner in the bathroom where people urinate and defecate? She had a point. Going to the bathroom was unsanitary, not to mention demeaning, as if she were being quarantined.
Kara is an avid researcher on all things related to our baby, and she informed me that breastfeeding in public is legal (in 49 states as of 2014). But this wasn’t about legality per se. It was about why breastfeeding in public was legal. Breastfeeding is the act of feeding an infant, the most basic responsibility a parent has. Breast milk is a direct byproduct of the evolution of our species, and cultures throughout human history have taken note. It is how women have fed their baby throughout human civilization (note: some women are unable to produce breast milk, or opt not to, and find other ways to feed their infants; e.g. donor milk, or formula).
I was initially reluctant to be on board. I was alarmed that other people might see her nipple. I was not keen on making other people uncomfortable. But I did not put up a fight, and I knew Kara would not relent.
So, when we first started going out after the baby was born, Kara would artfully pull out a breast and start to feed when the baby got hungry. Surprisingly, it did not bother me as much as I thought it would. Kara is unapologetic, but she is discreet. Waiters and patrons (it usually happens at restaurants) do not ogle. If people are embarrassed, they don’t show it.
Nonetheless, I have heard horror stories from other moms who have had the misfortune to be confronted by someone comes up and requests that they go to a private room. This is unfortunate. Moms are not trying to be exhibitionists. They are only trying to feed their baby. As a new dad, I have discovered how much work a new mom has on her plate. During pregnancy, she makes sacrifices men do not have to make (changes to her diet, limits on physical activity, morning sickness). There is the emotional and physical energy she commits to the care of her baby, in utero and post-partum. There is plenty of work for dad too, but dad is in a supporting role, while mom is front and center.
Only mom can feed the baby (though dad can help with the bottle!). Dad, if you want your baby to eat a healthy meal, and you choose not to use formula or use donor milk, you should be the first to come to her defense if anyone should dare make her feel like she does not belong in a public place simply because she is performing the most basic duty nature has tasked her to do—feed her baby. Those who object on grounds that it is unbecoming would do well to consider a line from the 1950 film The Flame and the Arrow: ‘…the art of civilization is doing natural things in an unnatural way.’ Napkins on laps, forks and knives, grace and manners, they are the artifacts of civilization, not the dictates of God or nature.
It’s okay dads, let her do it, and don’t let anyone tell her she can’t. Your baby and your partner should not be quarantined. Nature says so.
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