Recent Posts

Monday, August 6, 2012

A history of breastfeeding in public

When you're deciding on whether to make the commitment to nursing, undoubtedly for some the idea of nursing in public is daunting. Even experienced mothers have told me they never fully "mastered" it, and we all have our own individual levels of comfort when it comes to doing it. Add an older kid to the mix, and suddenly it's like juggling a three-ring circus with one hand.

Lots of people think breastfeeding
is the best thing for baby. They
just don't want to ever catch you
doing it. Isn't there a tarp or tent
somewhere you can use to huddle
I've had to think really hard about those times I nursed in public, and honestly I can't remember a whole lot. I think I mostly hid out in fitting rooms (and even a few bathrooms, but usually not for the reason you'd think - usually because as soon as I sat down to nurse a baby, the sudden, overwhelming urge to use the bathroom often hit me). I preferred those places not so much because I didn't want people seeing me nurse my baby, although because I was a bit clumsy with things that might have been part of it; but more because when I nursed, I wanted to spread out, get comfortable, and just sit. That meant I could lean back, hang my leg over a chair and get comfy. Although yes, in some ways, I was not in the mood to be stared at, harassed - even potentially - and felt generally uncomfortable and paranoid.

To think - those feelings and anxieties, over something real or perceived - can actually keep a woman from wanting to nurse at all. I had one playgroup buddy who refused to nurse even in front of us other moms, women she'd known and worked with for nearly a decade. One day I saw her bottle-feeding and realized it wasn't so much to get her daughter "used to" the idea of getting a bottle; it was because she was embarrassed to be seen doing it in front of us. Other moms propped themselves up while at my house, and even though we weren't the closest of friends, they still found a way; and yet, as I sort of watched them, it made me feel slightly weird to be sitting there as they were feeding their babies. Why? I nursed my own children; I fully supported them and wanted them to feel as comfortable as possible while relaxing in my home. Why did I feel strange about it, then?

I think because even as a nursing mother, I had seen few moms like me - nursing their babies in the open, in private, anywhere, really. How sad. How pathetic. How trained we've become (some of us, anyway) because we don't want to invite criticism, controversy or because we are made to feel like we should give more of a crap than necessary about everyone else when really, it's our babies we should be focusing on.

When people say they "don't want to see you flash your boobs in public," I wonder if they have any idea, really, that women decades before us did just that to feed their babies, often in public. What else could you do - it's not like they had tank tops and two-piece sweatsuits at their disposal in 1946. Women typically wore dresses that buttoned up the top, and that was their idea of "nursing clothing." Some dresses were styled somewhat to accommodate, many images simply show a mother unbuttoning her dress or blouse and simply feeding her baby.

So when someone tells you they don't want to see a breastfeeding mother "showing her boobs," just tell them, "Really? Because that's the way they did it 60 years ago." You know, back when everyone was conservative and puritanical, right?

'The Cornstalk Madonna,' by Orin Crooker,
Hoopestown, Ill. c. 1916. One of my
Yeah, nowadays barely-there bikinis, thongs and cleavage are all the rage. But I bet if you sat down and decided to feed your baby, you'd be asked to leave (as many mamas have been).
At the beach. In front of people. c. 1930s.
Photo credit: Joseph Schwartz/Corbis. 
But if you're ever at the pool and happen to run into Ice-T's girlfriend, just remember that this is okay, got it? 
Most onlookers drool in approval -
but if this were a nursing mother,
I'm sure there would be an
uprising and police would be
on the scene in minutes. 
This one has always made me laugh - the only one
who apparently gets a rise out of it is a young boy who
is maybe 8 years old. The rest are like, "eh, whatever."
Source: Jennifer James/
Babies sometimes get hungry in all kinds of places - regardless of whether they've just been fed or not - like just when you're getting ready to leave to go someplace. It looks like, throughout the ages and no matter what mode of transportation was available, this has always been the case. LOL

Notice how none of the women looks uncomfortable, and the one to the nursing mother's left doesn't seem to be saying, "OH. MY. GOD. I cannot believe she has the nerve to whip that thing out in public while we're all sitting here!"
Caption: "A mother is traveling from Louisville, KY
to Memphis, TN on a Greyhound bus. Here, she is
waiting in the Chattanooga bus terminal and breast-
feeding in public in September 1943."
Source: Jennifer James,
I've included the above image in a past blog post, but I never realized that another image is also included in the set:
This could either be a look of consternation that says,
"Did I miss the train?" or "What was that, Gertrude? I
couldn't hear you." Now it's "Ok, when is the angry
flashmob going to show up with the police to
escort me off the property for feeding my baby?!"

This one has always cracked me up, too. This couple
is more excited about saving their farm after the
Great Depression than wasting time worrying about
what everyone thinks about her baby eating. Even
the adviser they're talking to is casual and normal
with them, not all "Mrs. Jones, would you like a
receiving blanket to cover up with? Shall I ask
if there is a nice bathroom stall or dark closet for you
to nurse your baby in?"
Source: Jennifer James,
(It was always my dread that my baby would be hungry while I waited at the pediatrician's office - not that I didn't want anyone seeing me, but that a) all those sick people would be breathing on me and b) that I'd have to run to the bathroom, which was across two waiting rooms on the other side of the office. Then, while I was in there, they'd inevitably call my name...)

Anyway, I remember not long ago having a discussion with NICU moms that nurses actually wanted to put up a freaking screen while some of the moms nursed. I've also heard some horribly sad stories about NICU nurses being completely unsupportive - to the point of literal sabotage - of moms who wanted to nurse their babies there. Unreal.
Caption: "Mothers nursing their babies
while waiting their turn to see the doctor,
a nun standing nearby. Location: Paris, France.
Photographer: David E. Scherman.
Time/Life Magazine, August 1, 1946
There are lots more - if you want to see them, visit my gallery on Facebook here or the Facebook fan page Historic Photos & Prints of Breastfeeding


Ethel said...

Your experiences of not seeing moms nurse in public and me noticing moms nurse their babies in church are the reason why I make a point of nursing my infants in public even if I feel rather exposed. I am very aware that the reason I wanted to nurse my first was that I saw as a girl moms feeding their infants that way, that it had a bigger impact then the bottlefeeding I saw on television. I get gawkers, especially teen boys, but in the long run it is worth it I think - maybe it will change perceptions.

Kimberly O. said...

I adore all those pictures. I love nursing my Bubs in public. I'm waiting till someone goes all "negative Nancy" on me. I have a lot of pent up frustraion I'd like to take out on idiots.

The Deranged Housewife said...

Exactly, Ethel. Sometimes I'd look around and think, "Where are all the breastfeeding moms?" Stuck in a fitting room like me somewhere, I guess.

Dorothy Kernaghan-Baez said...

I nursed anywhere and everywhere. I wore (and still prefer) big t-shirts. I would just stick the baby under my shirt...all anybody could see were the little shoes.

Maud said...

What lovely photos! Thank you. After the first few times, once I got brave, I basically was too busy focussing on my baby to look around and see who might or might not have been ogling me. And I never got anything other than positive comments from anyone who decided to take it up with me.

Jennifer Fitz said...

Great photos! I nursed wherever, and yes, the only two places anyone ever tried to cover it up were NICU and one airplane once.

It was silly. Sheesh.

The other week I thanked a mom for publicly breastfeeding her baby in the front pew at church -- of course she was like, "Um, yeah, okay?", because it's the most normal thing in the world. Which I acknowledged. But pointed out what an encouragement it is to more shy mothers, to see that this is a fine thing to do front and center.