Feeding Our Children or Fuelling Controversy?


“Done”, whispers my sleepy two-year-old. He pulls my pyjama top back across my chest and rolls over on the pillow. He hugs me, and drifts off to sleep. I lay with him in the shadows for a little while. One of the best parts of my day is watching him rest beside me in the quiet black, sated, happy, and secure.

Breastfeeding has given me this gift. This gift of connection. Of love and comfort. My boy and I have done this thousands of times, but still it feels new.

When I think of what my twenty-year-old self would think I smile. I never thought I’d breastfeed. And certainly not for as long as I have. But almost 1000 days in, it has changed me. Softened me. Made me more accepting, patient and calm. I’m proud of women’s bodies in a way I wasn’t before. I’m proud of my body. Pregnancy changed it. I am in awe of the gift it gave me and the way it continues to nurture my son and keep him healthy and reassured.

As I lay in the dark, hugging my little man, my mind wanders to a video I watched earlier of Alyssa Milano defending public breastfeeding to Wendy Williams. Wendy is uncomfortable with breastfeeding. Why? Because “she doesn’t need to see that”. She says she would take her baby to the car to nurse privately rather than breastfeed in public, and she’d expect others to do the same. But she admits it’s her problem, stemming from her own insecurities.

It’s a time-old weakness among humanity to use our own fears and insecurities as reasoning to turn against those who cause us to question them. But does that make it right?

As a fellow mother, I wonder if Wendy would have served her gender, her child and herself more fully by bearing witness to these insecurities in a less damning manner. And offer support to today’s women in their right to feed their children as they see fit, even if she made a different choice herself.

But Wendy speaks to a wider social sensitivity. On a United Airlines flight in March 2015, Kristen Hilderman nursed her five-month old baby. In response, a flight attendant suggested she cover her baby by throwing a blanket at her, telling her husband to “help her out”. Hilderman shared the incident on social media which went viral and, encouragingly, garnered overwhelming support for nursing her child.

Why is society shaming women for nourishing their babies? Has our world become so artificial we can’t appreciate the beauty and innocence of a breastfeeding child?

We claim to value freedom above anything else. Critics argue it’s their “freedom” to sit in a café and not catch a glimpse of a mother’s breast. But isn’t it a baby’s freedom to eat when they’re hungry, no matter where they are? And a mother’s freedom to care for her baby in the best way she knows how? Who’s freedom is more valid? These are questions I find myself stunned to ask. And yet the furore toils on.

Many imply breastfeeding mothers are somehow getting a kick out of exposing themselves in public. I’m a breastfeeding mother who nurses in public when I need to. But every time I do it I’m self conscious, aware of the judgment I may attract.

I’d be lying if I said this doesn’t hurt. But something inside me burns with more ferocity than the momentary anxiety caused by a stranger’s disapproving glare. I can’t deny my son’s needs in favour of another’s personal insecurities. Can anyone, in all sincerity, argue that I am wrong, when there are women walking around in low-cut tops or hot pants with the full support of modern society, drawing far more attention for far less worthy reasons?

I’m proud of my body. It’s the body that enabled me to birth my son into this world, and continues to enable his nourishment and healthy development. The assumption that perhaps I may be utilising this natural function in order to garner some cheap thrill, shocks me. It’s simply not an accusation I ever imagined I’d find myself in defence against. I try to be discreet, but there are two people involved and babies and toddlers don’t always cooperate. They’re innocent and follow their instincts without question. They have no idea of the controversy surrounding them having their basic needs met.

How can it be more acceptable to throw wrongful accusations and hurtful admonishments at a nursing mother, than it is for that mother to be nursing in the first place?

It’s not a question I’ll find any lasting answer to soon. Perhaps it’s a deeper routed human assignation to battle and divide than it is to nurture and empower. I hope not. But, given the common reactions breastfeeding effectuates, would I be so wrong in thinking it possible? Is this really how we want to treat one another?

So, when Wendy Williams suggests nursing in public is offensive and mothers should sit in the car, I’m grateful she was speaking to an empowered, confident Alyssa Milano. Now my son is a little older I don’t want to send him a message that what he’s doing is odd. Or abnormal. Nothing could be more natural than a child breastfeeding for hunger, comfort or reassurance. Wendy says she has insecurities. I plan to ensure my son doesn’t grow up to have the same ones. And nursing proudly in private, or public, is the best way I know how.

Though for tonight my sleepy young son is “Done”, I know I’m not. I implore everyone reading this post to consider the value of their judgments, be they for or against public breastfeeding. How can we learn to come together and bear witness to one another’s choices from a place of kindness, rather than negativity? I hope you will join me in the daily endeavour of seeking to answer that question.

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  • January 21, 2016

    People hate what they can’t understand, don’t they? And what I find so interesting about the never-ending breastfeeding in public debate is the root cause of it — stigmatizing a woman, a mother, a caregiver, is what helps to keep her “in her place.” To those who say it’s not natural, they should probably go ask the World Health Organization who says the average age of weaning worldwide is what, 3.5 to 7 years old last time I checked? Thanks for the great essay!

    • January 21, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Couldn’t agree more Ashley. And yes, the WHO recommends to nurse until at least two years of age. However, the average weaning age worldwide is 4 years. I wrote a piece on nursing toddlers as well which covers what the “normal” weaning age is for humans and from an evolutionary perspective it’s thought to be anywhere up to 6 years of age based on dental eruption. Only 5% of mothers nurse their babies beyond 6 months though. Nursing is hard and sometimes isn’t possible to continue beyond infancy but I think a lot more mothers would continue to nurse if they felt supported by family, friends, doctors and society. And for those of us who can and choose to continue nursing we should be praised not questioned. We’re doing our best to raise a healthy generation after all. Thanks so much for your comment and keep nursing that toddler of yours 🙂

  • April 02, 2016

    I just read this article now after reading one article from the becoming minimalist.com. When I got married, I knew I wanted to become a mother and I knew I wanted to breastfeed. I have always been a staunch advocate of breastfeeding both by instinct and by the knowledge of the benefits from it. Thirty-eight years ago, while living overseas, I was breastfeeding my son when an announcement from the local radio station calling all breastfeeding mothers to please donate mother’s milk to the local hospital. I didn’t know how many mothers were breastfeeding at the time. Fortunately, I have a hand-held breast pump, pumped milk and my husband rushed it to the hospital. It wasn’t much I thought.
    To make a long story short, the mother’s milk was needed for a dying malnourished native infant boy. The only hope by the doctor is to give him mother’s milk to get a little nourishment (the infant couldn’t accept any nourishment from other sources) enough to fly him to Honolulu. It worked and when the baby came back alive, the mothers who donated breastmilk received a certificate of appreciation. Up to this date, the overwhelming feeling of satisfaction of being able to save a child through mother’s milk makes my heart swell. And it makes me so angry to see those who are so against breastfeeding, most especially in public.
    This is too long but this is one story I love re-telling all the time. I breast fed my son for two years.

    • April 02, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for sharing your story Dee and what a wonderful story it is. My sister recently became a mum and had trouble with breastfeeding – she has had donations from complete strangers far and wide, it’s been absolutely amazing and my nephew is so happy. It is such an amazing gift we have as mothers. I still nurse my almost three year old son, he took a tumble today and bruised his chin and nursing was what calmed him down. It’s a miracle and I can only think it’s ignorance and insecurity that make people question it. Thanks again for reading and sharing your story.

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