Monday, September 15, 2014

Thoughts on Women's Rights: Civic Engagement, and Lactation

In my years of breastfeeding, I have never fed my child in a public restroom that I can recall. If I ever did, it was not to hide, but rather, because I was already there, and had a baby already in arms who wanted to nurse while we happened to be in the bathroom. But I have never intentionally sought out a bathroom to nurse, just as I have never walked into a restaurant and asked if I could please be served my meal in the women's stall. Breastfeeding is recognized appropriately as a form of nutrition and comfort, not as a means of waste elimination.

I must admit, due to societal pressure, I have attempted a few times to put a blanket over a child's head while nursing, but generally this irritates and confuses babies, leading to them looking around wildly to figure out why they have a blanket on their head. Once everyone's attention has been drawn to the mother and baby playing tug-of-war with the blanket, the baby sometimes succeeds in dropping the blanket on the floor, thereby exposing the whole operation. Some mothers feel more comfortable feeding a baby with a cover, some mothers prefer to provide milk in a bottle, but for the sake of cost, for health benefits, and for convenience, many mothers prefer to just nurse.
Unsurprisingly, diverse species of mammals eat with uncovered heads whether being fed via bottle, supplemental nursing system, or breast. If babies were designed to be covered during feeding, we would have been created or evolved with a big flap of skin to shelter the child from human contact during meals. In that case, women would have big wings like elephant ears across our chests under our shoulder blades. Instead, our biology allows that human arms are of the length and strength to hold an infant in close proximity to the heart and to the human face without obstructing the senses. The nursing child is positioned at a distance that the child can see, hear, and engage in learning from social cues that the mother provides.

But why can't women take this feeding and cooing operation to a secluded place for the comfort of others who feel awkward around breastfeeding? Because women have too much to do to spend half of our lives hiding in the bathroom. Pumping is time-consuming for most mothers because a pump is less efficient than a healthy baby. At 6 months postpartum, I produce about 5 ounces in 45 minutes of pumping using a high quality double electric pump. It would take an entire work day to pump a full milk supply and no one pays mothers for that inefficiency. Instead, my baby regulates my milk supply and receives the same nutrition in small bursts (nursing for 2-4 minutes at a time) at his own demand around the clock.

When squeamish adults send women and babies to the bathroom, the message is clear: that breastfeeding is shameful, and that children's nutrition is of low priority, and that women's / mothers' presence in the school building, the city council, the board of elders, the corporate headquarters, and other governing bodies is of low importance. Society asks mothers to choose between civic engagement, using our voices and minds to influence policy, to lead, and to serve, and the biological needs of our offspring. There is a better way. When women insist on change, it happens. We must continue to push on the glass ceiling. To do less is to betray ourselves.

We know from research on postpartum women's health that a contributing factor in perinatal mood disorders such as postpartum depression is social isolation. Research on PPD highlights storytelling as a preventative measure, as women benefit from processing their experiences in conversation. When society shames breastfeeding, women are forced to choose between their child's biological needs and the company of others. Cessation of breastfeeding, especially rapid weaning, contributes to the onset or worsening of postpartum depression. The United States has higher rates of depression in mothers than cultures which honor the presence of women in society, provide rituals for mothers to support one another and to process their experiences, and which recognize the biological need for togetherness of mother and baby.

Instead of encouraging women to hide their children in the bathroom or go sit in the car to meet biological needs, and instead of asking parents to stay home or rely on daycare, we must find ways to accommodate the presence of parents and children in all aspects of society. Women of childbearing age are under-represented in America, from the Congress and White House to the grass roots level. Employers find that policies which allow parents to bring children along when necessary and that encourage mothers who nurse to do so freely enhance workplace wellness and employee loyalty. In architectural design, we need spaces where babies and children can be present with their families, allowing parents to participate without children's presence disturbing the hearing of all in assembly. In healthcare, we must prioritize education of providers about the role of breastfeeding as a means of preventative care, and provide necessary support to lactating mothers. In human resources and benefits, we must prioritize flexible schedules, accessible childcare facilities, and breastfeeding-friendly staff. In planning events, we must consider the biological needs of the nursing dyad. Are breaks long enough to accommodate mothers to leave to feed their child, or is there seating available for nursing mothers to bring their child along to conferences? In celebrating diversity and enhancing inclusion, we must respond to the cultural norms that require mother-baby togetherness.

According to, a lactivist blog, this week an Indiana daycare center is alleged to have a policy restricting babies and children's rights to breastfeed.  Here are some of my thoughts on modesty and breastfeeding from an email I shared with the directors of Grace Academy whose harmful policy is under scrutiny:

When a policy asks a mother to hide when she is feeding her child, this reinforces the immodest idea that a woman's breasts are only for adult pleasure in sex, and that feeding a baby is a shameful use of women's bodies. This type of thinking leads to considering women as sex objects rather than as people. It is dehumanizing and degrading to accuse a mother of being inappropriate when she feeds her baby. Just as mouths are for smiling, kissing and talking, breasts serve more than one function. Lactation for nutrition and comfort is a normal, biological role of mammary tissue.

If children at the school see a mother nursing her child, they may have questions about feeding babies, leading to an educational opportunity. Parents are best equipped to talk about the biological foundations of human reproduction when children have a frame of reference for how babies grow and are nourished. A child can understand that after living 9 months in the womb, following birth, a child continues to be nurtured by the mother's body. A child learns to respect women and to honor the human body by learning about how wondrously humans are made.

As a Christian woman, I value modesty and freedom. As a mother, I consider it a blessing to be able to partake in my children's education and nurture. We belong together as a family, and when my youngest child is hungry, I stay where I am to nurse. There is no reason to hide away to provide nourishment for my child, just as I do not hide myself away when I need to eat a meal. Eating together is fellowship, and I welcome my children into the company of others by teaching them that eating is a social activity.

Indiana state law recognizes that mothers and babies belong together so that a mother can nourish and nurture her young.

IC 16-35-6-1
Right to breastfeed
Sec. 1. Notwithstanding any other law, a woman may breastfeed her child anywhere the woman has a right to be.

A more appropriate school policy would be to cite the Indiana State Law verbatim, and to allow anyone with questions about the school policy to review the Indiana code.