Breastfeeding Is Not Shameful

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We were at Tristan’s soccer game with Aspen, our new baby. I
went to give Tristan his water, and when I came back, Mel was gone and so was
the baby. My mother-in-law, Joan, was there. She’d been watching Norah, our
four-year-old. I asked where Mel was, and Joan said, “She went to feed the baby
in the car.”
It was bullshit that she needed to do that.
Why did she needed to go sit in a hot car and miss her son’s
soccer game, simply because she needed to feed the baby. On the drive to the
game I’d seen half exposed breasts on the side of a bus. They were probably
selling beer or a cellphone or something. That was, apparently, socially
acceptable. But using breasts for their intended purpose, feeding a baby, had
become so socially unacceptable, that my wife felt compelled to shut herself
away.
Keep in mind that this was obviously not our first child. It
was our third. Mel tried to breastfeed with Tristan, but had to go back to work
after her six-week maternity leave was up. She found it too difficult to keep
up with her fulltime job while trying to pump. She worked at a hardware store,
and the thought of breaking out a breast pump every few hours and trying to
find a good place to hook up didn’t work well with her, or her employer. So we
gave Tristan formula.
With Norah, Mel tried to breastfeed again, but about two
months after Norah was born, doctors found a tumor in Mel’s jaw. She had to
have surgery, which required medication that ruined her milk. Once again, we
ended up bottle-feeding.
This time, however, Mel was determined to do it. To
breastfeed our baby for one year. When she announced it, I assumed her determination
was a result of all the struggles she’d had breastfeeding our other two kids.
But then, as I sat at the soccer game, thinking about Mel feeding in the car, I
wondered if there was more to it than I’d originally thought.
Later that day, we talked about how Aspen had lost more than
10% of her birth weight. Mel and her mother had been driving Aspen to the
hospital every other day to have her weighed, and every time, the nurses spoke
to Mel as though she were intentionally starving her daughter.
“I’m so frustrated!” she said.
Mel mentioned how the hospital was 45 minutes from our home
in Small Town Oregon. But that time is almost doubled if you count stops to
feed the baby.
“I’m behind in one of my classes because it takes so long to
bring her into the hospital. I’m probably missing feedings because of the
commute.” She went on, telling me about her struggles to find a secluded place
to feed Aspen while driving to the hospital: parking in far corners of shopping
centers, or feeding Aspen in ladies restrooms at gas stations or McDonald’s. As
she described it, it sounded like she was doing something really wrong,
something illegal, or flat out shameful. It reminded me of how difficult it was
to find a secluded place to smoke pot when I was in high school.
I couldn’t help but wonder if part of the reason she was
having so much trouble getting Aspen to gain weight was because finding a place
to feed her was so difficult.
As we talked about all this, I thought about how I was, at
one time, part of the problem. When I was 22, just after I got married, I waited
tables at the Olive Garden. I’d been working there about six months when a
woman at my table put a blanket over her chest and fed her baby. This was the
first time I’d been in close proximity to a woman breastfeeding. I was the
youngest in my family, and obviously the world had sheltered me from this
normal fact of life.
I went as far as to complain to some of my coworkers about
it. Mostly men. And they all agreed how gross it was to have a woman
breastfeeding out in the open. We discussed it like she was doing something
wretched and wrong that should only be done in a dark place, away from human
eyes.
I avoided her table until she was done.
When I got home, I mentioned what happened to Mel. I told
her that I couldn’t believe someone would do that in public, and how everyone
at work was grossed out.
We’d been married less than a year, and Mel hadn’t gotten
comfortable speaking her mind yet. She didn’t say anything, and at the time I
assumed that her silence was her way of saying that I was right. Thinking back,
however, I was sadly confirming a social frustration that she was already aware
of.
I was reinforcing her fear that breastfeeding in public was
something to be shunned.
Now, thinking back on this moment, and considering how Mel
feels compelled to breastfeed in in secluded places, I feel like a complete
asshole.
The day after Tristan’s soccer game, Mel showed me an
article in the Huffington Post titled, What
You’re Really Saying When You Tell Moms Not To Breastfeed In Public.
It
discussed the “When Nurture Calls” campaign. Art
students at the University of North Texas created a
series of ads for a class project that show mothers breastfeeding in
unsanitary, cramped bathrooms. The point? To drive home the idea that nursing
women, and their babies, deserve better.
I’d never seen my wife breastfeed in a bathroom. I’d only imagined
it. However, looking at these photos really hit home. I felt terrible for her.
I felt angry that she had to do this to feed our baby.
To keep her from losing weight. To keep her healthy.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video
game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play
dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of
fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial
and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley
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Showing 6 comments
  • Danielle

    Have they checked to see if your daughter is tongue tied? as a long term nurser (and one who will after 3 kids nurse anywhere despite the looks I get… I'd educating them). Both my daughters were tongue tied at birth and we had to go thru the daily weighing and stress, but after a simple 5 minute process of a frenulectomy (these are big words considering I've only had one cup of coffee, more info here: http://www.entcolumbia.org/frenul.html they both started gaining weight like normal babies and my supply came back up. Not sure it it applies or not, but I'm a huge3 supporter and cheerleader for nursing, and nursing in public, and often the tongue tie is missed until it is too late and the baby has developed a bad latch and supply has gone down. Congrats Mel on wanting to make it work, and don't leave the sidelines to nurse, the hell with that, if they don't like it, they can miss their kids game… they should be watching the game anyway not you feeding your baby.

    • Clint

      Hey, Danielle: We finally met with our doctor last week, and she checked to see if Aspen was tongue tied ( I didn't realize it was a medical problem, just a social one). Anyway, they said she looked fine. By this point she'd been gaining weight, so I think we are in the clear. And I am with you, to hell with people who don't like it!

    • Becca

      Some babies take longer to gain and some are never really chubby. My third son was behind on weight gain at his one-week checkup, but then caught up in the next week. I hope Aspen continues to do well!

    • Clint

      Hey, Becca: She is doing very well. Her last check up was right on target!

  • Becca

    I nurse with a cover on in most public situations, so that I can sit out where everyone else is sitting. I do wonder whether it's important socially for my baby to see me, to be able to have eye contact. And it's so much easier to feed when I can see what his mouth is doing… The baby's needs should be most important when we see a breastfeeding mother, not our own comfort!

    • Clint

      I agree.