Breastfeeding in Public: Utterly Normal

by Jennifer Garvey

When I read the recent Huffington Post headline stating that a professor had breastfed her child in class, my first thought was that this was a lactivist at work. In a nutshell, lactivists are advocates for breastfeeding, but to the point where it borders on extremism. La Leche League is a good example of this. While LLL is an amazing resource for nursing mothers, they often do not understand that sometimes, mothers cannot breastfeed due to a plethora of other reasons such as lack of resources. In fact, my mother called them years ago saying that due to post-partum depression, she wasn’t sure she could breastfeed anymore. Their answer? Just breastfeed.

Gustav Klimt, Mother and Child, 1905
Gustav Klimt, Mother and Child, 1905

If you asked my future in-laws, they would probably call me a lactivist, and I wouldn’t
mind the label. I have already warned them that once their son and I have children my titties are going to be all over the place. In restaurants, at the park, in my home, in their home, in the supermarket, in the–well, you get the idea. When I read, however, that a professor had breastfed at school, my initial reaction was, Really? Then I started to read the online responses to this incident, and I realized that this wasn’t just about a professor breastfeeding in her feminist anthropology class. This was about blatant discrimination against breastfeeding mothers in America, as well as our country’s overall lack of support for mothers who give their babies the boob.

You can read this article, from Professor Adrienne Pine, the breastfeeding professor in question, in which she discusses the entire incident. I wish Pine would not have defensively explained why she brought her baby to class and subsequently breastfed her. She explains that not only was her child sick and could not be left at daycare, but also this was the first day of class. Mothers should not have to explain why they have to bring their kids to work, nor why they have to feed their babies. Would this woman have gotten as much flack if she had just handed her kid a bottle? No. It’s because she breastfed.

Breasts serve a purpose. I am so sick and tired of people thinking breasts are only for
sexual purposes. As soon as a baby starts sucking on one, they get all weirded out. I’m sorry, but you sucking on my boobs the other day when we were having sex is okay, but seeing a baby do it weirds you out? Right… Once, at a family reunion, I defended breastfeeding, which caused my male cousin to get flushed, deepen his voice and say, “I’m gonna go check on my car.” “Yeah, yeah,” I teased him, “we get it you’re a man, but guess what you sucked on your mom’s boobs, so get over it.” My female family members erupted into laughter.

The fact is, mothers–especially breastfeeding mothers–do not always get the support
they need from their families, jobs, and communities. This is often a major reason why mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than they would like. Unless you live on a commune like The Farm among other home-birthers and breastfeeding gals, you will probably catch criticism for nursing in public at some point. I once flipped out at a friend who asked why women needed to breastfeed in public. He argued that mothers should just time things out and do it at home. He later apologized, telling me he thought babies only had to be breastfed three times a day. This is the problem: folks who don’t know anything about breastfeeding with opinions about how and where it should be done.

But Adrienne Pine bringing her child with her to class that day is nothing new. Many
mothers, especially single mothers, have no other choice because they cannot afford to pay for childcare and/or cannot miss a day of work. The real issue is not that Pine breastfed in class. The problem is twofold: that there is not adequate support for mothers, and that our country is so hyper-sexualized that we are adverse to breastfeeding even though it is so utterly (pun intended) natural. Even I had to get used to women breastfeeding in front of me because it is simply not something we as Americans see often–and trust me, I plan to walk into an Applebee’s  when I am a nursing mother just because they are so adverse to it. One of my close friends simply lifts her shirt, sticks her child under it and breastfeeds. I never see a nipple. Another time I was helping a woman at my job and she had her child in ergo carrier where he was facing her. I saw him fidget, and she pulled her cardigan to the side, jiggled her chest, and he latched. Again, no sight of nipple. Every time I see a mother breastfeeding in public I have to fight the urge to run up to her, give her a high-five, and yell, “Good for you!”

As long as people scold mothers for nursing in public, and Facebook takes down photos
like these, because they are “inappropriate,” the majority of Americans will continue to take issue with a mother nursing in public. We have to teach young children that there is nothing wrong with a mother nursing her baby in public, so they grow up to be conscientious adults, aware and informed about the double binds mothers face.

Breastfeeding is normal; it is how we as a species have made it this far. Without
lactation and breasts, we wouldn’t be here.


Jennifer Garvey is a women’s history graduate student writing her thesis on Wilhelmina Geipel, a midwife, who delivered close to 700 babies in multiple neighborhoods of Queens between 1890 and 1914.

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