Grihalakshmi magazine cover breaks taboo of public breastfeeding; misplaced public outrage not women's problem
The only way to fight this breastfeeding taboo is to keep doing it in public until it becomes so pervasive and so common that it’s normal.
In December last year, I had hired a substitute help for my home, who I had to fire in three days, because she called me a 'shameless woman'. Her reason: I was breastfeeding in front of...hold your breath ... my husband. The irony of this statement was clearly lost on her. But it was not lost on me.
As a new mother, I have been shamed for many things...for still looking 'pregnant' (this came from a bestselling author who has recently declared herself a 'feminist'), for caring about my weight at ‘a time like this’, for working, for not working, for cancelling plans, for keeping plans, for sleeping at 9 pm, for not sleeping at 9 pm, for giving my baby a little formula, for not giving her enough formula, for suddenly losing hair, for keeping my long hair, for yawning all the time, for drinking coffee, for not being able to travel on a whim, for managing to travel, for not being 'fun' anymore, for trying to have a little fun, for taking a sip of wine, for abstaining from alcohol, for wanting to eat cake all the time, for not eating enough, for talking about how hard being a new mother is, for pretending that motherhood is a cakewalk ... all of which I can deal with. But I refuse to be shamed for breastfeeding.
Why? Firstly, because breastfeeding is one of the toughest things a new mother does. In fact, when I see all those supposedly sensational photos of mothers’ breastfeeding, my only reaction is… “Wow Mommy, you did it!” You managed to let a child latch on to your nipples… sorry, areola. You managed to master the football hold, the cradle hold, the crossover hold, to figure which one your baby is most comfortable in. You managed to produce enough milk to keep your ever-hungry baby satiated through the long days and longer nights. You managed to wake up at 1 am, and 3 am, and 5 am, night after night, month after month so that your baby could get the best possible nutrition. You managed to have someone suck out all your nutrients while still managing to stay strong. You managed to master the tips and tricks that help lactation consultants buy Jaguars. Hats off! You deserve a medal, not shame.
Secondly, how is a mother expected to avoid breastfeeding in public? People seem to forget that babies are hungry... all the time…that a mother has to feed her child every two to three hours … that a baby typically feeds for anywhere between 30 or 60 or sometimes 90 minutes (if you're unlucky), let’s out a—hopefully—satisfactory burp, does not puke all over you, plays or sleeps for maybe 30 or 60 or sometimes 90 minutes (if you're lucky), and then gets hungry again. So a new mother is breastfeeding anywhere between 8-12 hours a day. This can go on for six months or 12 months or 18 months or even longer for some mothers. What does the world want these mothers to do? Lock themselves up in their home every day for the next two years? Post-partum depression much? Or do they want mothers to perfectly synchronise their going out time in the short time that the baby plays or sleeps? “Hey ... I'm calling an Uber...it's almost here...oops, gotta cancel ... the baby is hungry again.” Get the picture? Do you know how many mothers, myself included, have had to pump for hours, or succumb to bottle-feeding formula even when we want to breastfeed, just to avoid yanking out our ‘shameful’ life-giving breasts in public? When adults and children can eat out in public, why should babies be denied? We need to make it okay for a mother to step out with her baby while making sure that her baby doesn't starve. The only way to do this is to normalise breastfeeding in public. Remember, a happy mother makes a happy baby.
Thirdly, there is this whole chatter about the protocol around breastfeeding in public. Women are told to run to the nearest covered area, which is inevitably always a toilet. I have done the same to avoid public shaming. Do you know how dirty our toilets are? When we shrivel away from sitting down on toilet seats, how can we feed babies on them? Breasts are seen as titillating sex objects. But so were bellies and arms till our culture normalised these. Fine. Use a nursing cover, you say? Oh, the cover that leaves my child either breathless, or sweaty, or uncomfortable because it's so restrictive. What if someone put you inside a large sweater in 36 degrees and then told you to eat your meal? Would you enjoy it?
A lot of people think that breastfeeding in public is disgusting. That’s why, Grihalakshmi, the Kerala-based magazine that put a breastfeeding model on their cover in order to destigmatise breastfeeding, is getting sued. This is despite efforts around the world to remove taboos around the topic, whether it’s Gap’s new ad that shows a woman breastfeeding or Lisa Haydon recently showing a photo of herself breastfeeding. And it isn’t just the models doing it. Larissa Waters breastfed her child in the Australian Parliament drawing both compliments and outrage from around the world.
These women are normalising the visual image of a baby feeding, as it should be. Breastfeeding is, frankly speaking, the most normal and natural thing in the world. It is as pervasive as breathing, eating and walking. If you’re living, chances are that you’ve been breastfed or have breastfed. So what’s the big deal? Rural women across India breastfeed their children in the open, their lack of private space creating in-roads for public acceptance. They own the space and the act. So should women elsewhere. A week after I was called a shameless woman for breastfeeding in front of my husband, I was in Lonavala on a family vacation. I took my baby for an early morning walk around the resort. At some point she got hungry. My room was far away. So I sat down in the nearby garden and fed my child. People came and went, some stared, most looked away, everyone dealt with it. Life didn’t stop. The world didn’t stop. I made it their problem, not mine. I decided that their reaction reflected who they were, not who I was.
The only way to fight this breastfeeding taboo is to keep doing it in public until it becomes so pervasive and so common that it’s normal. So, if you're a new mother, like me, then breastfeed wherever you feel like, in airports, restaurants, parks and any other public place. Use a nursing cover if you feel like, or don’t. Your priority is your baby, not age-old stigmas. If someone stares, stare back. If someone passes a comment, tell them to show some respect for this very ‘maa ka doodh’ that gave them life. If they take a photograph, take theirs back, and report them under Section 67 of the IT Act. Remember, even at airports there are separate smoking rooms for smokers, but no nursing rooms. Until nursing facilities are provided, let the men look away, not you ... let the nation feel ashamed, not you. Don’t change yourself for the system; let them get uncomfortable enough to change the system for you. Celebrate being a mother; you’ve earned it.
Meghna Pant is an award-winning author, columnist, feminist and TEDx Speaker. You can follow her on Twitter @MeghnaPant.
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