Larissa Waters and breastfeeding in public: Can ordinary working women do the same?

Larissa Waters, a Greens MP, addressed the Australian Parliament while breast feeding her 14-week-old baby on 22 June 2017.  The picture of Larissa standing on the floor of the Parliament with the baby latched to her breast went viral, and made international headlines.

Senator Larissa Waters breastfeeds her baby while delivering a speech in Australian Parliament. YouTube screengrab

Senator Larissa Waters breastfeeds her baby while delivering a speech in Australian Parliament. YouTube screengrab

But she was not the first woman Parliamentarian to make such a statement.  Last year, a senator in Iceland breastfed her baby on the podium while defending a Bill. The headline in Huffington Post then read “Icelandic Lawmaker Breastfeeds Her Baby Like A Boss While Addressing Parliament”.

'Like a boss' is right. Because if at all any woman can feed her baby while at work, she would have to be the boss. Not a regular working professional who has to leave her baby in someone else’s care with bottles of expressed milk. Could such a woman even attend an office meeting with her baby at her breast, let alone address it? Most probably she wouldn’t be allowed to bring her baby into the office at all.

Or what if she is a garment factory worker who is not even given a proper lavatory break? Will she get time off to feed her baby? She would probably have left her infant at home with an older sibling or relative who would feed it diluted formula milk. Yes, ironically, the nourishing breast milk which comes for free and breast feeding which is a natural act of bonding, have both become luxuries which many working mums cannot afford today.

All the more ironic because not so long ago, in our country, breast feeding was the norm. The mothers might have been malnourished, but often the babies grew up exclusively on breast milk which was the only nourishment they could afford to give. Formula milk was being touted as a healthier alternative to breast milk those days and for many a working class mum, it was aspirational to feed her baby formula.

Breast feeding in public was no big deal then. Ordinary women breastfed their babies without attracting any special attention. In the train, at weddings, at family functions, in the park and even on street platforms, one would find women with their saris covering their breasts and the tiny heads of their suckling babies. The sari covering served two purposes: it gave the baby a private and peaceful place to suckle and more importantly in our Indian context, it gave no space for the evil eye to fall on the feeding baby! A partially-exposed breast was the least of their concerns under those circumstances.

Women not only breastfed their own babies, but they also fed other babies who did not have access to mother’s milk.  And they were not ashamed to talk about it. My grandmother, who passed out of Queen Mary’s college in (then) Madras in 1921, had just joined college when she gave birth to my father. She got a relative to feed her baby when she had to attend class. This woman was respected for having nourished my father and my mother was asked to get her blessing when she married into the family.

A lactating woman could even hire out her services to a mother who couldn’t feed her own child because her milk had dried up or to the family of a child who had lost its mother. All this was acceptable and spoken about openly in family circles. Suckling a child was a natural act and women were not self-conscious about it.

So when and why did this change? When did women get queasy about exposing themselves while feeding their babies? Did the British impose some kind of distorted Victorian moral code which dictated women should not expose their breasts in public?

It is more likely that women stopped feeding their babies so extensively and in public once they started getting into the professional mainstream.

Offices have traditionally been male-dominated spaces. They were created by men and sculpted to suit their comfort levels. The office became a sacrosanct space which excluded the family and all the domestic issues which went with it, including child bearing and child rearing. Office going professionals had to shed their families and all thoughts of their families when they crossed the threshold of their work places.

For a long time, women were excluded from these all-male preserves and when they did enter very tentatively, they became ersatz men. No maternity leave. No coming late to office. No creches. No time off to attend to a sick child. And certainly no space for thinking of breast feeding. They accepted these rules because they needed the money and the independence it brought.

Legislation brought in some change, but not enough. They still had to leave breast feeding infants in someone else’s care and rush back to office to hold onto their jobs.

That’s when scientific innovation came to their rescue. First there was formula milk then came the breast pumps.  Breast pumps are more than 100 years old and were initially used mostly for relieving women whose breasts were engorged with milk. Today the breast pump, the fridge in which the milk can be stored and the caregiver who will see that the baby gets it on time ensure that the woman can focus on her work, just like the “wet nurse” ensured my grandmother could focus on her studies.

But what about the working women who cannot afford these luxuries? What about domestic service providers or shop assistants or garment factory workers? They cannot take their babies to work and they cannot afford high end care for their babies. Breast feeding often becomes an unaffordable option as they do not get feeding breaks and cannot afford the entire paraphernalia of breast pumps et al.  And so the baby who once would have grown up solely on nourishing mother’s milk now has to survive on low quality, diluted formula milk.

Some of the public spaces which were available for breast feeding have now disappeared. Very rarely do you see women feeding their babies on trains or in a waiting room. Feeding in public has become something to be ashamed of. And sadly, in most public places like railway stations bus stops or even airports, there are no places where a woman can feed her infant in privacy.

Yes, the two senators made powerful statements all right and I cannot ever imagine anything remotely similar happening in any of our Houses of Parliament in the foreseeable future.

But, forget women MPs, how relevant are such gestures to ordinary working women anywhere in the world?

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2017 10:23 AM

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