21 September 2007

The One about Boobs

Certain boobs are at work once again making it a rough couple of weeks for boobs everywhere.

Recently, Facebook decided to remove pictures that women post of themselves nursing. Apparently, it is a breech of their decency policies. Then, a Harvard medical student was denied the ability to take a long enough break during her board examine to pump for her child. And my favorite, Bill Maher has likened breastfeeding to masturbation. There are numerous other blog responses to his apparent idiocy, so I thought I'd put in my two sense.

Basically, Maher says that it's true that breastfeeding is natural, but no more natural than masturbation--and he doesn't do that at Applebee's (although I have my doubts). The whole nursing in public, for Maher, comes down to poor planning, laziness, and a streak of exhibitionism. Women apparently don't plan ahead to feed their babies out of eye-sight, are too lazy to cover up, and want to be recognized and applauded for having a child in the first place, something that Maher says "even a dog can do."

There's a lot to be upset about with Maher's comments, not the least of which is the applause and laughter each witty little quip receives by both his audience and his guests. But I also understand where he's coming from.

When I decided to nurse Little Man, it was one of the easiest and hardest decision I ever made. I read all of the information I could get my hands on, so I knew that breast milk was best for babies. I knew all about the health benefits it could have for him and for me both. It was really only that knowledge and the desire to do everything I could for my new baby, to give him the best start I could, that kept me going. Because any mother out there who's tried it knows that it's not easy--and at first it's downright stressful, hard, and often painful.

I didn't grow up around anyone nursing. Apparently one of my aunts nursed her kids, but she must have been so stealthy, so private that I never realized what was happening. To be honest, the idea of nursing freaked me out. It seemed odd, unnatural. I'd look at the La Leche League website and wonder why people would take pictures of women nursing their children. They seemed too intimate, too provocative to be happily floating around cyberspace. I watched the video about how to latch the baby on at the class I attended and vowed that no nurse was going to help hold my boob up for me. I thought that I would probably just pump and bottle feed. Bottles were all I new of babies; bottles seemed most natural to me.

And then Little Man arrived and all of my grand plans went right out the window. Ten hours after his birth, two nurses and J were all trying to help me get him latched on. I was too worried to be weirded out by it--my baby needed to eat. I learned that there was nothing remotely convenient about pumping. I cringed the first time I saw my Mother-in-law giving a bottle to my baby. Sure, it let me take a little extra nap, but that was my job. It seemed, suddenly, so unnatural to see someone hold that cold piece of plastic up to the little mouth that now knew so instinctively how to search out warm flesh.

It still took awhile for me to nurse in public, though. I would retreat back into my bedroom when people visited, and sit alone while Little Man got his fill. I would nurse in the car, in fitting rooms, in that lovely nursing room at our local mall. And then, when he was about 3 months old, we took a trip down south. Somewhere in Oxford, MS outside of the square that Faulkner immortalized in The Sound and the Fury, he was hungry and it was too hot to sit in any car to feed him. So the first place I ever nursed in public was a small, upscale pizzeria in Oxford, MS. I was as discreet as possible, but I was still worried that people were looking, and judging.

After that, nursing in public and in front of family and friends got easier. I nursed anywhere he needed to eat--at a winery in Ashtabula, in a steakhouse in NY City, in parks, and in malls. If people were offended, they never said anything, and after my initial experience, I stopped caring.

Nursing was something I had to grow into. It wasn't easy. It didn't seem natural. And, it does entail a certain loss of self. You have to give up part of yourself to another human being and you have to give up your original ideas about how you are connected to your body, and how your body is connected to the world.

At some point around the time Little Man was about 5 months old, I knew the transformation was complete, because suddenly I wanted one of those pictures. I wanted to be able to remember someday what it was like to have that bond with my son. I'm not sure that J understood, but he obliged. It's a somewhat blurry image--you can't really see much, because we're silhouetted by the lamp. When Little Man sees it someday, he probably won't even realize what it's a picture of, but I will. And I'm happy to have it.

So I can understand Maher's reluctance to accept nursing as something that is publicly acceptable, but that doesn't really quell my anger. The problem with his logic is that while dogs also give birth, no one sees them as any less valuable for it. No one tells Spanky to go nurse her pups in some dark corner or some dirty bathroom. Heck, Spanky can lick any part of herself, and no one bats an eye. No one expects any less of a dog than to do what's natural--to feed her offspring, but when it comes to humans, the boobs are already owned by others. That's why, as Maher says, the only restaurant boobs belong in is Hooters. They're safe there--happily on display. A luxury rather than a necessity.

Nursing is hard. The decision to do it is often difficult, and the act itself is a challenge every moment of every day. These sorts of decisions, to make it into something offensive or dirty do such a disservice to women, but also to children. Breastmilk is better than formula--that's why all of the formula companies claim that their product is close to approximating it. But our children won't have the opportunity to get it as long as nationally known figures keep condemning nursing as something sexual and dirty.

Maher sees the whole nursing public issue as one indication of how far awry activism has gone in our country. For him, it's pointless and narcissistic activism to be a lactivist. He won't ever realize just how wrong he is. The impulse to lash out against nursing mothers is the same impulse that underlies so many issues that affect women. It's the impulse to tell women how their bodies are allowed to be displayed, to be used, to be controlled.

Maher's right-- nursing is dangerous. It lets women see power within their bodies. It lets women realize their own strength. It de-sexualizes the breast and takes it off the market. It undermines every reason that Hooters exists. Nursing is most certainly a personal decision and it is an intimate act, but that doesn't make it one unfit for the public sphere.

Little Man has long since weaned. It happened quickly, with little fanfare. Now, when I see a mother nursing, my heart leaps a bit, because I remember that bond and because I now realize how fast it all goes. And I also know that the more women make the decision and commitment to nurse, the more irrelevant Maher and his type will be.

Once, when I was sitting at my grandma's kitchen table, talking with her, and nursing, she asked, "It's just special, isn't it?" "Yep," I replied. Because, really, that was the only word for it.


Pam said...

I understand what your saying about nursing. Even though I didn't follow through and coninute to nurse Morgan (more because of Dakota than anything else) The times I did nurse her and do it right I felt great, I felt like I'd accomplished something, other than having this beautifly perfect healthy baby girl. I was never exposed to nursing a baby untill you nursed your son, which is part of the reason I tried with Morgan. I still found that a bottle is more convient, at least for me, chasing around a 18 month old and nursing what just not working. Dakota was formula feed and has hit every milestone and has grown healthy and happy. People who decide to nurse their baby should have every right to feed that child whenever that child is hungry. When peole get hungry and are out in public, they walk up to the many fast food, or vending machines that are out and eat, infront of people, in public! Babies can't say I might get hungry when we're out mom, you should feed me now so other people won't feel weird.

Candy Rant said...

Great post, L.D.

I've always been annoyed by Bill M. So smug, and no reason to be. He's a perfect example of how bitter a guy can get when he never, ever gets laid.
The irritating sidekick of the guy who does get the girl.

Mad Grad Mom said...

I wonder if a nursing mother would be asked to leave a Hooters?

Mad Grad Mom said...

Oh, and of all the things I did wrong (and will do wrong), I know nursing was the right thing. I have never been more proud of anything.

It took us three whole weeks to figure it out. Most women would have given up. I would cry and cry in the early weeks. It hurt; it kept me up; it took so much time out of my day. But it mattered to me. I felt strongly about it.

And I nursed The Toddler until he was 23 months old. And he was and is healthier and better for it, I know.

LD said...

I feel the same way-- it was the one thing I'll never doubt that I got right.

Veronica Mitchell said...

This was such a sensitive and beautiful response to an offensive rant. Very well done.

Stu said...

This great post has been nominated for "Hot Stuff Of The Week" by our readers at GNMParents - Congrats, and good luck in the voting!

Meg said...

This post has WON the Hot Stuff award!
It really deserved it. Thanks for sharing your perspective so beautifully.
Please email me for your button to display!
hatchew at hot mail dot com

Mad Grad Mom said...

Yea!! I always knew you were hot stuff, but now you have that bitchin' button to prove it. You rock, LD.

persephone said...

Wonderfully written, it is special and the more women feel comfortable in their own skin; especially nursing in public, the more and more extinct people like Bill Maher will become.

He sickens me, as does he view. He doesn't have a boob and would not know the slightest thing about breast feeding... Sometimes, even with careful planning, you can be out in public and BOOM, hungry strikes.

I have been exclusively breast feeding for almost 5 months now, it is special, and I am so happy I made the decision I did.