Ricki Lake has a new video about breastfeeding, “Breastmilk.” She made the movie to give a balanced view of the choices facing new mothers, but some of the “Breastmilk” promos suggest it will exacerbate women’s insecurities about the choices facing them. The Christian Science Monitor published a post expressing hope this documentary might quell the Mommy Wars. Alas, about a week later, Good Morning America’s promo of the movie used the Mommy Wars for publicity: “Ricki Lake’s ‘Breastmilk’ video stirs Mommy Wars Debate.”
In that promo, Lake mentions that to break the taboos around breastfeeding, we need to start a discussion about its value. Readers might be forgiven any confusion about a call to start a discussion about breastfeeding. Discussions about breastfeeding are not new or rare; they aren’t even marginalized. And despite all of the complaints about breastfeeding taboos, it is not the feeding method that draws society’s disproval.
Nursing Taboo and Confirmation Bias
Lake’s promotional comments about an infant breastfeeding stigma are common, but unsubstantiated. Certainly, there have been instances of individual members of the public reacting poorly to a breastfeeding woman, but ask breastfeeding women, search the comments on blog posts—there are fewer actual stories of shaming nursing women in public than one would expect given the number of nurse-ins. It is mostly solidarity. Sort the stories for the few mothers who do not attempt discretion, which isn’t about nursing phobia as much as violating rules of public spaces like the loud cellphone talker on a commuter train, and the evidence of societal nursing phobia mostly evaporates.
Consider Facebook’s recent policy change regarding breastfeeding photos. Facebook got a reputation for being anti-breastfeeding for taking down photos of women nursing, but Facebook was taking a position on nudity, not breastfeeding, prohibiting pictures that showed a nipple. Given pornography laws, Facebook having a blanket prohibition against even incidental nudity made perfect sense.
The battleground isn’t over breastfeeding, but consideration in shared spaces. As it happens, the women of The Federalist have found that public breastfeeding without forcing engagement draws no objection even from groups the Conventional Wisdom assumes would object.
Leslie Loftis: I breastfed for three years on two continents, occasionally in public, including restaurants, airplanes, parks, and church. I recall only two instances of breastfeeding disapproval: a girlfriend’s yuck-smirk, which wasn’t really about breastfeeding but about messiness, and a little old lady in London who simply told my friend and me that breastfeeding was done in bedrooms in the past and that’s the way it should be. (We were each nursing a baby on my friend’s front stoop at the time.)
Joy Pullmann: I’ve nursed my current infant son on something like fourteen airplanes now and have had no awkward comments or even looks from the mostly male passengers sitting right next to us. Of course we’re covered up, and I try not to have us both flailing about, either, but I think it’s extremely obvious what we’re doing. I have had not one negative experience, with my baby or the other two, and I’ve been nursing now for something like almost 4 years straight (kids close together).
The many campaigns (some musical) for nursing empowerment create a confirmation bias that makes women more likely to interpret any reaction that isn’t obvious endorsement as criticism. A glance and quickly averted eyes might simply be an attempt to be polite, to make the mother more comfortable. Or, when a woman asks a shopkeeper or host where she may nurse, that person might suggest a private location—even a bathroom—on the assumption that the nursing mother wants privacy. It isn’t a conspiracy to shame publicly nursing women. It’s doubt and assumption.
Real Shaming Happens With Bottle and Formula Feeding
Unlike infant nursing, extended breastfeeding does carry a stigma, although, like indiscreet nursing, the controversy doesn’t focus on breastfeeding itself. If we mark the line of infant and extended nursing at when the child is capable of self-service—that is, acquiring access and latching on without the mother’s help—then two classes of objections arise, neither specifically about nursing. One, the feminist objection that the mother is being used as a service machine for another being. Two, the conservative objection that the child is not learning boundaries or restraint. But as for a stigma related to nursing, the biggest is bottle feeding.
In her promo, Lake mentions that hospitals are pushy about formula and that formula pushiness is part of what prompted her to make the documentary, to help women feel less pressure in their choices. But she does not mention how mothers are pushy about breastfeeding (or how some felt hospitals were so pushy about breastfeeding that they restricted formula in hospitals). The woman who bottle feeds her baby breastmilk in public earns the disapproval of women because of lack of public nursing solidarity. The woman who bottle feeds her baby formula in public—and yes, mothers can tell the difference—faces many more critical squinty looks than the mothers who nurse in public.
Jennifer Doverspike: I’ve gotten way more judgmental looks for formula feeding. The only time I felt comfortable doing it in public (formula, that is) is when I publicly nursed first and then pulled out a bottle, making it clear that I had no choice but to supplement.
Lake wants to empower women in their choices, but her “Breastmilk” documentary will probably just add more pressure to breastfeed, just as her “Business of Being Born” added more pressure to have the perfect birth. And that pressure and resulting stress sabotages many attempts to breastfeed. As Melissa Braunstein has written elsewhere, breast-feeding may be natural, but doing it right takes calm determination and support from those with experience (which I wrote up a few years ago).
If we really think nursing is best, then we serve women and babies better by helping women learn this skill and by managing their expectations—breastfeeding can be excruciatingly painful and complicated as well as intimately tied to a woman’s self-worth. Modern women’s reading is full of story-sharing and solidarity, but what we really need is some knowledge and practice.