I have spent the better part of the past seven years breastfeeding. Throughout those years, I have wondered now and again if someone might someday say something negative to me for nursing in public. Many women wonder if they will encounter this. You hear about it from friends or read about it in blogs or magazines. You know it happens to people. Some of us hope it will happen to us, because we're lactivists and we will either use it as an opportunity to educate or relish telling someone off, on behalf of all the breastfeeding moms and babies out there. Some of us wonder how we'll react - whether we'll rise to the occasion or wither. Some of us live in fear of it, to the degree that we cover our babies under blankets or nurse only in our cars or in restroom stalls. Or we just don't leave the house. Or we just don't breastfeed at all.
Seven years. I do not breastfeed on public toilets. I have nursed my children walking through Costco pushing my huge cart with one hand. I have nursed at playgroups, restaurants, museums, stores, the dentist, and the hair salon. I've walked all of Disneyland nursing my babies. I've breastfed between two large men - strangers to me - on an airplane. I've breastfed at parks, festivals, indoor play gyms, and swimming pools. No one - no one - has ever said anything negative to me in all those years, in any of the public places I have breastfed my kids. Until now.
I do not recall your exact words. I don't know for certain that you didn't ask me to go to your conference room. But I know it did not feel like a question, or even a suggestion. And it certainly did not feel like an offer. It felt like a demand, and an accusation. I felt as though I was being addressed as a child who had done something wrong. A child who made you angry, and should feel ashamed.
I don't know what your perception of me was during our exchange. I tried to be civil. I held my tongue, knowing that it would be best to take time to cool down before addressing your concern.
I was one of the women who wondered if I might wither if confronted. As angry as I was, I know if I had been anywhere else, I would have reacted much differently. But this is the school where my oldest son is in second grade and my three-year-old is in speech therapy. The school where I have spent countless hours as a volunteer, tutoring for Stampeding Readers, pulling books from the literacy library. The school where I am a room mom and a co-chair of the silent auction. This is the school my breastfed baby will attend in five or six years. I'll have children in this school until 2023.
So I held my tongue in the moment. I did not come home and mobilize to stage a nurse-in. I did not alert the media. But I began the rough draft of this letter, which is my diplomatic way of communicating to you that I will not require your conference room. I will not prioritize anyone's comfort over my baby's. I will feed him wherever I am whenever he is hungry. It's called nursing on demand, and it is protected by law.
Sec. 165.002. RIGHT TO BREAST-FEED. A mother is entitled to breast-feed her baby in any location in which the mother is authorized to be.
I do not know anything about your knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, your personal experience with it, or your professional experience with other breastfeeding mothers. I can only guess that you may have believed you were offering me adequate support while avoiding discomfort that could be felt by other parents. After all, breasts are over-sexualized in our culture, and many people have difficulty with the notion that their primary function is to nurture our offspring. I can sympathize with your position, if not with theirs. And while they may feel they have a right to demand that their children not be exposed to breastfeeding, I also have a right. My child has a right. And our right is the one that has legal protection.
I am a modest breastfeeder. I guarantee that I will not pop my breast out of a tank top in the cafeteria one day. I will always, as I did that day, carefully arrange my shirt around my child's face. Even as he grows into a squirmy toddler who pulls at my shirt or becomes distracted while nursing, I will make every effort to keep my breasts under cover. This is the best I can do to make others comfortable. But I will not otherwise prioritize the comfort of others over the comfort of my baby, or even over my own comfort. And I am not comfortable hiding away to feed my baby as though I am doing something shameful.
Six years ago I took my oldest son to a playgroup. He had just learned to walk, but I knew I wanted to breastfeed for at least another year. The World Health Organization recommends that babies be breastfed for at least two years, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby want to continue. But once he was officially a toddler, stumbling about at 12 months, I was nervous about breastfeeding him in public. We left the playgroup to nurse in the car. Later I called on a friend, another attachment parenting mom who was breastfeeding her two-year-old. She said that she feels an obligation to breastfeed in public, to normalize it. And I knew I would no longer be putting my little boy off until we were in a car. It became my obligation to help normalize breastfeeding.
But what if I were not experienced, unashamed, a lactivist? What if that short exchange we had, those eight or so sentences we spoke to each other, had made me decide that I could not breastfeed my baby at school, or anywhere public, where I might again be shamed by confrontation? What if as a result I had spent most of my time at home and the isolation brought on postpartum depression? Or what if I began to use formula when I went out, and my supply became inadequate, and in a matter of weeks my child was no longer able to benefit from my breastmilk? That is the risk that was taken. Because a request alone is enough to discourage public breastfeeding.
Do you know that breastfed children have higher grades and higher IQs, and are less likely to get sick, than formula-fed babies? Particularly advantageous benefits as far as schools should be concerned. Since I have children regularly bringing home germs from school, I'm thankful that my breast-milk contains antibodies to the germs I'm exposed to, protecting my baby from a lot of what he might otherwise contract. Breastfed babies have less constipation, diarrhea, and vomiting, and fewer and less serious respiratory illnesses. When they do get sick, they are less likely to become dehydrated. Breastfed babies have fewer problems with reflux and eczema, are less likely to need braces, and have better vision. They are less likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. They also have a decreased risk of developing:
juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
type 1 diabetes
urinary tract infections
e. coli infections
and childhood cancers.
More information can be found on the website askdrsears.com, and at http://www.notmilk.com/101.
html there are 101 benefits listed with references cited.
No one can claim a right to deny someone else's baby these benefits - there are just too many, and they are of too much importance, for anyone's desires to outweigh them.
Likewise, a parent who does not want his or her child to see a baby being fed as nature designed, does not outweigh my right to less postpartum anxiety and depression, and a decreased risk of osteoporosis, uterine and ovarian cancer, and breast cancer, which killed my mother when she was 43 years old.
For all of these reasons and more, breastfeeding is recommended by, among others:
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Dietetic Association
The American Academy of Family Physicians
Association of Women’s Health
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
United States Department of Health & Human Services
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
Links to position papers and so much more can be found at http://kellymom.com/pregnancy/
bf-prep/bf-benefits/ . The CDC published "The CDC Guide to Breastfeeding Interventions," (http://www.cdc.gov/ breastfeeding/pdf/BF_guide_9. pdf) in which they address the need for interventions to increase public acceptance. Among other things, it highlights curriculum developed by New York state in which education regarding breastfeeding is integrated into other subjects for K-12 (http://www.health.ny.gov/ community/pregnancy/ breastfeeding/education.htm). But it's difficult for mothers to follow the recommendations of so many educated professionals when we are not made to feel that breastfeeding is socially acceptable. And when a woman is asked to nurse in private, whether intentional or not, the message is that it is not OK to nurse in public.
You are in a unique position as a principal. You are the authority figure of authority figures at school. You have a great impact on the lives of our children, one that I trust will continue to be positive for my own children, because you are a professional and their success is important to you. In a school so large, you are likely to have another exchange regarding breastfeeding in the future, and your words will carry a lot of weight. I hope that through sharing my perspective, you realize that even just asking a mother not to nurse in public risks ultimately damaging that woman and child's future breastfeeding. I don't know how you came to know that I was discreetly breastfeeding my 12-week-old in the virtually empty lobby. I can only imagine that someone complained. You could see more of a Disney princess's breast than I show of mine when I am breastfeeding, but presumably someone complained, or for some reason mentioned it to you. If that should happen again, I hope that instead of addressing other mothers in this way, you will consider informing anyone who complains that she is protected by law. As for me, if ever again you receive a complaint, I would happily and diplomatically field that myself. I would also happily type up a flyer or make a presentation at a meeting to educate people on the benefits of breastfeeding and the influence of barriers such as requesting privacy of a publicly breastfeeding mother, if you would permit it. But regardless of the impact of this letter, I need you to understand that I will be breastfeeding my son whenever he needs to be fed.
This letter is going to be published in a magazine, a newsletter, and on a couple of blogs, to serve as a resource for other mothers who are harassed when nursing in public. I reserve no rights. Any part of this letter MAY be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means. If it can help you to educate and persuade someone, feel free to tailor it to your situation as needed and use it.
Unfortunately, this letter did not (yet) bring about the desired results. If you'd like to urge our district to change its discriminatory policy, whether or not you live in Austin, please check out the rest of my blog to see how you can show your support. We're on facebook and twitter, we have a petition, and have started a letter-writing campaign. Commenting here helps to show your support, as well. Thank you so much!