Wednesday, November 27, 2002
It looked like any other picnic scene you would find in a Chapel Hill, N.C., park on a beautiful spring day. Lots of trees, grass, children, Frisbees, dogs and smoking grills. As my husband and I sat down to eat, an attractive woman sitting across from us deftly produced her breast to feed her baby, while introducing herself to my husband, correcting her 3-year-old and sampling the coleslaw. We were both amazed, but for different reasons. I was impressed at the poise she displayed and her expertise at multitasking. My husband was just amazed that he was able to carry on a conversation with her while pretending to be so interested in his baked beans. It was the perfect way to break him into the world of breastfeeding—gently, at a La Leche League barbeque, complete with beer and spare ribs.
We had just celebrated our first anniversary when I found myself in a new town, newly pregnant. Determined to do what few in my family had, I sought out the divas of the breastfeeding world, the LLL, an international breastfeeding advocacy group established in 1957. A few weeks before the picnic I attended my first LLL meeting. About 20 of us sat in a circle of aluminum chairs in a local parish hall. Some mothers were laden with their shiny new diaper bags and their even shinier new babies; others like me were just laden. I had heard breastfeeding could be tricky so I sat bug-eyed and intent on absorbing any and all wisdom. The neophytes with their 2-week-old babies clumsily and sometimes shyly fussed with bra snaps and positioning, while the seasoned veterans of the 10-month-olds and toddlers slung their children across their laps and latched them on like the latest belted accessory.
"Why did you choose to breastfeed?" a leader asked the group. After a few heartfelt comments about increased bonding and breastfed babies having higher IQs, one expectant mother matter-of-factly grabbed her breasts and said, "Isn't that why God gave us these things?" After my initial shocked laughter at her bluntness, I was stunned by the truth of the statement. I thought, these "things" really do serve a purpose.The male gender may tell you differently, but feeding is the intended function of breasts.
According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mississippi has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest rate for breast-feeding of all 50 states. Thanks to that stat, we became the target for the debut of the controversial group's recent anti-dairy campaign. If you were driving in South Jackson last spring, you might have seen public breastfeeding at its grandest scale: a billboard depicting a Renaissance-style painting of the Virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus with the heading "If it was Good Enough for Jesus." followed by "The Breast is Best—DumpDairy.com." You might also have surmised that this caused quite a stir among some religious leaders and citizens. I say, "Why?" Did they think Mary sent Joseph out to Kroger for infant formula at three in the morning?
In our culture, the breast's irrational sexual stigma makes public breastfeeding taboo. Some women have been threatened with arrest for "exposing" themselves in public places while nursing. Feeding your child in public has become an act requiring protection by law in some locales. A New York state law passed in 1994 says, "any attempt to prevent a woman from breastfeeding a child, in any location where the woman has a right to be, is a violation of her civil rights, and includes stiff penalties for violation of the law." Forty percent of breastfeeding mothers have reported problems finding somewhere public to feed their baby, according to a UNICEF report. "Research reveals that mothers commonly decide against breastfeeding or will give up early because they have anticipated embarrassment or difficulties in feeding their babies in a public place," the report states.
We seem comfortable using women's cleavage to sell everything from cars to breakfast cereal, but damn the woman who tries to feed her hungry, crying baby in the middle of a mall or park. Traditional mores would have her retreat to the ladies room to "do that in private." How would you like to eat your lunch in a JC Penney bathroom?
We Southerners are among the most prim and proper body-conscience folks on the planet. And I am one of them. But I refuse to lead a life of self-imposed exile just because I choose to give my child the best possible start trough breastfeeding.
So, I'm the one in the booth at Broad Street chatting with my girlfriends, eating pasta salad, and introducing myself while feeding my child so discreetly you probably just thought he was sleeping. I do it publicly not for your entertainment or even to embarrass you or make a statement. I do it because my child is hungry.
Right on, Mimi! I remember my first LLL experience. My wife packed us up and hauled us to Parham Bridges park where the local chapter was staging a demonstration. We carried signs, balloons and pushed strollers around the mile-long walking path. Exercisers received our message loud and clear as they stepped aside for our caravan of Mam. Ingredients: One part quirk, one part great weather, two parts information, one tsp. activism and a dash of awkwardness. Result: Good memories of time well spent on a fair cause.
Good news, folks: The Mississippi breastfeeding bill just became law. I thought it had died in committee. Kudos to Barbour for showing good sense on this issue. Cheers, TH
- Tom Head