You're out to dinner, or at the grocery store, or sitting in the movie theater, and you see a woman nursing her baby. How do you react? Do you avert your eyes awkwardly? Do you take to social media to tweet about how "gross" it is to witness this affront to public decency? (Some people do, really.) Perhaps you don't even notice. After all, what's the big deal? It's just food.
The past year has seen ample controversy and titillation surrounding breastfeeding. In May, we had the Time magazine "Are You Mom Enough?" cover, which portrayed a three-year-old boy sucking on his mother's breast — a provocative image meant to sell magazines that ballooned into a national conversation about parenting. Later that month, two Air National Guard moms stirred further agitation when they posed breastfeeding in uniform. Over the last few months, celebrities (we use the term loosely) such as Pink, Alanis Morissette, and Mayim Bialik have reiterated their support for breastfeeding. Now the topic is set to heat up in greater Portland.
This month, a coalition of local public-health organizations is launching the "Whenever, Wherever" campaign with the goal of breaking down social and logistical barriers to breastfeeding in public spaces around Southern Maine. With the slogan "Breastfeeding: We All Benefit," the group hopes to bolster support for and acceptance of nursing moms, and thereby increase both the number of women who breastfeed in Maine and the length of time for which they do so — all of which will make our communities healthier.
Starting in July, the Whenever, Wherever (WW) action team, comprised of public-health workers and volunteers, will approach local businesses and municipal spaces and ask them to become WW members. Those who agree will commit to displaying a sticker (akin to the Buy Local logos we are accustomed to seeing in Portland shops) and an employee education poster. They'll offer "acceptance and support and to give mothers a choice of seating [and] spaces," says the campaign website, weallbenefit.org. "Members will also agree that mothers will never be harassed, treated poorly, and asked to leave, cover up or move as a result of breastfeeding."
According to Maine law, "a mother has the right to breastfeed her baby in any location, whether public or private, as long as she is otherwise authorized to be in that location." But an informal survey of about 20 local moms conducted earlier this year by the We All Benefit coalition showed that women don't always feel comfortable exercising those rights. When asked to list public places that they consider to be "non-welcoming places for breastfeeding," respondents pointed to everything from grocery stores to Wal-Mart to restaurants to church.
In those spaces, the women said they felt stress, anxiety, shame, and self-consciousness, among other negative emotions, while feeding their children. "It really makes me angry. I do not eat in the bathroom and neither will my son," one woman wrote. "People look at you as if you are pole dancing, naked," said another.
In contrast, when asked to describe how they feel in breastfeeding-friendly places (which they identified as mostly courtyards, parks, and beaches), the local respondents reported relief and relaxation. One woman said that in such locations, she is "happy to be able to be in public and not have to into a bathroom or my car." Rebecca Howes, a Gorham mom of two who is part of the WW action team, points out that breastfeeding "can be really challenging at first," and that public support can be a crucial determining factor in whether a mom perseveres.
There were no reports of outright shunning or harassment. But the fact that women feel uncomfortable is reason enough to take action, according to Zoe Miller, who works to promote public health in the Lakes Region and who, along with community health specialist Jackie Rogers, spearheaded the WW campaign.
"What I've heard is people feeling like it's not welcome," says Miller, who is herself a breastfeeding mom of two. The atmosphere is "not outright hostile, but it's unsupportive."
Over the past few years, big names like Target, Whole Foods, and Walmart have come under fire for objecting to public breastfeeding. This had led to organized "nurse-ins" — including a few in Maine — during which moms breastfeed in public as a form of protest. Organizers are quick to point out that the Whenever, Wherever campaign is not meant to be confrontational, nor is it aimed at mothers who choose not to nurse (see sidebar, "A Personal Choice, Judged In Public," by Katy Sargent). If anything, it's meant to reward businesses that are proactive on this issue. "This isn't about what the moms are doing," Miller explains. "It's about what the rest of us are doing."
Representatives of local establishments like Longfellow Books and the Portland Public Library, as well as the Portland Regional Chamber, which represents 1400 businesses, all said they were aware of the law and supportive of nursing moms.
But lip service and reality can sometimes diverge, especially in a society where you are much more likely to see breasts in a sexual context than a nutritional one. The US Surgeon General addressed this phenomenon in last year's "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding," a comprehensive document outlining national nursing rates and barriers to breastfeeding.
"For many women, the feeling of embarrassment restricts their activities and is cited as a reason for choosing to feed supplementary formula or to give up breastfeeding altogether," the Call to Action says. "In American culture, breasts have often been regarded primarily as sexual objects, while their nurturing function has been downplayed. Although focusing on the sexuality of female breasts is common in the mass media, visual images of breastfeeding are rare, and a mother may never have seen a woman breastfeeding. As a result, women may feel the need to conceal breastfeeding, but they have difficulty finding comfortable and accessible breastfeeding facilities in public places."
Perceived inconvenience is another reason why mothers sometimes choose not to breastfeed or only do so for a short time. Childless people in particular might wonder why, for example, a mom can't wait half an hour to nurse when she gets home from running errands.
"I think a lot of folks have that question," Rogers says. "Babies get hungry everywhere! Infants often don't have a set feeding schedule, and many need to eat frequently . . . Moms move around and live their lives in a lot of different locations and none of these locations should prohibit a baby from eating. No one ever questions a mom bottle-feeding her child at a grocery store, right? It isn't about the mom breastfeeding, it is about the child eating."