Updated: Sep 6, 2020
How many times have you cursed a wailing baby and its parents in a movie hall or an airplane? The parents often find themselves helpless because babies have no language of their own. Parenting can be difficult and babies can transform into bawling balls. The role of a mother in the early years of a child’s life is incomparable. Apart from being the primary caregiver, she is also a sanctuary for her child. Suckling provides a sense of necessary comfort and security to babies. Often this seemingly natural association might lead to uncomfortable (even tasteless) situations for parents when their child may desire breastfeeding in public events to calm him/her. When babies are exposed to new environments, they desire the warmth of their mother for reassurance. Not all babies can handle separation like the little munchkin in Baby’s Day Out.
I HAVE BREASTS, SO WHAT?
A woman working on the fields with her baby strapped to her is a common sight in rural areas. Nobody looks upon this as a sexual or attention-seeking sight. However, in pop culture across the world women have been objectified and their breasts sexualized. It’s almost like people have forgotten that they’re also a source of nutrition for young babies. As a woman, I write with a heavy heart for I never imagined that breastfeeding in public would be one of the many battles women of the 21st century would have to fight. It would be a grave mistake, however to blame cinema and pop culture entirely for fetishizing women’s breasts and their virginity. In fact, the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement was born of a documentary with the same name aired on Netflix. While cinema assumes the responsibility of busting stereotypes and challenging social conventions, we need to introspect to question whether we are ready for this radical wave (already in the making).
When a mother engages in the organic act of breastfeeding her baby, albeit in public, what exactly is it that makes people uncomfortable? Mothers have long been the subjects of obloquy. Almost every mom has a story about how she was evicted from public places or met with unkind and incriminating glances when she tried to breastfeed in public. This begs the question- why?
DEEP IN THE BLACK HOLE OF INSENSITIVITY, ARE WE?
Just as the ‘bra-burning’ feminist was a revolutionary image for the feminist wave, a mother breastfeeding in public should ideally be just as powerful to empower mothers. Some kind people feel it their right to give breastfeeding mothers unwarranted advice about how they should use nursing covers while breastfeeding in public to ‘avoid harassment’. This argument is so highly problematic that dissecting each fragment would make both the reader and writer enraged. Suffice it to say, that first, mothers know what is best for their infant, and they would gladly testify that babies often refuse to cooperate with any restriction in their feeding process. Babies draw strength from making eye contact with their mothers, something that nursing covers limit. They also need to be fed almost every two hours, and left unfed, things can turn very serious very fast. Moreover, if something as pure as the bond between a mother and a child elicits condemnation, then shouldn’t we hold the long and glorious culture of objectification of women responsible instead of the helpless mother? The comfort of a child and mother when breastfeeding in public is more important than that of an ‘adult’ who needs a crash course in freeing the mind.
THE INTERSECTIONALITY OF BREASTFEEDING IN PUBLIC
A lot of the flak mothers receive draws from patriarchy and how women are reduced to the role of a mother after child-birth. Marriage and childbirth is apparently the ultimate destination. People mercilessly question mothers as to why they can’t switch to formula milk or pump breast milk instead of breastfeeding in public. It is scientifically proven that breast milk provides essential nutrients to babies that formula milk doesn’t contain. While some babies accept milk in bottles, some others can bring the roof down to get their way. It is a rather subjective matter that can’t and shouldn’t be regulated. How cruel is it to regulate the behavior of a life that is only beginning to learn living? These are not meant to replace breast milk, as advertisers often mislead. When mothers resume their other roles in the world (as they feel the need to) feeding their child isn’t something that should require meditation. When they are asked to evict public spots for breastfeeding, it only smacks of insensitivity.
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY: WHY NORMALIZATION OF BREASTFEEDING IN PUBLIC IS STILL A DREAM
Having the right to question also puts us in a position of accountability. The lack of infrastructure for breastfeeding mothers to feed in public is alarming. There are no dedicated nursing rooms that grant privacy and mothers are ushered to public washrooms which are not suitable for something as intimate. The hygiene concerns are real deterrents to breastfeeding in public.
Mothers have no collective voice; they protest in small, isolated pockets and their concerns are dismissed. Celebrities such as Neha Dhupia have raised their voice for breastfeeding in public and shared their public breastfeeding horror stories. Even in the USA, the picture of modernism, states such as Idaho, Utah passed breastfeeding laws only in 2018. All hope isn’t lost, yet. Chain stores such as Target have recently begun following a ‘nurse anywhere’ policy. This was a much awaited move that helped in normalizing breastfeeding in public.
At the end of the day, the health and nutritional choices of our families are best left as decisions for our families, not our government.
Penned down via Abhinaya Sridhar