Before I get to the issue at hand, a new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics throwing light on the breastfeeding practices of American mothers (see Reuters AlertNet – U.S. doctors urge mothers to breast-feed longer) inspired this post. While the study finds that the rate of breastfeeding has gradually increased over the past decade, the incidence of breastfeeding at six months of age is still only 33% (those mothers who solely breastfeed or supplement). Only 1 in 7 breastfeed exclusively at 6 months (which is what the AAP recommends). The numbers should be higher, much higher.
There’s one thing I don’t fully understand about the study (and perhaps one of my more learned readers can explain this to me), pediatricians encourage EXCLUSIVE breastfeeding for the first six months of life. My wife breastfed all our children, but even though she stayed home for the early months she always supplemented. If she didn’t she would never have gotten any sleep. So someone tell me why is exclusive breastfeeding so important (or is it)?
When my family travels back east to visit my wife’s and my family, I notice a tremendous sociological gap in attitudes toward breastfeeding. Perhaps this is an overblown or mistaken notion (and please correct me if you disagree), but I sense that there is a more rigid and traditionalist attitude in the east toward religious, moral and cultural issues–breastfeeding being one.
On one of these trips, I read this remarkable story in the New York Times, Removal of painting irks nursing mothers.
Newburgh’s (NY) Stewart International Airport unveiled an art exhibition which included a four-panel display called She Nourishes by Shawn Del Joyce. One of the panels showed a mother breastfeeding. Horror of horrors! A small group of airport passengers complained about the impropriety (!) of showing such an indecent image in a public (though privately owned) building. The airport directed that the offending artwork be removed. In the New York Times, Stewart spokeswoman Kiran Jain explained:’
‘We reacted to this particular thing in the same way we would if someone told us the knob in the men’s room was broken,” she said. ”It was immediate and we responded to our passengers. They come first.”
Hmm. Tell me again how a painting of a mother breastfeeding is like a broken men’s room knob? There are so many weirdnesses about this analogy I’ll just leave you to ponder them.
Ms. Jain placed her foot even deeper in her mouth when she tried to defend the airport’s philistinism to the Times Herald Record thus: "Breast-feeding is ‘a controversial issue all over the world.’" Whoa! Controversial?? Maybe in Newburgh, but not where I come from (Seattle). What do they put in the water there anyway to make people such nervous nellies about a perfectly normal function of the human body?
The Record story continues:
Only in America is there a juvenile sector of the population that regards the nourishment of an infant as a sexual act. America is like a preadolescent who hides copies of National Geographic under his mattress so that, after dark, he can surreptitiously whip out his flashlight and be titillated by pictures of bare-breasted African women nursing their babies.
I can’t help but wonder how Stewart officials would react to real, live women breast-feeding their babies in the airport. Of course, far be it for me to suggest that all breast-feeding women in the region should hold an organized nurse-in at the airport. It’s not my place to foment a demonstration.
I just mean, I’m really, really wondering what would happen if such a thing were to occur. Really. If you get my drift.
And guess what happened, a group of mothers held their own Feed-In demonstration against the prudery of Stewart Airport officials. Good for them.
Which brings me to my adventures in breastfeeding with my own family. On the same trip in which I read the above Times article, I spent an afternoon with my blood relatives. Janis needed to breastfeed our then 1 year old son, Jonah. Janis breastfeeds very discreetly in these types of situations and probably sensed there might be some sensitivity on my mother’s part, so everyone in the living room hardly knew what she was doing. Nevertheless, my mother got up with a big "harrumph!" and stomped out of the room saying something like: "I’m not going to stand for this!" Shades of Stewart (Stewart is about 20 miles from my family’s New York home)!
My mother is, of course, a prude. She’s never been comfortable with the human body (her own or anyone else’s). And, in fact, my mother was quite emotionally abusive to all of her children (that’s a separate post entirely). So she didn’t come close to earning the right to complain about what Janis had done. I was livid (lots of baggage there of course that had nothing to do with this particular incident) on my wife’s and Jonah’s behalf. Why should they be made to feel they’d done anything wrong when they’d been engaged in what should be one of the most natural activities a mother and baby can do? [In my original post, due to my faulty memory (writing a few years after this incident happened) I mischaracterized what follows in this story (which I am now correcting). I apologize for my faulty memory and for the hurt my description caused to any family members who were there.]
Anyway, no one in the room at the time of the incident said anything as my mother stormed out, perhaps out of stunned shock. Then one relative in the room said: "Hey, but look at it this way–your dad [who is dead] would’ve reacted a lot worse to breastfeeding." And this is supposed to comfort you somehow? At that point, I left the room. Two of my relatives then told Janis they were sorry about what happened. But neither talked at all about my mother’s behavior. One has to give them credit for being sensitive enough to say they were sorry to Janis (who was in shock at the time). But the problem is that my mother’s behavior was but an exagerrated version of what passes for the norm in the east (a strong resistance to breastfeeding in public).
Aside from the weird proclivities of my own family, I really wonder whether here in the west there may be freer or looser social attitudes toward a whole gamut of issues: religious affiliation, divorce, gay/lesbian rights and last but not least breastfeeding. I wonder if any sociologist has studied this?
USA Today published its own interesting take of the AAP study: USATODAY.com – Nursing moms advised to keep babies close by