(Article changed on May 12, 2013 at 18:42)
Mary Cassatt Painting: .Baby John Being Nursed. by Wiki Commons
As an avid twitter user, I have begun to follow a number of twitter feeds that specialize in advocacy for breastfeeding moms. As I've gotten involved in some of the arguments that inevitably ensue, it's been fascinating to see trends that develop in people's reactions to breastfeeding in public (the subject of most of the controversy). But as a vegan, it's hard to miss the irony of those reactions in contrast to the carnivorous public's feeling about drinking the mother's milk of another species.
The overwhelming majority of tweets that start a conversation from one of these breastfeeding advocates involves an expression of revulsion at the sight of a mother breastfeeding in public. Invariably, the complaining tweet will wonder why the offending mom "decided" to breastfeed right in the middle of - fill in the blank: their restaurant meal, sports event, train ride, supermarket trip, etc. Typically in response, the breastfeeding advocate patiently repeats the refrain that the baby in said offending scene was probably hungry. It's always amazing to me that people tend to think of breastfeeding as something the mother decides to do, as if on a whim. It doesn't seem to occur to them that mother and baby are in a symbiotic relationship, that the baby essentially controls.
Of course, the issue of modesty comes into this discussion: I personally chose to use a cover when I breastfed. But, as I've learned from these breastfeeding advocate tweeters, some babies don't respond well to a cover-up, and I think it should be left up to the mother whether to cover up. If you don't like looking at a breastfeeding mom, you can always look away. Remember: there is a hungry baby involved.
The other aspect of many of these expressions of revulsion is when people feel the child is too old to be breastfed. Again, as these advocates point out, the cultural norms for this vary around the world, with the average age of weaning being about 4. Again, I stopped at a month shy of a year, but I don't judge others for going much longer. (In fact, there is a lot of evidence that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the more protection she has from breast cancer.)
The other recurring theme in anti-breastfeeding tweets is the odd equation of breastfeeding with bathroom functions. This, of course, confuses one end of the digestive system with another. But it really speaks volumes about - at least American - society's attitudes towards this most beautiful of life-sustaining functions.
It's perhaps most appropriate on Mother's Day to revisit the theme of Anne Crittenden's book The Price of Motherhood , in which she points to the hypocrisy in our espoused reverence for motherhood. For me personally, breastfeeding was a life-changing experience.
The old sitcom , My Two Dads , featured a female judge who befriends the daughter of the two dads. One day she confides to the girl, her own experiences with developing early as a young woman the daughter's age. She suddenly was treated differently by both boys and girls. The conversation helps the daughter better understand what one of her friends is going through. I had a similar experience as that fictional judge; at age 12, I felt embarrassed about how my body was starting to differ from many of my peers. Years later, as a breastfeeding mom, I finally understood what a gift I had been given. The experience of being able to offer food for your child that comes from your own body; to be able to instantly comfort your child, and have that physical contact; to be self-sufficient in providing for your child - these are all incomparable experiences. They are also a boost to one's sense of body image, one that I wish I had known about at age 12.
Recently, there has been a lot of coverage - including at the White House Correspondents' Dinner - of Obamacare rules about accommodating breastfeeding moms who need to pump at work. While those rules are definitely a step forward, I can't help but feel sad at the fact that we're still at a point where mothers must resort to pumping in order to earn a living, or continue their careers. Besides robbing mothers and babies of that unique bonding experience, pumping can be quite difficult, and even painful. I was similarly sad, as I wrote about years ago, at a piece by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic Magazine that reduced breastfeeding to a "sucking sound" that robbed women of their equality with men. (Talk about turning a strength into a weakness!)
As a vegan, breastfeeding has special meaning. It is ironic to read these tweets of revulsion against a natural part of parenting that has been with us throughout evolution, by people who probably give no thought to drinking the mother's milk of cows. The vegan literature is replete with differences in the protein composition of human milk and cow's milk, and studies link the latter to human diseases. Even Dr. Benjamin Spock - before he died - wrote that children do not need the milk of any species beyond age two (and of course, pediatricians have been saying for a while the "breast is best'). Both veganism and breastfeeding give one the perspective to see the similarity between what human moms do and cows do; suddenly, you stop seeing their milk as being as appropriate for us.
I invite you to explore the topic of breastfeeding on twitter, to consider breastfeeding as a choice for yourself if you are about to become a mom, and to thank whatever spiritual source you rely upon for the miracle of breastfeeding.