Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Dangers Of The "D" Word (Part 3)

So, here we are, at the Point Of It All.
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I hope what I've done so far, in the trail of words littered behind me, is establish some thoughts about the power and history of words we use to describe breastfeeding mothers. The main word I'm discussing is discreet, but there are concomitant words such as modest, respectful and considerate. Words, I'd argue we should never ever use amongst ourselves, or in discussion with others, when discussing breastfeeding in public.
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I hope I've shown that my thoughts are based on:

..........*the concept of what is discreet and modest is
...........a cultural construct, that is fluid

..........*it is not an intrinsically religious, or
...........a moral concept

..........*rather, it is a way of describing control
............of the dangers of the female body

..........*that this control is as much to do with patriarchy,
...........as anything else

..........*that the spectre of the indiscreet and immodest
............woman, is more class based, than religious or moral
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From that basis, I'd like to lay out the problems we are faced, as a community of mothers, in discussing our activities when we nurture our young in the company of others. Central to this discussion, is my contention that when we liberated privileged women from the confines of the 'women's quarters', whether it be the grand wing in a castle, or the back bedroom in a crowded home.. we moved women out from the domestic, into a world where fears of how women should act in public, were/are still rampant, and thus the women recently liberated, were/are controlled, by the spectre of the unruly woman. The one already on the streets, making her living, and living her life, in public gaze. The immodest, undisciplined, indiscreet and uncouth women, who did not know 'better'. Being described as one of those women, was/is the social censure that ensured/ensures appropriate social control of the 'new woman': the working middle classes.
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That the worst stigma possible, was attached to a woman who did not understand that if she breastfed in public, she associated herself with this class of woman. She became immoral, unruly, immodest and indiscreet.
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Having established that, in my own mind at least, I'd like to expand further on why these words - particularly discreet - have dangers associated with their use.
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Dangers is a pretty strong word. I hope I've laid the territory for seeing that this is not hyperbole. When we use discreet, we evoke several extremely unpleasant and potentially damaging reactions: damaging to women and children.
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In the immediate the very act of describing something that requires discretion, we create a world where the act in question can be seen as indiscreet. We cannot use one, without evoking the other:
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discreet - indiscreet
modest - immodest
respectful - disrespectful
considerate - inconsiderate
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As soon as we use one of the above words to describe any action or behaviour of a breastfeeding mother - we evoke the spectre of the street woman phantom. She's out and about, haunting our social interactions. As I've just dealt with this in detail at the end of the previous section, this requires no more discussion here. Suffice to say the use of the word discreet in this fashion, is a word of patriarchal control.
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It is also a word of blame. It requires a mother to take responsibility for her actions in feeding her child, and to either be discreet, or indiscreet. Everything that then happens to her, can then be heaped upon her head as her own fault. She created the situation, and she is responsible for the results.
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That this echoes, a similar element in the history of female liberation into public spaces, unaccompanied and in charge of her own behaviour, seems to have slipped by a lot of people in the night. When I was a young teenager, I knew that dangers existed for women, if they dressed 'wrong' and acted 'wrong' in public. I also knew that the responsibility to keep myself safe from sexual attack and rape, was mine and mine alone. I read, and saw on the screen, instances of women who were reporting assaults, and the first question from the police was "What were you wearing?"
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From there on it, it would be an attack on the women reporting the assault, based on what she had done, to create the situation. The reality of this situation - where the demeanour, behaviour, clothing and attitude of the women who had been attacked, became the meat of the investigation and any subsequent court case - was so pervasive, that it took years for the laws and procedures to be changed. Years of heavy campaigning by woman's groups and law societies, for the moral character of the women who had been attacked, to be removed from the arena. It is now socially unacceptable for us to view those who have been sexually attacked or abused, to be blamed for the events in this manner.
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But we allow it over public breastfeeding, and seem blind to the resonances.
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Peruse any of the myriad comments columns and hateblogs that erupt over any media reporting of breastfeeding discrimination, and you find an entire tranche of 'logical' questions to ask, before making your mind up whether this was a good breastfeeder, or a bad one. What was the mother wearing? Did she have the right clothes on? A blanket? Where was she? In the corner, face to the wall? How old was the baby? How did she react to being told she was offending? The answers determine if she has public sympathy or not: if an offence took place. If she is worthy of being considered unfortunate in having been humiliated and chastised?
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Now, this being teh internetz, let me make one thing very clear. I am not equating being raped, or sexually assaulted, with being thrown out of an eatery for breastfeeding. I am equating the attitude that a woman is responsible for the actions of others if she flaunts her body... with the attitude that the woman is responsible for the actions of others if she flaunts her body. This connection alone, I feel, is enough to ask us to remove these words from our thought, when we discuss breastfeeding in public. In this context, this is an immeasurably damaging word.
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It is also a blunt instrument of a word. As myself, and Rabbi Artson pointed out - it has no intrinsic meaning, or fixed definition. It's a movable feast, that means many things, to many people. Hence it is just a huge massive blunt instrument, a great big stick, we hand to other people to beat us with. Hence the plethora of questions... what did she do, what was she wearing, how old was her child? One person's discreet is another person's disgust. No matter what you do, someone will be offended, and scream you are being indiscreet. You then open yourself to both defending yourself against the word, and proving you are not. And in every protest you utter, you hit yourself harder and harder with the Great Big Stick of the meaningless word.
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It is a word of apology. It completely accepts that something is happening that should be hidden, and that the opinion of the onlooker is of relevance. Worse, it sets up The Apology Dance. Read the reports of mothers being harassed and babies being told to stop feeding, and you find the mother, mindful of her need to prove she wasn't doing the wrong nasty common breastfeeding stuff, starts with her Apology Dance: I had a blanket, I was sitting at the back, I was facing the wall, My baby was only XXX old, You couldn't see anything... I was wearing a demure outfit top to toe and was walking to the library when he attacked my lord.. and my hair was scraped back and I wasn't wearing any make up and I had my clean white big cotton knickers on....
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There is nothing to apologise for. But watch how lambasted a mother is, the second she refuses to apologise. Observe just how much more vitriol is poured upon her, it she has the temerity to say "I was doing nothing wrong." "I have a right to sit on this part of the aeroplane too." "My baby has a right to eat in this restaurant." "I will not to sit in the back." And if she mentions she has a legal right to breastfeed. Call the police on this harridan! Denny's must have sorely hated not being able to drive the restaurant straight to the police station...
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It is a word of deflection. This one is absolutely crucial. It deflects everything away from the other injured part in all this sadness. It removes focus from the child, to the mother. It moves responsibility for the harassment of that child, from the onlooker doing the objecting, to the mother. In a debate about whether or not the mother was being discreet, or indiscreet, the true protagonist of the action that is taking place - the child - is rendered utterly invisible.
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Which is the point, is it not?
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Babies cannot read. They don't understand what discreet means. They only understand hunger, distress, discomfort. Mothers don't instigate breastfeeding - the child does. The younger the child, the more immediate the need for instant access to the source of all nurture: the mother's breast. Babies as young as three days old, completely covered by a blanket or the mother's jacket, have been harassed for daring to fall hungry in public. The mother responding to the that primal need, castigated for being indiscreet, immodest, disrespectful of others and inconsiderate of their location. In the particular case linked to, the mother was so upset, she weaned the baby completely. The dangers here are obvious: the use of the word discreet, leads to premature weaning.
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Premature weaning is a significant health risk to babies. It also raises the risks of ill health in the mother. Mothers who can cope with breastfeeding in public when the baby is small, and without the muscle development to have independent control, often wean completely as the baby gains in dexterity. They can no longer guarantee complete coverage of their breast, by the baby's head. This is is compounded by the additional prejudice about the appropriate age for a child to be breastfeeding in the first place. Despite many years of clear and direct health advice from the World Health Organisation, that breastfeeding should be the exclusive source of a child's food for the first six months of their life, and the main source of food until a minimum of two years old... that breastmilk should be offfered first, before solids at every meal... every one and their mother knows when breastfeeding should really stop. When it moves from the child's needs - nutritional and emotional - to the mother's: almost always presented as a her twisted, perverted sexual motive.
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This is despite the fact that the same impeccable sources on child health and well being - WHO and UNICEF - hold up breastfeeding for as long as mother and child mutually desire as the gold standard of child health and emotional well being. Despite the complete absence of a time limit, everyone knows when mothers should have weaned by, and if they haven't, the mother is perverted. I've seen comments that a mother should have weaned by two weeks, otherwise she's only doing it for herself. Hello, reality check! Breastfeeding doesn't have a time limit. Children self-wean when they are ready for it, usually between the age of 3 and 7 years. The use of the word discreet, massively impacts on how many children get to self wean: a huge proportion of mothers wean between 4 and 9 months, when head control develops and interrupts the feeding as the child whips their head off to look around at all the interesting things going on.
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Between fear of being seen to be uncouth and exhibitionists, and then being accused that their breastfeeding is a sexual deviance... many mothers force weaning as they are simply too scared to be seen breasfteeding anything other than a newborn.
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And then you have to look at how many babies never get a drop of breastmilk, ever, as the predominant cultural picture of motherhood is bottles. The lack of seeing breastfeeding in public as an everyday experience continues to position breastfeeding as some special hidden thing that happens in private. That breastfeeding is a restriction upon the life of women, and only the 'few' can do it. And fewer women can do it, as cut off from the vital early learning experiences of seeing how mothers breastfeed... little girls grow up into Mummies who know how to bottlefeed. They've been doing that since they were old enough to hold the doll's bottle to the bottle hole in the doll's plastic pink mouth. But they've never seen a good deep latch, or watched women with different shaped breasts all breastfeed their baby without a thought.
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We don't just hide breastfeeding from our own eyes, when we tell everyone we have to be discreet: we hide it from the rest of the world too. The lack of normal every day living around breastfeeding, also impacts abroad, in resource poor areas. Where woman aspire to be like the sparkling white consumer rich mothers in film and tv, and on the sides of the formula tins being relentlessly pushed on them. They want to be modern liberated women, giving their babies the very scientific best like 'we' do. They never see us breastfeeding our kids... and they in turn breastfeed less. I help support immigrant mothers from Africa who are in the UK. Many carry formula bottles in their bags, all day long, and pull them out and feed the baby. When I ask why, as I know they are breastfeeding, the answer is "I don't know if I'm allowed to breastfeed here."
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So I don't think it is an overstatement, or hyperbole, to discuss the use of the word discreet, as having dangers attached to it. The use of the word discreet, in common currency and parlance, in the context of discussing breastfeeding, reduces breastfeeding. It impacts on how many women breastfeed their children, and for how long. It also opens mothers up to unspeakable and base attacks, purely for being female, and using their body to nurture their young.
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Now, having said all that, we are left with some challenges. If we do remove such words from our vocabulary, consigning them to the waste bin of history, how do we replace them? How do we discuss, and support, breastfeeding in public? There are issues to be discussed, and conversations that need to be had: how do we do that?
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Well, I, for one, am all for actually naming the processes that are actually in play, when these issues arise. My experience is that most new mothers are not fretting and worrying about being discreet because they actually feel that what they are doing is inappropriate: they are terrified of being attacked for breastfeeding their precious baby. Certainly, that was how I felt, alone in public for the first time, worrying about how to juggle a squirming baby, a blouse and a bra clip. Getting a baby to the breast quickly, smoothly and neatly, is a learned skill. It takes quite a lot of eye-to-hand co-ordination and quite a lot of confidence. You feel exposed - but that has little to do with your breast. (Most new mothers are far more worried about hiding the wobbly post-partum tummy!) You feel emotionally exposed: helpless to defend your precious child, if a bigot walks by. That's why protection for feeding your baby in public, such as exists in Scotland, is so vital.
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My position on this is simple: if a mother feels she need camouflage, to help deflect attack, then mother gets camouflage. Even a hideous hooter-hider, if that's what she wants. It's her body, and her child. If she needs camouflage, and support in developing camouflage techniques - then she should get it. And not feel in the slightest that she is doing anything inappropriate.
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What's appropriate, is that a breastfeeding mother feels safe, and protected, in a hostile world. But let's not pretend that it is anything less than this. Let's name the fears, and the actions required to protect a woman out in public, for being attacked, criticised and physically harassed for having her female body, and her child, out from the back bedroom. Let's stop talking about her need to be discreet, to avoid appropriate censure, and start accepting that it's the attackers that have a problem.
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A curious things happens to some new mothers, btw. They move through the feeling emotionally exposed stage: confidence starts to build. No one attacks them, the bra clip flip becomes second nature, the towel falls to the floor, and is never picked up. We become confident and utterly unconscious of our bodies' threat to the public space. We simply forget we are carriers of the strange disease of being female: we become mothers nurturing our beloved children. We forget we need to hide!
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We become liberated breastfeeders. :-) Our mental landscape, our emotional sense, finally leaves the back bedroom too. We become liberated on all levels, feeling safe and comfortable in our minds and hearts and bodies with what we are doing. Why would anyone notice me feeding a baby. Fie! It's just a breast, get over it.
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We are OUT of the back bedroom. We have been liberated from the cloister. Unfortunately, our sexual bodies were released before our mothering ones were. Many of us swallowed the pseudo-feminist clap trap that liberating a women from the back bedroom, was also liberating her from her children. That formula and bottles, and other people to feed your baby was a liberating experience for the 'modern women'. The woman could walk outside, but the children stayed behind.
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Oh yes. It liberated us all right: into the work force. Regardless of our needs and desires: we were told we were only 'real women' if we threw off the shackles of child rearing, and embraced the shackles of... looking sexy at all times and working twice as hard for less money than the men?
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Oh yes, that was so liberating.
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Women are out of the back bedroom... BUT SO ARE OUR CHILDREN. We have brought them out into the light with us. We demand you accomodate us as a unit: a biological unit comprising two seperate individuals: a dyad. You want us out in public, to spin your sexual fantasies upon, and to work in your ecomony? To mother our children and raise the doctors, lawyers, dentists, taxi drivers, police officers, refuse collectors, cooks and bottle washers who will care for you in your old age? You want us to raise children whilst being a full part of this world? Then accept our children are outside with us. Make room for them. Acocomodate their need for us, and our need for them, in social and economic discourse. They are on our breast, in public spaces: deal with it.
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There is one final discussion that needs to be had here: what of women who genuinely desire to cover their bodies, for whatever reason? I can think of two small sub-sets of the mothers I know, who do not grow out of their need to use camouflage as their confidence grows. Who genuinely, and authentically, have views on how they themselves should be covered in public spaces.
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These mothers fall into two distinct groups:
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1) Those with a definitive sense of body and self-identity.

We all have a sense of body space, and we all have safety barriers in boundaries in place. Some women genuinely feel uncomfortable, and unsafe, if they feel too much of their physical body is seen by others. You can argue this is not innate, but a cultural construct. Argue all you want - it's a moot point. It's how the woman perceives herself, and her own safety and comfort zones that is important. It's her body: she chooses.
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2) Those with a religious belief that constructs a definitive sense of body and self-identity

Some women believe that their personal notion of Deity, or their religious structures, dictates their own sense of body and self-identity. Again, you can argue this is not innate, but a societal pressure upon her. Again, argue all you want. It's a moot point. It's her body, and her sense of her spiritual self: she gets to decide.

These categories of breastfeeding mothers, present a linguistic challenge. They already *so* own the territory of discreet and modest, respectful and considerate, that it's hard to know how to describe them otherwise. Breastfeeding literature and support is riddled with comments and suggestions on how to breastfeed discreetly, modesty clothing, modesty covers. If we attack and remove those words, are we attacking and removing the concept that a women might wish to cover her own body?
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No, we are not. Equality is about choice, and personal self-determination. What we seek to do is place it in that context, and break down the association of the good breastfeeding mother, and the bad breastfeeding mother. We are not interested in commenting on her personal choices, we're seeking to contextualise those choices in the wider framework.
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My personal feeling is we should name it for what it is. If a women has a personal sense of body safety that demands a certain level of clothing, then we discuss it in those terms. We talk about personal comfort, safety and security. We discuss confidence and a sense of style. If a woman comes to us and asks "I need help in breastfeeding discreetly, what modesty cover would you reccomend?" You simply reframe the language in your answer "Some women feel that by doing this... they feel more comfortable." You can then gently probe what it is the mother is asking for. You may find she isn't in this category at all: you may find she is. But by listening to her concerns, you can certainly match your advice to her personal needs. You are respecting her wishes.
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The same is true within a religious context. Turning the language back to the issue, that the women is not seeking advice on purchasing modesty clothing, is relatively simple. "How would your Church view this garment?" "Have women in your synagogue experienced discomfort if they operated in this manner?" You might initially shy away from not engaging in the seemingly simple request for some 'modesty advice' and discussing it in precise terms of what she and her religion expect, but you will certainly get a clear understanding of what it is the woman herself is looking for. I feel that in the religious context, the word distraction could be incredibly useful. Is the mother seeking to hide an offensive body part, or is she simply hoping to minimise distraction to others, from her feeding her baby? You may be suprised how often the answer, within a religious context, is about not wishing to distract others from worship.
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The point is that such mothers can be accomodated, without resorting to discussions of discretion and modesty. They can be entirely supported in what they need, to feel safe in the conflicting and confusing world we often live in. They can find what they need, to nurture their own children in a way that feels appropriate to them.
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We can all be liberated breastfeeders: it's a mindspace.

12 comments:

Dr. P. Rapoport said...

Well done!

I still disagree with religious arguments that require women to cover something, which is not the subject of this part 3.

Ashley F. said...

Morgan--I am amazed. I want to jump up and down shouting for joy that you've managed to mindfully put into words all of the thoughts that have been running rampant across my mind in the nearly 5 months since I gave birth to my daughter.
I'm so glad that (along with many other things) you recognized the perceived dangers that certain breastfeeding women pose to other women (fear of sexually arousing their husbands or sons, etc.).

Watching the news clip of the Denny's mom, I almost laughed out loud at how obviously this scene was played out--the middle aged wife and mother who had to abruptly leave the restaurant with her husband and son, threatened by the exposed breast of the younger, (in my view) clearly more attractive breastfeeding mom at the next booth over. Was it even more pronounced that the breastfeeding mom was nursing a male toddler? Was the other woman afraid that this would even further ignite the imaginations of her own two male family members?

My own mother (who breastfeed me and both my brothers until 9-14 months each) has already gone on tirades on how there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to nurse in public. At Christmas, when I mentioned we were throwing a party at my house, she warned me to "just be prepared to walk around all night with a blanket over your shoulder, I guess!" I can't count the times I've heard "if they're old enough to ask for it, they're too old"--which is more of a commentary on weaning age than on public breastfeeding, except that when I laughingly warned her that she better prepare herself because I'm planning on doing this for a while, she said "well, it's just not appropriate to nurse a toddler in public anymore--at home at naps or bedtime is something different."

Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting all of this into words. I feel bolstered and energized. You're amazing.

Ruth Moss said...

Morgan this is brilliant. I tried to say something similar myself but didn't quite say it well enough and ended up getting into trouble for - apparently - suggesting women should breastfeed politically (I didn't!) so I'm made up to see you've covered (ha!) that here.

I just wish that your series could be made into a book!

arwen_tiw said...

Wow, thankyou Morgan. :)

FWIW, the first time I had a negative response to breastfeeding in public was the last time I ever used a blanket. ;)

Amber_daisy said...

Amazing article! This says exactly how I think about and feel about nursing in public (and in general), but you have a much better way with words that I! Thank you.

Sundancer said...

Fantastic, thank you once again for a brilliant article. I've always wondered how on earth I could put in to ords why I hate the word 'discreet'and never managed it.

Of corse now, I'm not much closer - if it took you 3 huge entries to get there how am I to manage it in one reply to the next person to mention it?! ;)

Noble Savage said...

Absolutely brilliant, amazing, intelligent and well-written. Outstanding job, Morgan.

Anonymous said...

I think to sum up the difference between those who want to cover up and those who don't:

You need to feed how you need to feed.

Anna said...

Thank you, thank you, 1000 times thank you! I've never been able to say why I hate the word "discreet" in the context of breastfeeding... you've done it!

My new response to anyone who questions me while NIP: "My baby just wants to eat. It's up to you to be discreet."

It even rhymes! ;)

Janet said...

Morgan, are you accepting disciples? Will you be my messiah?

kate said...

I really agree, though I have been known to use the D word before. I like the suggestion of focusing on the woman's personal comfort level.

I do believe strongly in modesty, and that is a part of my religion. Normally, if any part of my breasts were showing, even in bending over and someone getting a peek down my shirt, I would be totally appalled.

But breastfeeding is absolutely in a different class! If something happened to show for a second during nursing, I wouldn't be alarmed at all. I would just go about feeding my child the way I was made to feed her, and assume that no one else would think anything out of the ordinary either.

I do absolutely hate hearing "respectful" and "considerate" in regards to breastfeeding moms. I would really like to see those phrases be used the other way around--with other people being respectful and considerate of breastfeeding mothers!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, that was extremely valuable and interesting...I will be back again to read more on this topic.