A couple of weeks ago – there is no point keeping things as up to date as all that – there was a micro-furore on popular social media sites regarding the rights of women to breastfeed in public. It was well justified, in my opinion, following the public humiliation of one new mother at the calloused (and callous) hands of a bigotted and opinionated member of the public.
Naturally the outcry of the general public was immediate and harsh, and within a few weeks we saw the largely under publicized and fairly insular campaign to raise awareness of the right to feed one’s child in every circumstance. Insular because in the vast majority of cases, they were preaching to the choir, and the point of this publicity was to aise awareness outside of the breast feeding community. So what is my interest in this?
Well, as a man there are usually some things which are off limits. As soon as I was weaned off the breast myself, before my first birthday, breasts became a thing of enveloped mystery. My mother was never prudish about such things, and there were many occasions on which I saw her naked, but other breasts were a huge secret. They existed, obviously, but on another – almost ethereal – plane.
When I reached puberty, the concept of breasts changed again. Now they became (partly as a result of the rarity of seeing them outside of the popular press – the Sun and Sport being considered unsuitable reading material for young schoolboys – and surely as a result of millennia of evolutionary pressure to find them attractive) a sought after vision. And they were kept from me by clothing, bathing suits, and the stern disapproval of the surrounding adults.
I know in other cultures breasts are allowed to wander the countryside free and uncovered, but in 1990s Britain they were generally reserved for magazines, nervously avoided nudist beaches and festival teenagers. I watched Glastonbury reports with interest.
And then I reached the age where myself and my peer group were enjoying personal relationships with ladies. The breast became a goal, one even the most nervous and fumbling teenage boy could hope to one day achieve. A beautiful, sensitive and pert bag of cells and tissue which could bring a smile to many a young face. It was, without a doubt, a sexual mile stone on the march to the full monty – it was even referred to as Second Base – as if one’s first Home Run was only a matter of getting the right swing and timing.
A few years later, friends are getting married. The ladies are enjoying the attention at weddings, and naturally one thing leads to another, often many times in one night. And where does that, eventually, lead us? Back to the top please…
Babies. Many , many babies. Little bundles of joy, and other collections of various emotions, many of which include frustration and tiredness, and all of which I am assured is ‘worth it’. And all of a sudden, there is a change in the air.
Years ago, I traveled for many hours to meet a school friend and his wife, with their new baby girl. Within a few hours, I had been asked in to the nursery to say goodnight to the little cherub, only to be introduced, for the first time, to her mother’s breast. And it was natural, and beautiful, to see a woman breastfeeding for the first time since a brief glimpse of a friend of my mother’s in the early 90s.
The woman in question, a devout catholic and fantastic mother, suffered no embarrassment at all being before me, with a nursing blanked modestly draped over her shoulder and the child feeding gently at her bosom. Since then, my sister-in-law has done the same, and again there was not an ounce of embarrassment for her.
So why do I feel embarrassed? Well, in all honesty, I think my history with breasts has been an engaging factor. At first they were kept from me, then they were made available on a reward basis, usually in exchange for cinema tickets, drinks or other attentions. They became, purely in my mind, simply a beautiful sexual object, related to the fertility and maturity of women and linked – perhaps by tendrils of evolutionary excitement – to the attractiveness of the holder. And so now, I am confused.
Please don’t misunderstand me. When I see a woman breastfeeding, I am aware that it is an act of love, nourishment, bonding and care between mother and child. There is nothing sexual in the act. I find it engaging, in the same way as learning about a foreign culture, and beautiful in a very innocent way. But naturally, being in the environs of a lady so disposed, I also feel I have been caught out. I am in the presence of a women who is – according to most cultural references – disporting her sexual attributes. Except she isn’t.
So I am embarrassed. For me, it’s a natural thing. If a breast becomes visually available without the expectation of sexual activity, I am subconsciously confused, and this confusion manifests as nervous activity, a reddening of the face and furtive, not-knowing-where-to-look, dry-mouthed variation on the theme of horror.
Is this right? Probably not. But is it natural? For me, it is as natural as feeding from the breast is for those ladies who do so, and if the tales of strident perseverance on the part of nursing mothers are to be believed, more natural than many.
So what do I do about it? Well, if the reactions of those fathers among my friends is any indication, when I have children of my own it will be different. They seem to have no issues with breastfeeding (and again, by issues I mean my OWN issues, not a disagreement) and can continue to speak naturally with a nursing mother with a – for me – unattainable level of calm and serenity. Me, I simply sit in an embarrassed silence.
There are many out there, however, who take a different approach. Because they personally find it embarrassing, they feel breastfeeding is an activity which should be carried out in private. As if the sparing of their impotent blushes is more important than the nutrition of a new-born child. They seem to believe that this act – the most natural in the world – may be responsible for the fall of civilisation – after all it is only one stem from breastfeeding to walking naked down Watford high street at two thirty on a Saturday morning…
Rubbish. Whether the majority of women choose to cover themselves to keep warm or to preserve modesty, their bodies are their own. No one has the right to tell them to cover up, or to show more flesh than they feel comfortable doing. So when a woman chooses, in an asexual or any other way, to feed her child in public, you can either agree that she has every right to do so, or remove yourself from the environment to preserve your own sensibilities. You have the right to leave.
Or you can do what I have every intention of doing, which is remain quietly in a corner, going rather pink by degrees, and stammering a little.
And please, don’t think of taking this exhibition as a form of derision or criticism. It is not. You have every right to feed your child in public, and in that I will support you. In the meanwhile, I have every right to be embarrassed. I hope you will be equally supportive.