Whoever planted this news item might as well have planted a bomb. Last February, a woman at a local Pennsylvania mall was asked by security guards to cover up while she nursed her baby. In protest, over 150 “lactivists” gathered with their own babies to hold a “nurse-in” at the same mall. On Mother’s Day, they descended on the steps of our capitol building in Harrisburg, and in July, legislation passed to allow women to nurse, covered or uncovered, “anywhere they were permitted to be.”
So I guess that rules out the men’s room.
I thought it was over the top. My husband, however, welcomed it. He thinks it’s pretty funny that a woman can wear a tight top that says, “Is it hot in here or is it just me?” and get away with it, while a woman acting like the Blessed Mother is threatened with arrest for indecent exposure.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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As the story unfolded, one thing became clear: Everybody has “views” about breastfeeding. Even though it’s currently in style, along with cloth diapers and organic baby food, there’s a range of attitudes. There are the lead-me-to-a-dark-closet types, the tell-tale-pastel-bunny-blankie types, and the happy-to-pose-for-National-Geographic types. Opinion is also divided on how long to nurse. Some think it’s just for toothless infants, and after the first nip they hit the bottle. Others endure until a child is ready to put teeth marks on a sippy cup. One friend of mine quit when her child started unbuttoning her blouse in church and saying, “Gimme my num-num.” I’ve heard of rare cases who nurse just to say “Hi” after a long day at kindergarten.
Opponents of public nursing are united, however. Covered or uncovered, their motto is: Just don’t do it. An elderly woman of my acquaintance reached for the smelling salts when two young mothers draped blankets over themselves and began nursing in church. “Next they’ll be feeding their babies at the beach!”
I don’t know how long it’s been since she went to the beach. Perhaps black wool swimwear with matching stockings and bonnets were still the fashion. Nowadays, people there aren’t gawking at nursing mothers.
My own mother too was of a private disposition, even though she nursed all eight of us during the Bottles-R-Us generation. She’s gone now, but I still keep her letter encouraging me in nursing, shortly after our first was born. “Protect the gift that comes with bringing a child into the world. Guard it jealously.”
Holy jealousy. I guess I’m my mother’s daughter — unlikely to parade my gift around a mall like a suffragette. Nursing is non-militant in nature; it’s a passive-receptive activity. I sit down, I rest, I read, I pray. I talk to the other children. The public steps of the capitol are hard, cold, and drafty; there’s nothing to rest my elbow on — and besides, I can’t get in the mood sitting beside a nine-year-old boy holding a huge sign that reads, “I was breastfed in public!”
Don’t get me wrong. I have publicly nursed many a time. Like the woman at the mall, I’ve done so quietly because there was no where else for me to go and my child was hungry. Like her, I’ve felt the urge to shut people up — the bottle-mom who told me nursing was “gross,” the relatives who blanched at the sight of my blanket and asked me to leave the room. Yeah, I’ve been there.
But I hate to see nursing added to the list of bizarre women’s rights to do whatever we want with our bodies.
Our over-sexualized society has had ill effects enough on motherhood. Strangers come up and put their hands on your belly and ask you personal questions like, “Was it planned?” or “Are you done?” Maybe they fill you in on what they are doing to prevent your sorry fate from befalling them.
I’ve never forgotten how gently I was myself corrected by Pater Baerlocher, my Austrian confessor, when I announced that I was “pregnant” with my first child. “Ich bin schwanger!” I said proudly. “Nein, nein!” he exclaimed with horror. “Cows are pregnant. Cats are pregnant. Du bist mit Kind — You are with child, like the Blessed Mother.”
So I threw “pregnant” out the window. Not long afterward, the word “breastfeeding” landed in the dumpster beside it. Breastfeeding may be militant, but nursing isn’t. I could just hear the good father exclaiming, “Nein, nein! Du stillst.” The German word for nursing is “stillen” — literally, to still the child.
Stillen. The word denotes quiet and peace — Be still and know that I am God.
In a culture of life, people would respect that and leave mother and baby in peace.