This post at Banned from Baby Showers, a natural birthing blog I follow, got me thinking today. Donna is a very straightforward and unapologetic, which is why I like her blog so much. This particular post argues in favor of nursing without a cover. Not being an exhibitionist, but not "hiding" under a big tent either. Nursing obviously in public like this will help to normalize breastfeeding, and help to educate people about breastfeeding. I think this is a key quote about using a cover: "...it is obvious that you are hiding it, so by the very nature of the hiding behavior, it must be shameful or embarrassing."
I both agree and disagree. I'm not nursing currently, but when I was I often felt more obvious nursing in public using a specially made nursing cover, and would prefer to use a burp cloth or receiving blanket if my son would cooperate, or even just my shirt if it were voluminous enough. I would still be "hiding," even more so than with the nursing cover, really. But I was not embarrassed or ashamed to be nursing my son in public. There were those inevitable moments where I would suddenly be exposed and I'd have to make a quick grab for the blanket, but very soon I learned to take those moments in stride. I was just taking care of my baby, and really I wasn't worried about everyone else's opinions. There were times I would not bother with covering up, but those were when I was at home or I really didn't mind if my close females friends and family saw my nipples and knew they wouldn't mind either. The difference between when I nursed "openly" versus covered up had nothing to do with my being ashamed of my body or of breastfeeding. It had everything to do with intimacy.
Really, breastfeeding is a very intimate act. Shelia Kippley, in her book Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood, has an entire chapter devoted to in-depth comparisons between the marital act and the act of breastfeeding. When I saw that while I was still pregnant, I thought that was kind of weird. Then I learned that she was absolutely spot on. I think most modern people would agree that sexual intercourse is not shameful, yet most modern people would still prefer to have sex privately! Intimate things by their very nature wish for privacy, to be protected from public witness. Breastfeeding isn't meant for public display. I do think that the "It's no different from feeding a bottle" crowd actually sell nursing short. It's also perfectly natural to feed an older baby solid food, but there is a fundamental difference between spoonfeeding and breastfeeding, and that is the mother's gift of herself, of her body, to her child.
But on the other hand, babies get hungry all the time, and I do feel strongly that hungry babies shouldn't be banished from public life, made to eat in the bathroom (yuck!), or else given bottles. I view public nursing as a necessity. We shouldn't over-sentimentalize or spiritualize breastfeeding. There is a definite virtue in being matter-of-fact about the function of the breast in providing nourishment, and it's not the end of the world to accidentally flash the entire congregation for a moment. Chances are very few people even noticed. While the breast is definitely sexual, breastfeeding women do have the right to expect a little maturity and understanding from the rest of society. And the rest of society has the right to expect breastfeeding women to at least attempt to be discreet.
The pictures in this post were all from this wonderful gallery at Fisheaters.