I gave birth in Ithaca, New York, one of the most “breast-feeding friendly” cities in the nation. The community encourages young mothers to nurse their children with as much fervor as the government encourages you to pay taxes. Lactation consultants show up in your hospital room right after child birth, the local hospital forbids pacifiers because they might cause “nipple confusion” and – perhaps because of the large international community – it’s common to see moms nursing children beyond two years. (In fact, once at the pediatrician, I met a woman who was nursing her two children who were two and five years old.)
Breastfeeding, it seems pretty unanimous, is better than bottle feeding. Breast milk provides antibodies which protect from respiratory and intestinal diseases, increases immunity, protects newborn intestines, and — if you believe the hype — makes babies more likely to get into Harvard. World Breastfeeding Week, which was the first week in August, should have been a time for everyone on the planet to come together as one and celebrate the fact that even though we’ll go to the mat on issues like co-sleeping and childhood vaccinations, we all agree on at least this single parenting issue: breast is best.
However, a dispute in Texas between a mom and a recreational-facility employee during World Breastfeeding Week created some passionate debate over exactly where lactating mothers can — or should — feed their infants. Whereas moms who use formula can pop out a bottle anywhere anytime, breastfeeding mothers have to grapple with how to attach a squirming child to the breast without drawing attention to, well, their breasts.
I grew up in Tennessee, and my southern sensibility made it hard for me to figure out this conundrum. However, I learned soon enough if I was going to breastfeed, I was going to have to do it in public. With two children, it just wasn’t practical to slip away to feed my son in private. So, I bought a nursing cover-up for discretion, before I realized that there’s nothing like a gigantic polka dotted nursing cover to say, “Look at me! I’m doing something out of the ordinary!” Plus, these covers made my baby sweat so much, they just weren’t worth it.
Soon, I left the cover at home and nursed wearing odd looking nursing shirts, with zippers and slits and other unfashionable accouterments that allowed me to stay dressed and my baby to stay full. Then, I realized I could nurse discreetly without needing a specialized shirt. In fact, I got so good at it that sometimes people would come up to peek at my baby, not realizing he was feeding, and then slink away upon the realization that he was latched on.
Initially, the Texas mother, who was asked to cover up by the recreational-center employee, had my sympathy. Apparently, she was taking one of her other children to dance class when her newborn had to eat. She was asked her to cover up, but the mom stated her right to breastfeed in public. The Huffington Post had the story in an article titled, “Lucy Eades, Breastfeeding Mom, Puts Woman Who Asked Her To ‘Cover Up’ In Her Place.” Watch the exchange here:
I support breastfeeding rights. In fact, I’ve nursed in Wal-Mart, at McDonald’s, in the library and even in church on Sunday morning. (Yes, right there in the pew.) I feel very strongly that breastfeeding mothers should be encouraged in their quest to feed their children in this natural and healthy way.
Yet, can’t breastfeeding mothers — and their husbands — have both manners and rights?
In the above video – which, of course, has gone viral — the city worker is polite and calm, but Mrs. Eades responds with vehemence. The husband begins filming the interaction, seemingly relishing the argument, while the employee tries to reason with her. She even offers a private room, but Eades isn’t placated. “I have a right!” she says. And she’s correct. HuffPo reports, “It’s legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states, and Texas is one of 45 states that have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location.”
Valiantly, her husband steps in.
“OK, I’m going to ask you to quit talking to my wife,” he says in the same kind of tone he might tell off a drunk at a bar who’s gotten too flirty. There was something about his macho tone — directed at a female hourly employee just trying to do her job — which seemed both like ridiculous overkill and embarrassing impotence. Plus, the HuffPo headline celebrating the fact that the employee was “put in her place” seems uncharitable, petty, and just plain rude.
Of course, the Eades had no control over something like a headline. But they did have control over their portion of the conversation.
I guess what bothers me about the video is this: Once people feel they have a right to do something, it seems they look for an opportunity to be offended. While Eades may have had a legal right to walking around in a tank top breastfeeding in front of other people’s young children and teenagers, she shouldn’t have asserted it so rudely. There is a middle road — somewhere between letting your breast flop out into the open and wearing a burka — that breastfeeding moms and the public need to sort out.
But in the meantime, let’s remember this: Breast may be best, but nothing trumps the Golden Rule.
Nancy A. French is a New York Times best-selling author who lives in Tennessee. Follow her on Twitter @NancyAFrench