More than 120 countries are celebrating World Breastfeeding Week, which started on the 1st and will end on the 7th of August. An annual event, the week sees different kinds of events, get-togethers and fun activities planned for nursing mothers across the globe.
Talks are held to emphasise the importance of breast-feeding your babies, and the innumerable benefits that breast milk is known to carry our way from nature’s own kitty. As festively liberating as the week may be, there is need to examine how breast-feeding is perceived and received in different spaces – both public as well as private.
All that breast-feeding meant to my yet-to-be-mommy state was hunting for comfortable feeding bras and pads, and thinking that going out would be no problem. It would mean keeping a stole handy and finding a comfortable chair to sit on once he began his hungry howls. If only it was that uncomplicated. After I actually became a nursing mother, I realised the complexity residing in the act of putting your baby to your breast, not just in public places but at home too. And how my resolve ‘I will feed my son whenever he wants to be fed, simple!’ was not simple, and rang hollow so many times.
Women my age from various cultures have one common experience to share about some age-old norms running in families – that as long as it’s an all-women’s group the idea of privacy while feeding is considered unnecessary and the want for one beyond anyone’s comprehension. I too found it very discomforting that women, from older generations, would think it unessential to leave the room when my baby wanted to be fed. The men would shuffle out clearing throats that red-faces are prone to and the ladies would stay put, continuing to banter with candid peeps at the suckling baby between bouts of gossip.
Now, breast-feeding to me has been a very personal idea, not just because it entails baring your breast but also because I have viewed it as an intimate moment of bonding with my baby, over songs hummed or nice music in the background. Or maybe just closing my eyes in sync with his gradually relaxing ones, and catching 40 winks myself. I had read it in some books that it is important to be alone with your baby in such moments. Alas! These books are often rejected as ‘modern-concoctions’ at their best and ‘imported rubbish’ at their worst. Finally, feet had to be put down, my ideas emphasised as my husband became a one-man-army to usher these ladies politely out of my room every time the baby and me wanted a little privacy, much to the chagrin of some.
This is the first time I realised how the public eye can encroach upon your private space. And how, when at home, breast-feeding is not considered as a private activity as so many of us want it to be. Perhaps, those ladies are not to blame, for they are products of their own environment and meant no harm, really. But how does one rubbish those aspects of yesterday which no longer feel relevant, or okay? And how does one convince a whole generation about newer ideas and opinions to do with something as basic as breast-feeding?
Interestingly, outside your homes, breast feeding is received differently. If seen in public spaces, it becomes an instant cause for concern as an encroachment of the public space by a thing that should happen behind closed doors and drawn curtains. I have huddled in clean rest rooms, diaper-changing rooms in malls and rear-seats in concerts to feed my baby both in India and abroad – either to avoid being stared down or for availability of accessible facilities for feeding, both. And I have also seen women who could not find a private enough space and chose to feed by simply covering themselves and closing their eyes to prying eyes of rubberneckers and those frowning in dismay, as if at the audacity of a woman daring to bare her breast on a corner bench in a mall. I felt bad, because I knew that poor mother’s skin was crawling with embarrassment but her baby was hungry and there was no other force stronger than that to dictate her decision. No matter how close she wrapped the shawl, she could not create a private space away from others. And thus, in this situation, breast-feeding was conveniently pronounced a private affair, and the sight of the woman seen as an oddity enough to be stared down by the public eye.
Different situations, and the contradiction continues. So does the confusion – the subjectivity and the ensuing mix-up between what is okay and what is not. In the whole process, the mother is left helpless and in suspended animation.
Recently, I came across an eye-opening article on how breast-feeding in public places is received by authorities of various countries, after a storm got generated in response to a dating website using a breast-feeding mother’s son as a dating competitor on its offensive advert. Some jurisdictions forbid breast-feeding in public places, laws in others don’t address it and some have granted it a legal right. In India, there is no statute and its prevalence and social acceptance vary from region to region, as we may have all experienced at some point in our nursing lives. It makes you wonder. Is it really a subject matter for laws alone to take care of? Will only a statute help that helpless woman on the corner bench in the mall? Probably not, since some things are a matter of perception and reception, combined with basic etiquette, maturity of being and respect for another’s situation. Until the mind sees that, the eyes will continue to stare and the brows will continue to knit in incomprehension – law or no law.
I end with a little prayer for all breast-feeding mothers.
I pray that wherever you are, may you be comfortable and at peace in this most basic act of nourishing another being. Of passing on to him or her, not just the goodness that nature pours into your milk but even the goodness that rests within your being as a mother. And I hope that the world will get to realise and respect the beauty behind this simple act of care-giving which it itself grew-up on.
Happy Breast Feeding Week!
Sakshi Nanda went from studying Literature to serving the print media and finally settling with two publishing houses who called her editor for a couple of hard-bounds, no more! She writes as a work-from-home mother to realize herself as well as to be read, both – with her 2-year-old boy and her sarkari babu beau as the greatest source of ideas and inspiration. She believes eating baby food is therapeutic and that the pen is man’s best invention, after diapers that is! Meet her at: sakshinanda.blogspot.in