So continuing on my theme, I thought I might cover (see what I did there?) one of the issues associated with breastfeeding which actually everyone can do something about and support – doing it in public.
In the UK, a woman’s right to breastfeed in public is written into law, but the ignorance of this law and the general prudishness of the British public combined with the over-sexualisation of breasts can result in a negative reaction to actually breastfeeding in a public place. Before I became a breastfeeding mother, I am sure I raised an eyebrow at women with a breast out attempting to feed their baby – I didn’t know where to look! The truth is that now I realise that I should have stared – perhaps then I would have known what good breastfeeding looked like, have learnt from that how to latch a baby on and found the whole experience of attempting the breastfeed for the first time more like the natural act it is supposed to be, rather than an alien act that had been hidden away from me all my life.
The Equality Act 2010 has updated its provisions to make it crystal clear that sex discrimination includes discrimination against nursing mothers:
A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others.
If the protected characteristic is sex –
(a) less favourable treatment of a woman includes less favourable treatment of her because she is breast-feeding;”
The only exclusion for this clause is Work.
In general I have had no issues with breastfeeding in cafés, restaurants or pubs – no one bats an eyelid, and in an area of London where every other person has a buggy you can understand that it is not in their best interest to kick up a fuss (quite aside from it being illegal).
The times I have had more mixed reactions is when dealing with shops who I guess don’t have to deal with breastfeeding every day.
I was surprised to have quite a negative experience in Whole Foods in Kensington – a shop I was expecting to give me a group hug for breastfeeding. Bear in mind that when in a shop asking where would be a good place to breastfeed then you tend to be doing so with a screaming child (I had not actively selected Whole Foods as an ideal place to whip out my boob). I initially asked one of the cashiers and they pointed me to the function room upstairs, upon going upstairs the function room was closed so I asked the woman on the information desk there. Her response was that I could feed my daughter in the toilets. This is the worst suggestion anyone can make in response to being asked where they could breastfeed – would you ask anyone else to eat in a toilet? Then why should a few week old baby? This whole debacle was made worse by the fact that when I said I would not nurse in the toilets and asked her to enquire further, there did indeed turn out to be a dedicated nursing cubicle in the basement.
As an aside: dedicated nursing cubicles are another controversial practice in the world of breastfeeding – on the one hand they are a nice, relaxing place to nurse; on the other they hide away breastfeeding from the world and hence do not support the normalisation of breastfeeding in public. The same is said of breastfeeding covers – fascinatingly the NCT doesn’t promote them because they want to change society’s view and don’t want to promote anything which makes openly breastfeeding anything less than the normal thing to do. However, they are in a bit of a quandary about it since they aware that from an individual choice point of view, in a society which does not accept openly breastfeeding as the norm, then use of a cover could make a woman more comfortable about breastfeeding and hence increase breastfeeding rates generally – so maybe they should support them!
(Oh and while I am on a tangent, don’t get me started on why my little dolly when I was a child had a bottle – a really cool one that looked like the milk emptied from it – my six year-old self should instead have been breastfeeding dolly of course!)
But you have to contrast my experience above with that of the reaction to a screaming baby in White Stuff, a place which was hardly huge and which I had not even considered as a breastfeeding location. But here the assistant actually asked if I wanted to feed Elphie using the chair in the changing room and then brought me some water and offered to make me a cup of tea!
And I am sad to say it, but I suspect some of the negative reactions are not truly anti-breastfeeding and instead more lacking empathy and not thinking it through. Or at least I would like to think that was the case.
If I do hear of any deliberate negativity towards a nursing mother then I will be the first to volunteer to join the nurse-in, and whereas I might normally use a cover, in the scenario where a group of nursing mothers are flash mobbing a discriminatory shop or restaurant (or Facebook for removing breastfeeding photos) then I will certainly have no qualms in breastfeeding sans cover!
And in general I will try to be more open about it – especially in all-female groups, because if that helps one woman to breastfeed or do so for longer then we are one step closer to it becoming the norm and hopefully then my daughter will grow up and it will come truly naturally to her when she is nursing my grandchildren.