Fragmented Thoughts from a Former Breastfeeder

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“The Flower Girl,” by Sir James Jebusa Shannon, 1900.

Breastfeeding did not come easily for me. Growing up, I was never close to any woman who breastfed, nor had I ever seen a woman breastfeed without a cover. I read several books about childbirth and breastfeeding and postpartum motherhood as my body swelled and my garments no longer met over the middle of my body. I remember being surprised to see so many photographs of naked women in labor, and I wondered if I should be embarrassed at seeing pictures of breasts and nipples as I read about different latching positions and breastfeeding troubleshooting tips. It had not occurred to me so plainly until then that I had no need to feel shame or shyness about these body parts that are designed for growing and feeding new little lives. Although I had always prided myself for being able to appreciate nude art in museums, the realization that my own private body parts were not just sexual objects was still something of a revelation to me.

Still, in spite of my research, when my daughter arrived we struggled with breastfeeding, and she had a difficult time latching. Different nurses had different recommendations, and I became less shy about letting other people handle my body as they showed me ways I could present my breast to my baby. Eventually, a nurse gave me a plastic nipple guard that would help my daughter latch on—something that we ended up using for five months, until one day she no longer needed it. She nursed for another year and a half without it.

Perhaps because of this rocky start, I have never breastfed any of my children with covers. I did have covers. I made my breastfeeding cover and a diaper-changing pad when I was still pregnant with my first, feeling very industrious as an expectant woman. But because my daughter did not latch well, a nursing cover was an impossible option for me from the beginning—even though I had put stiff boning into the top of the cover so that I could see my baby while she fed, the fabric kept getting in the way, or ending up in my newborn baby’s fists as she punched around and cried out in irritation when she didn’t immediately latch.

When I was topless, I could focus on holding my body and my baby just so, shaping my breast in a way that would make it easier for my tiny-mouthed baby to find what she was looking for. When I was wearing a nursing bra, garments, an undershirt, a postpartum blouse, and a nursing cover, I found myself getting tied up in holding some fabrics up, some fabrics down, with no hands left for shaping or helping or assisting at all. Not having very much chest to begin with, I am physically incapable of being able to “whip it out,” because I don’t have much to “whip out” in the first place. Having a nursing cover exacerbated this puzzle of fabric layers, and more than once my breasts ended up with scratching marks both from my angry, frustrated baby and from my own fingernails as I blindly, desperately clawed back shirt, tank top, bra, and garments without getting a fist-full of nursing cover at the same time.

Eventually, I surrendered and would drop a cover over my head as a mere formality that expressed, “hey, I’m trying,” only to push the fabric to the side so I could see my body and my baby clearly. My baby would playfully grab and pull at the cover (which at this point only covered the baby’s lower half anyway), pulling it up and down, back and forth, while she nursed contentedly in full sight of myself and anyone else who cared to look. At first, I was shy and scared to be seen by others. But as soon as I stopped trying to cover up, I enjoyed nursing a lot more. It became one of my favorite things, in fact (well, after the initial postpartum season of clogged ducts and sore nipples, I should clarify). I don’t feel like motherhood has come super naturally to me, but being able to look at my babies nursing was a dear and precious thing. As my babies got older, sometimes we would tease each other and my son or daughter would start giggling at the breast before going back to nursing and entering that mesmerizing, peaceful zone that seems to epitomize security and comfort. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss those moments by closing my babies up in a fabric cave, where everything is darker and warmer, with less oxygen. My favorite part of breastfeeding was being close enough to my children to take in their details, to learn the different subtle expressions of their eyebrows, the soft curves of their ears.

So I stopped trying to cover up. I nursed in Targets, on airplanes, in parks, and at school. I nursed in front of my favorite graduate professor who came to my house once a week to meet for our independent study course, so I wouldn’t have to miss a feeding by coming to school. The only place I did not feel comfortable nursing openly was at church, where I knew I was supposed to use the designated “Mothers’ Rooms.”

Here’s what mothers’ rooms were like for me: I’ve used several different mothers’ rooms over the years, but they have all been essentially the same—one or two plush gliders, ranging from gently used to dangerously broken (one in particular I recall having to lean against the wall so as not to risk it tipping over); a changing table with a trash can that either already had soiled diapers in it or still smelled of ghost diapers past; a lingering scent of sour milk, spit up, and poop. Sometimes the speakers broadcasting sacrament meeting worked, sometimes they didn’t. Several times, I showed up in the mothers’ room only to find that the chair or chairs were already taken, so I would lean against the wall and slowly slide down, babe in arms, until I was on the ground and could feed my baby while wedged between the diaper trash can and the occupied glider. Some women like to talk to other women while they feed, some women like to talk to their babies, and some women prefer silence. I was never really sure how to read the room when I walked into a fully occupied mothers’ room—were they all friends already and would I be seen as an interference if I sat on the floor just there? Should I just go to the coat closet again like last week? Or nurse out in the car like the week before?

Mothers’ rooms were usually mostly lonely for me, particularly since I am a good ten years older than most nursing moms in LDS wards. More than once I wished I had been able to have my husband help me with a fussy baby while I pulled all my clothes back together, but men are not allowed into mothers’ rooms. Since my babies were also snackers and comfort feeders, it meant I spent more time in mothers’ rooms than in actual chapels and classrooms during my breastfeeding years. I wished I could have felt welcome to stay and nurse with my family and my congregation.

When my oldest daughter was two, she somehow thought that breasts were called “kiddos.” (She loved watching Yo Gabba Gabba and observed more than once that the character Muno was covered in “kiddos.”) We didn’t correct her, and now all of my three young children say “kiddos” instead of “breasts” or “boobs.” I don’t regret this. I like thinking of my breasts with the lackadaisical and informal connotation of “kiddos,” like they’re just little pals on my chest that help me feed babies sometimes—just kiddos, doing their thing. My kids know what sex is, but they don’t know what “sexy” is. They know what breasts are for, but they don’t know them as sexualized objects. My 4-year-old son is not alarmed when he sees breasts. He understands them as the vehicle for feeding babies. Someday my children will understand breasts as sexual objects, and that is okay. But I am glad that they are understanding breasts as neutral, natural body parts first, and I hope that this will help them distinguish between sexual bodies and merely naked bodies in the future.

A young LDS man once told me that he couldn’t go to art museums because he found nude art too titillating. “It doesn’t even matter if it is a woman breastfeeding—I get turned on. It’s not art to me. It’s just pornography.” I was surprised he would be so candid in a large class discussion; we had been discussing a student presentation that argued for  BYU students to be able to paint nude models instead of models in leotards. While this young man’s opinion was not shared widely, it gave me pause. I didn’t fault him for his honest reaction, but I did fault our culture for bestowing him with an ideology that sexualized the female form to the point that he could only think “sex” when he saw a naked figure of a woman. When it was pointed out by another student that doctors had to be able to view naked people without being aroused, he replied that it was a good thing he wasn’t planning on becoming a doctor. Perhaps that is true.

And perhaps covering up motherhood is not the best way to honor, celebrate, glorify, or respect motherhood. Perhaps we would do well as a church and as a culture to witness motherhood and make a space for breastfeeding mothers in our congregations. Perhaps instead of fearing female bodies as potential “walking pornography,” we should celebrate female bodies as creators and life-bringers—bodies that dance with cycles and tides and that bleed once a month in our own collective echo of Christ’s atonement: sacrifices of blood and pain so that others someday might live. Perhaps instead of focusing so much on hiding our bodies, our shoulders, the flesh above our knees, we focus instead on teaching people to control their thoughts and see each other as people first and foremost, regardless of our dress or undress.

Perhaps we should make our chapels a place where everyone feels welcome, even and especially breastfeeding moms.

Comments

  1. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    FWIW as a father I have used the Mother’s Room when it wasn’t occupied by a nursing mother because there weren’t changing tables in any other rooms in the meetinghouse, and I wasn’t going to change my kid in the back of the car when it was 104 F/40 C outside. This isn’t a question of facility age–Facilities Management will put a changing table in any restroom–but, rather, one of bishops never actually asking FM to do it, because why would a father have to change a diaper?

  2. “We had been discussing a student presentation that argued for BYU students to be able to paint nude models instead of models in leotards.”

    We need to stop encouraging fake nudes.

  3. Love this! And spot-on about the mother’s Lounge. I can’t tell you how many times I nursed my babies sitting on the floor next to the poopy diaper pail because both rockers and all the miniature primary chairs were already taken.

  4. Harry B. says:

    Excellent essay, Grover. And this quote in particular cuts elegantly to the crux of the matter:

    “I nursed in Targets, on airplanes, in parks, and at school. I nursed in front of my favorite graduate professor who came to my house once a week to meet for our independent study course, so I wouldn’t have to miss a feeding by coming to school. The only place I did not feel comfortable nursing openly was at church, where I knew I was supposed to use the designated “Mothers’ Rooms.””

    I’ve come to the realization long ago that the church’s rhetoric about modesty and sexuality is geared primarily around the stereotypical interests and beliefs about teenage boys’ hormone-driven behavior. Heavy emphasis on viewing all women as seductive and sexual temptresses; strong on shame for normal feelings of arousal or even plain old budding sexual awareness.

    This approach towards sex education is not only doctrinally unsound (after all, aren’t we one of the few Christian faiths that revere the body, gender, and sexuality in the eternities?), but it also causes or reinforces a series of consequences that actually fail the church membership in many ways. Below are a few consequences, though I’m sure we could add to this list:

    1) Reducing women to seductive temptresses undermines the humanity and divine nature of 50% of all people. This view fails to see the needs of a woman or child as legitimate and inserts the interests of a fragile male where he doesn’t actually belong. This recent case of unrighteous dominion by the stake president asserting his views over the mother’s legal right to breastfeed openly is perfectly consistent with the church’s modus operandi about sex education generally (men’s sensitivities are prioritized; women are reduced to vehicles of sexuality only).

    2) The supercharged rhetoric around modesty and sexuality is also a trap for boys/men. As a man raised in the church, I can attest to the fact that it conditions us to view ourselves as the innocent victims to other people’s “immoral” choices–whether those choices are women showing too much skin in public, media that acknowledges sexual desires among adults, etc. Instead of understanding and recognizing our own sexuality, controlling our desires, and treating all individuals with respect, we are instead fed the myth that anything which tempts is evil and (in our not-even-once Mormon culture) giving in to that temptation is shameful and cause for social rejection and isolation. This sets up a downward spiral where boys and men constantly see themselves as the victim under siege, they are ashamed for normal sexual functioning, and they work even harder and often isolate even further as penance for past misdeeds, and the cycle repeats.

    3) Outside of the injunction to only have sexual relations with one’s legally wedded spouse, the church’s rhetoric is virtually silent about healthy sexuality. This means we don’t hear about ethics that should guide sexual behavior like boundaries, consent, respect for your partners’ interests/desires. All sexually active members are worse off as a result. I suppose I should count my blessings that the First Presidency no longer issues statements about what sexual practices are or are not considered “unholy and evil practices.”

    4) Of course, this rhetoric entirely omits the experience of LGBT individuals, treating their sexuality as untouchable. Though not all agree, I see this stance as inconsistent with some of the core tenets of Christ’s inclusive gospel message.

    We need a culture that is more honest and open about sexuality in all individuals (not just teenage heterosexual boys) and how to use that sexuality for good and wholesome ends. The overzealous stake president is just a symptom of a larger problem in the church’s deficient approach to sexuality generally.

  5. Our son is almost 15 months old. During that time I have constantly needed to push back against my own cultural conditioning with being uncomfortable when my wife has needed to breastfeed in public. This has been coming up less and less as he gets older and eats more solid foods, but early on it was a struggle for me whenever it came up. She doesn’t care and neither does the baby, only I felt weird about it. And when I think about it logically, it /shouldn’t/ be a big deal. That is the primary function of the breasts, in order to feed a child. We treat it shamefully and it spreads through our culture, getting connected to the whole “we need to protect men from their animal side thing”. So young men and women in the church grow up and think they need to stifle their baby under a blanket in order to protect young men from seeing something as innocent as a baby drinking milk. It is a cultural behavior that needs to be changed. The Lord wants us to have families and wants mothers to care for their children. This part of our culture is not consistent with that truth.

    Also, my wife has definitely shared similar things with me about mother’s rooms, and you can’t get weird about women breastfeeding outside the mother’s room if the mother’s room is not meeting the needs of the women in your wards.

  6. Yes Yes Yes. I nursed in one mothers room where they locked the thermostat in a clear plastic box so you could think about turning off the frigid air but you couldn’t actually do it. And whoever designed meeting houses so you have to go through a bathroom to get to the mothers room was rather thoughtless. It reminds me of the anecdote from Chieko Okazaki where she asked for women to be included in the temple committee so they could have input on the design of women’s spaces and was denied.

  7. I usually do more reading than I do commenting, but I have to applaud this. I think we need to accommodate everyone as best we can. And no more blaming the girls and women for the boys and men who can’t control themselves.

    Our relief society president recently approached me about a single mom in our ward who had asked if she could set up a pack-and-play in the back of the chapel or overflow area to put two of her kids in so they could play quietly and she could get more out of the meeting. I didn’t hesitate to let it happen.

  8. Vanessa says:

    Ten happy years of nursing babies and toddlers, uncovered, in sacrament meeting! 🙌🏼 And once I started I noticed a lot of other moms got up the courage to do it, too! Courage, fellow mothers!

  9. I want to be effusive with praise, and the writing is wonderful.
    However, “perhaps covering up motherhood” . . . “perhaps we would do well” . . . “perhaps instead of fearing female bodies” makes it sound like there is a legitimate argument on the other side–that this is a debate between reasoned positions. I don’t see it. A place where everyone feels welcome, especially breastfeeding moms, strikes me as a truism, not a debate.

  10. If as a Church we truly honor women and value motherhood then we will do whatever is necessary to make life easier not harder for them. Preach Grover. Preach.

  11. Billet Doux says:

    In a perfect world, women should be free to nurse however they want. But our world isn’t perfect. We can’t be naive about the culture we live in. At its core, Christ’s church is a collective church. We do a lot as Latter-day Saints, even when we disagree with a precept, to benefit the group. For example, I think some elements of the Word of Wisdom have been proven by health science to be rather debatable. But I follow it anyway because the baptismal covenant I took is, at heart, a collaborative covenant: we promise to share one another’s burdens. This may mean we will need to do things we disagree with to protect “the herd,” if you’ll forgive the metaphor. It’s analogous to getting a vaccine–doing something I may not need to do, to protect those in my community who might need it. In essence, when we are baptized, we say we will participate in indefensible limits to our freedoms in collective solidarity with those for whom the limits may benefit. It’s saying, “I will not privilege my individual rights over the group good.” Should men find the bare breast of a nursing mother titillating? Unambiguously not.

    But people are not perfect. We can’t be naive about the culture we live in.

  12. I love this! Echoes very much my own experience! Well written, sister! I feel at home reading this. Except somehow I was brave enough to nurse in sacrament meeting on occasion, when I was sitting in a pew next to the wall, not in the middle of everyone. It was only the slurping sounds that made me think twice, not the potential exposure. I am so sad to think of how that could have gone down differently in the game of leadership roulette. Thankfully, I was unscathed, at least in that regard.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    This was the most helpful thing I’ve ever seen in terms of explaining the problems involved in using covers. Should be required reading for any leader thinking of issuing some sort of a covers only edict.

  14. This is outstanding, Grover. Thanks so much for writing and sharing it.

  15. Jack Hughes says:

    Great post! These issues are an ongoing concern to me, as my wife is currently in this season of life. One of her constant complaints about the mother’s room at our ward building, aside from being perpetually stinky and lacking seats, is that mothers sometimes bring their other non-nursing children in there with them, turning it into an annex of the nursery. Our daughter has a difficult time staying latched when there are noises and distractions around. One of the biggest offenders is our bishop’s wife, who has to drag her entire entourage into that tiny room because her husband can’t be bothered to step down from the pulpit and take care of his own kids once in awhile. I don’t necessarily blame either of them (she’s an overwhelmed young mother, he’s committed to his calling), but they both seem to have some old fashioned ideas about roles, expectations and balancing parental responsibilities. As was mentioned upthread, “why would a father have to change a diaper?” is largely a relic of my father’s generation, but in church settings these ideas still hang on, especially when men like my father (or grandfather) are the ones with all the decision-making authority.

  16. Billet, I agree it’s reasonable and ethical to ask that individual sacrifices be made for the good of the group. I think an argument could be made that public breastfeeding is for the benefits of the group. Aside from the benefits to society of a breastfed baby growing up (statistically speaking) healthier and better attached, you have:
    For heterosexual males, there is mild exposure to breasts in a non-sexual context. (Free exposure therapy for porn addicts!) If you only ever see sexualized breasts — as in movies and billboards, how do you teach the brain to process them in any other way? I’m thinking about the findings from the infamous “Marshmallow Test,” where kids who resisted the marshmallows did so because they conceptualized the marshmallow as something unrelated to its appeal (like a cloud, for example).
    For other mothers/mothers-to-be, they see the acceptance and otherwise hidden prevalence of breastfeeding, increasing the chances they themselves will adopt the healthy practice.
    If we truly believe there’s a herd benefit to being in church in the first place, NOT banishing mothers for 30-60 minutes of that benefit increases that benefit.
    Even if none of the above benefits are real, there’s a benefit in teaching the herd that sometimes they should prioritize the needs of individuals over petty squeamishness. I am guessing that women who will/do/have nurse(d) outnumber men who will be/are/have been turned on by nursing anyway, if we’re reducing it to a numbers thing.

  17. Before I ask this question, let me state that I breastfed all 4 of my kids till they were 2–usually uncovered in public–even tandem nursing my twins (impossible to do with a cover). Breastfeeding is not sexual.

    However, there were times (few and far between…mind you, in the midst of the chaos of children, spitup, etc.) where my husband found me attractive/sexy while I was breastfeeding. So while I think breastfeeding is totally not sexual, how can we explain when this happens? I realize that it was probably associated around the fact that my dh loves me and was amazed at how my body could sustain our children, etc. Is this something that happens to other fathers and their partners? Is this rooted in the over-sexualization of breasts in Western society?

    Also, great post. I also can’t tell you how many times I have been in the stinky mothers’ rooms with other moms who were using covers. I never understood that and it shows our warped sense of modesty in LDS culture…

  18. Michelle says:

    I think we need to get away from the idea that certain feelings are “bad” and other ones are “good.” I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with feeling sexually aroused in certain situations–it’s just a thing that happens sometimes. I find it irritating and really problematic, actually, that we expend so much effort as a culture to try and prevent people from experiencing certain feelings and so little effort in teaching them how to manage their actions around those feelings without violating the boundaries and agency of others.

    In regards to this issue, I guess I just don’t think it’s all that relevant if someone finds a mother breastfeeding her child uncovered to be sexually arousing. Most people probably won’t, but some might. And you know, whatever. People find all kinds of things sexually arousing. That’s totally okay, and an emotionally mature person accepts that and learns how to manage those feelings in a respectful and appropriate way. What’s *not* okay is trying to deal with emotional discomfort (in this case, feeling aroused when you don’t want to be) by policing other people’s behavior in order to make sure you never confront your own emotional discomfort.

    And honestly, this avoidance of uncomfortable feelings, be they sexual or otherwise, only makes the problem of compulsive pornography use worse (if it helps bolster my street cred here, I’m a professional therapist who works with this kind of thing frequently). I think I read in someone’s comment above (and I agree) that normalizing breastfeeding would likely be more helpful than harmful to potential compulsive pornography users.

  19. Nikki N says:

    Amazing.
    I am so in touch with so many of the emotions in this paper.
    PS “kiddos” best word award right there
    We call arm pits “doodle-oos” anyway just thought I’d share.
    You’re amazing

  20. Rebecca J says:

    I just want to second Michelle’s comment. These conversations sometimes boil down to “the sight of a bare breast makes men aroused” vs. “but men shouldn’t be aroused by breasts because x, y, z.” Breasts are sexualized in our culture, and even if they weren’t, plenty of men would find them arousing anyway. We don’t really have control over what turns people on or makes them uncomfortable, which is why framing the breastfeeding discussion (and the modesty discussion) in terms of what women should cover OR in terms of what men should feel is so (for lack of a better word) problematic. People should recognize that a mother breastfeeding a child isn’t pornography. (It isn’t even *like* pornography.) Lots of things that aren’t pornography are still arousing to people, but whatever your response (physical or psychological), you can probably deal with it. If the sight of a woman breastfeeding uncovered makes you uncomfortable, I recommend the strategy I’ve always used when confronted by a very small child eating Cheerios or graham crackers. What I feel like doing is vomiting; what I actually do is look the other way. I don’t promise it will be easy, only that it will be worth it.

  21. Bro. Jones says:

    I wonder how much geography plays a role in this. I could easily see the mothers’ rooms in Western US wards being overcrowded. In the Eastern US, they’re generally much quieter. Quiet to the point that after having my wife knock and confirm emptiness, I’ve stepped in with her to assist. Was obviously prepared to leave if someone else needed the room, but it didn’t happen during our baby years. Still had issues of odor, upkeep, and audio availability.

    I can’t help but sneer at men who feel “tempted” by the sight of breastfeeding. It’s probably not the most helpful reaction I could muster, but I’ve always found that “weakness” baffling. I tend to think most women are beautiful no matter what they’re wearing, and if I allowed that to be my metric for trying to control their behavior, I’d have to insist they all wear burqa and worship in a separate building. It’s almost like…controlling the appearance of women shouldn’t even be a metric or a guiding principle at all? Funny thing, that.

  22. Great post, Grover. I’m really struck by the kid’s comment that all nudes are pornography to him because he gets turned on. Is that really how people are defining what is pornography? That sounds like shaming and pathologizing normal sexual responses to innocent stimuli. And reducing men to “things to be acted upon” in Lehi’s words, rather than recognizing their agency. Like Rebecca said “Lots of things that aren’t pornography are still arousing to people, but whatever your response (physical or psychological), you can probably deal with it.”

  23. “…but I did fault our culture for bestowing him with an ideology that sexualized the female form to the point that he could only think “sex” when he saw a naked figure of a woman.”

    To be fair, it’s possible that the young man had an issue with lust rather than sex. He may not have known it as such, but was cognizant of it’s effect on him nevertheless. This is not necessarily then an issue of the culture or “pathologizing normal sexual responses to innocent stimuli”, but rather an individual response that he’s trying to manage.