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Seattle tackles discrimination against publicly breastfeeding mothers

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My kids and I were able to participate in a hearing today at the Seattle City Hall. Read about it here.

We were there to discuss public breastfeeding, and the work the city is doing to deal with cases of discrimination against nursing mothers.

It was a really fun, engaging experience and I feel like I was able to present a unique perspective on the issue as a breastfeeding mother who is also an active Metro rider. It was really affirming for me to be able to participate in something adult and political and personally significant like this with my kids at my side. Maybe my mind won’t be complete mush by the end of this little motherhood experiment after all! 😉

In the interest of fairness, one of the councilmen (who appears to be a willing advocate for breastfeeding mothers himself) took the time to share the concerns of those who oppose the new anti-discrimination legislation being presented. Here are the (paraphrased) concerns he voiced, along with my personal responses.

1. Opposition: It’s disrespectful to the people around you to breastfeed in public. If you know it makes others uncomfortable, you have the responsibility to do something about that, like nursing in your car or bringing pumped milk along on outings.

Rebuttal: This argument makes the elitist assumption that all nursing mothers have access to cars and breast pumps. Until a year ago, I did not have the option of returning to the relative privacy of my car to feed my child. I had to deal with his hunger when and where it struck. I did have a breast pump, but I couldn’t afford milk collection bags, and my son refused to drink from a bottle anyway so it wasn’t an option for me to cart a cooler full of pumped milk along in addition to all of my other baby care supplies every time I left the house.

Continuing on the topic of pumping, non-lactating individuals may not realize that each of those pumped bottles takes a solid thirty minutes for me to prepare, not including the time it takes to sterilize the bottles and pump. That is a lot of time to ask a woman to devote to an unnecessary task when she is struggling to find time to feed and bathe herself as she balances her own needs against the needs and demands of an infant. You are also asking her to accept a certain degree of physical discomfort as the breastfeeding rhythm is interrupted for an outing. Breasts work on a supply-and-demand basis, with milk production identically matched to the needs of the individual child being nursed. If the demand is suddenly altered, the milk production will continue at its normal rate until the woman is made uncomfortable by the excess milk backing up. If the interruption is prolonged, her body will drop its production rate, which obviously puts the mother and child at risk for premature weaning. It’s a slippery slope that many women are find out about about the time they hit the gravel pit at the bottom, because stress, anxiety and frustration can inhibit your milk let-down, preventing your hungry baby to access the milk that is making you so stressed and uncomfortable. When we know how important breastfeeding is to our personal health and financial security as a country, why would we push women into such a destructive spiral?

At the root of this issue, however, is that the concerns and values of theoretical people who may theoretically experience discomfort if they realize that they are sitting near a breastfeeding woman are trumping the real, observable needs of women and their babies. This leads me to wonder who these theoretical hypersensitive souls may be. I’m guessing we aren’t concerning ourselves with the possible discomfort of middle-aged women, right? I believe that if we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we are working here from the assumption that the public sphere is a male realm, and that is what we are worried about- that these uppity breastfeeding mothers are using their breasts in a non-titillating fashion, and then have the nerve to add insult to injury by doing that right out there in the open where any man can see that they are there, breasts and all, literally not giving a fuck. It sounds weird, yeah, but sex is weird, and how else do you explain the intensity of the outrage we face as mothers engaging in the totally radical act of feeding our children?

2. Opposition: If you give women free license to breastfeed in public without establishing strict guidelines to control their behavior, it will quickly devolve into a public nudity debacle.

Rebuttal: First of all, you do realize that we’re talking about women here, right? Not feral barn cats in heat?

Secondly…no, wait, go back to that first point. WE ARE TALKING ABOUT WOMEN HERE. We are sexually harassed, stalked and raped. You think we’re taking this public exposure stuff lightly? Think again. We have a lot at stake here. We also represent the majority of individuals struggling with eating disorders, anxiety and depression. The weight loss industry in the U.S. is currently worth $60.9 billion, and yeah, not all dieters are women, but you don’t meet too many men who make a lifestyle out of dieting the way so many of us do. Too many of us internalize body hatred and run with it.

Do you really, honestly believe that these are people who are likely to strip down in public, using their status as breastfeeding mothers as an excuse to engage in lewd behavior? We are talking real life women who have given birth within the last year or two. Most of us weren’t wild about our pre-baby bodies, much less the mess left behind after pregnancy. We are flabby. We have new folds and stretch marks and scars that are just blowing our minds. We’re learning about the joys of nursing bras and cleaning spit up out of our hair and giving up on jewelry because our babies like to eat sparkly things. There are very, very few women at this life stage who feel sexy. We are not generally out looking for attention. Most of the nursing moms I know feel pretty shy about nursing in public. For most of us, it’s only something we do when we have to choose between giving the kid a quick nurse or letting them scream endlessly in hunger and fear. Our children are our main concern, and our only concern when it comes to breastfeeding. We are trying to care for our babies, and our dignity and modesty feature on the list of things that we sacrifice for our children. Most of us aren’t totally thrilled about this arrangement, either. We do it because our kids are relying on us to provide them with nourishment. No one else figures into this equation at all.

If you do see a mother of a small child who is breastfeeding and still managing to be sexy and succeeding at both…you know what? Slow. Clap. I can’t believe I have to say this, but aren’t we all pretty interested in making sure that women feel comfortable enough in society to be comfortable in their own skins, to be bold and authentically, erotically connected and empowered? These are the amazing women that we are all so fascinated by, the ones many of us are holding out for, the ones who are out of our leagues. Encourage the awesome! Maybe we’ll see more of it.

Will there be people who abuse their freedom? Yes. There will always be that handful of people who are gross and abusive and no matter how much room you give them, they’ll make a point of taking it a step further just out of grossness. The thing to remember is that those people are assholes, not bitches. Asshattery is not related to gender, age, race or religion. It is great and non-discriminatory that way. It is okay to recognize when an individual is being gross, and it’s natural to be offended by flagrantly crude behavior. We just have to remember that, just as we can’t deny people their right to free speech just because Rush Limbaugh opened his mouth once, we can’t deny the vast majority of responsible nursing mothers the opportunity to effectively nurture their children just because someone, somewhere may get it into their head to use their tit as a squirt gun in a restaurant. Deal with the tit-squirt-gun gal based on her own situation and merit, and deal with me (the most clothed person ever) based on mine. And for the love of god, don’t try to lump me in the with tit-squirt-gun chick because I’m just as icked out as anyone else over this kind of grossness, even though I totally just made the whole scenario up. I feel a bit like making my mind eat soap for that one.

3. Opposition: We’re mammals, breastfeeding is kind of what we do. Women who claim they’ve been discriminated against for breastfeeding are probably blowing their experiences out of proportion. There is no need for the government involved.

Rebuttal: Clearly, you are not paying attention. See here and here and here and here.


Written by GRSeim

April 5, 2012 at 6:15 am

5 Responses

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  1. Good for you. Some people are completely ridiculous.

    I get nervous about this issue because my cafe received a complaint a while back saying that a member of staff had asked a breastfeeding mother to stop. She felt this was outrageous and told us she’d never come back again. The local news even picked it up and we looked awful, but when we checked the CCTV it was another customer that had gone over to her and said all that.

    I was gobsmacked anyone would treat a woman like that and angry that we’d been blamed for someone else’s ignorance, but I did understand why the mother had reacted so furiously. Breastfeeding mothers get treated badly – even if they’re not told to stop, they often have to put up with stares and giggles and people giving them a wide berth. It’s one of the most natural things in the world, how can people not see that?


    April 5, 2012 at 7:54 am

    • You’ve hit on exactly what makes this particular law is so exciting. Rather than focusing on correcting business practices, this law would allow breastfeeding mothers to report individuals who harass them for nursing their children in public. Individuals who engage in this sort of unwanted behavior could then be fined or required to take a class on breastfeeding and the rights of breastfeeding women. I’m really interested to see how this turns out, because I think we’re past the point in Seattle of needing to get businesses to recognize our right as mothers to breastfeed. I think most business owners get that and they seem to be communicating that information to their employees pretty effectively. I have personally been harassed by normal members of the community on several occasions, though, at playgrounds, on buses and weirdest of all at a children’s museum. You’d think of all places, you’d be pretty safe to feed your baby in a place that caters to the needs of the 5-and-under crowd. This one older father followed me around giving me the stink eye one day, though, for ages after my daughter had finished her snack and moved on with her day. I couldn’t decide how to respond at the time because he wasn’t speaking to me, he was just glaring at me and making me feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t an employee and his behavior didn’t really warrant calling for security to remove him from the museum, so I was at a loss for how to respond. Under the proposed legislation, I’d be able to report this man for discrimination and he would be forced to take responsibility for the inconvenience he caused by refusing to appropriately share a public space. Hopefully just having the law in place will be enough to discourage people from behaving in intimidating and rude ways in public. It’s about time this problem was addressed!


      April 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm

      • It does sound like a good law for dealing with the problem in a constructive way – ie, committing to educating individuals. Let us know how it goes, I’m excited to see.


        April 6, 2012 at 4:59 am

  2. As a man, I don’t get it. It’s disgusting that people complain about breastfeeding and that we’ve become so insane that the government needs to get involved to protect people who want to do it. It’s a bare breast. You’d think a person just saw someone crap on the hood of their Audi.

    As for the pumping thing, that just seems stupid to me. It would be like asking men to go ejaculate into a cup for later use. I know the arguments people give for not wanting to see it, but none of them hold any water. It’s like gay marriage: people don’t like it and don’t want to see it for no other reason than because they’re a bunch of intolerant mooks.

    Jonathan Hontz

    April 6, 2012 at 9:08 pm

  3. That sounds like such an amazing and worthwhile experience – I’m really glad there were women like you there to set the record. It’s really interesting to see the direction that something like this is going, while Arizona is simultaneously getting even moar stupid about human dignity. I think you make a great point, that the pushback is related to the horrifying thought that women need not give a single fuck for anyone else’s opinion when her infant is crying and hungry. Women are socialized practically from birth to be kind and considerate and respectful of others’ opinions, often at the expense of their own – when they refuse to do it, the gender binary cries, and you know how upset some people get about that poor gender binary.


    April 6, 2012 at 10:18 pm

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