breastfeeding in public Flickr / Maja
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Relax, My Wife Breastfeeding In Public Has Nothing To Do With You

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For our daughter’s third ever flight, from Flint to Minneapolis, we decided to try something new and brought her car seat along, hoping it would encourage her to sleep. As usual, EJ had other ideas. At the airport, she started bending her back and howling so loud you would have thought we put electrically-charged spikes in said car seat. So I took her out and held her, and was still holding her when we boarded the plane. By the time we sat down, she had calmed somewhat, but was still twisting like Axl Rose in my arms. That’s when the flight attendant approached.

“You’re going to need to put the baby in the car seat for takeoff,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “I can’t just hold her?”

He shook his head. “She has to go in the seat.”

“But if we didn’t have the car seat, one of us would have to hold her.”

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“I know. But since you do, she has to go in it.” He sighed, a forced kindness in his eyes. “In the event of an emergency, do you want her to be more secure, or do you want her to be a projectile?”

Without ever exchanging a word with her, I knew exactly what Jenny was going to do. And I knew the flight attendant wouldn’t dare try to stop her.

I wanted to say, “Do you want her to scream her head off for a half hour straight?” Instead I looked from him to EJ and said, “He just called you a projectile, baby.”

The flight attendant offered a weak smile, then walked off down the aisle. But before he did, I saw my wife glance at him, and right then, I knew EJ would not be going into the car seat. Without ever exchanging a word with her, I knew exactly what Jenny was going to do. And I knew the flight attendant wouldn’t dare try to stop her.

The boob. Right as we were about to take off, my wife put our daughter on one of her breasts, and the flight attendant flew right by. It was like the scene in Top Gun where Maverick has the MiG on his tail and he hits the brakes to get the shot on the enemy. Except the enemy wasn’t a faceless Russian jet pilot; it was a short, clean-cut man in a blue blazer who was now doing everything in his power not to make eye contact with a nearly-exposed nipple. And the “weapon” wasn’t a missile; it was a breast with a baby on it. A quiet, secure baby. While the FAA would not have condoned the maneuver, I couldn’t have been more proud.

Nine months earlier, I couldn’t have been more ignorant. Jenny and I were arguing about where and how she should sit in our living room when feeding EJ. She wanted to sit by our big front window, where the glider was. I did not want this. “I don’t want you to be topless for all of our neighbors to see!” I said. She asked why it mattered. We debated back and forth. At some point — and this is the shameful part — I gestured to her breasts and said, “Because those are mine!”

I can still see the look on her face. Anger mixed with disgust and no small amount of disappointment. She told me that I had no right to be so possessive. That I didn’t own her body. Still I battled. I don’t remember how we exited that argument, and as much as I would love to be able to say there was some magical turning point where I simply understood exactly where she was coming from, I can’t say that. I can say that time passed, as it always does, and that as I witnessed my wife breastfeeding our daughter, day in and day out, for over a year, I grew to admire her more and more.

Maybe it was the endurance athlete in me, inspired by the Herculean task she was embarking upon. I knew I couldn’t share the burden, couldn’t run the miles for her. Like a supporter on the sidelines of a marathon course, all I could do was cheer, offer snacks, and run for the first aid kit when her nipples started to bleed.

Now, when I hear about people being critical of women for breastfeeding in public, it simultaneously drives me crazy and makes me sad.

Breastfeeding as endurance sport. This is ultimately a bad metaphor. Unlike a marathon runner or a triathlete, a breastfeeding woman doesn’t have hundreds of people cheering for her. If she’s lucky, she has a small community of fellow moms who have her back. And she has her partner. And if her partner can’t help her feel comfortable in her own home, what’s going to happen when she’s out in the world, where if she dares to emerge from one of public sphere’s few designated nursing rooms — in order to feed her child in someplace other than a closet — she’s slammed with dirty looks from strangers?

Now, when I hear about people being critical of women for breastfeeding in public, it simultaneously drives me crazy and makes me sad. The frustration is there because a woman busts her ass (and sometimes, quite literally, her nipples) to engage in an act that does so many things at once for her baby: provides nutrients, boosts the developing immune system, offers comfort and security. The sadness arises because I’ve been that person who judges, who can’t see a partially-exposed breast in public and not think, at least a little bit, about sex.

Actress Mila Kunis recently critiqued this very issue when she spoke out after being shamed for breastfeeding in public: “In the States and in our culture we sexualize the breast so much that people just don’t know how to wrap their head around the idea of showing your breast in public.” She couldn’t be more right. Why else would that flight attendant have avoided us like he did? He let us let us turn our baby into what he called a projectile; he let us do something he thought was unsafe, all because the top part of my wife’s breast was visible.

As Kunis and others remind us, such cleavage is celebrated in the entertainment and media industries. But put a baby in front of that cleavage, and suddenly a woman is engaging in an unsettling or even shameful act. What’s up with that? Just as I can’t speak for that flight attendant, who perhaps was simply giving my wife space out of respect, I can’t speak for everyone. But I think the answer, for a lot of men at least, has something to do with selfishness, with not wanting to share (“Those are mine!”) something that was never really ours in the first place.

I spent the majority of my adult life — and basically all of my adolescence — thinking of breasts only as sexual objects. What else could they be, I thought, other than works of art for me to try to fondle? I’m not exactly proud of this, just as I’m not proud of how I responded to my wife when she had to fight for her right to sit where she wanted to sit and feed her baby in her own home — something she never should have had to do to begin with. I also know that I’m far from alone in thinking or having thought of a woman’s body in an objectifying way. Admitting these thoughts though, and attempting to analyze them here—that does feel lonely. I guess only time will tell if I’ll get any more invites to poker night after this.

It can be a slow journey, growing up and moving from that ogling majority to a kinder, older, and more respectful minority. Mine was certainly sped along by the baby girl we welcomed into our lives over a year ago. It’s funny; I’m in this place where I’m trying to teach her how to become a great woman, even as I myself am learning, in fits and starts and occasional backslides, how to be a good man. I’d like to think this is where I find myself now, calling for all people, everywhere, to stop shaming women for the simple yet heroic act of breastfeeding.

Jason Basa Nemec shares his thoughts on parenting at his website www.sensitivefather.com. He lives in Hong Kong with his wife and daughter.

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