Why breastfeeding military moms freak people out

The uproar over photos of two military moms breastfeeding indicates a larger social debate in America about women's freedom and their comfort as mothers in public spaces. 

Elaine Thompson/AP
Camie Goldhammer, chair of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition, holds her daughter after testifying before the Seattle City Council April 9. The council later passed a proposed law that adds a mother's right to breastfeed her child to other protected civil rights. Op-ed contributor Jill Abraham Hummer calls breastfeeding the 'A-bomb of the mommy wars.' She cautions: 'If the mommy wars are avoided, then so is discussion of these public issues.'

Mothers are inundated with messages about what is best for their children, and May has turned out to be a particularly vituperative month regarding breastfeeding.

Earlier in the month, Time published the magazine cover with a woman breastfeeding her toddler. This week, two National Guard members were posed in uniforms breastfeeding their babies for an awareness campaign. The photos, which were posted in a breastfeeding support page on Facebook, quickly raised questions about the appropriateness of women breastfeeding in uniform and breastfeeding in public.

“If we have women in the military, and we have mothers in the military, breastfeeding is going to happen,” says Bernice Hausman, a professor of English and at Virginia Tech. “A father in uniform is an iconic figure. It’s much different for a mother in uniform.”

Hausman, who also teaches at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, says this issue is a broader political issue about what is proper for women to do in the military, particularly considering the campaign to win the right to serve in combat.

“What’s proper for a mother to do?” asks Hausman. “It raises issues about women’s roles and identities in the military. Is it improper for women to serve?”

The Washington National Guard responded to the photos, saying that there is no problem with military mothers breastfeeding in uniform, but there are rules against using uniforms to promote or campaign for a cause.

Aside from the argument about appropriate uses for military uniforms, the attention this issue received is related to the highly sensationalized social context of breastfeeding and women’s freedom in public, says Hausman.  Both the military breastfeeding mothers and the Time magazine cover are issues of women’s representation.

“It is puzzling, isn’t it?” says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “Of all the X-rated things available on TV, sexual situations and sexual innuendos. They even show beheaded captives.  But, boy, breastfeeding just freaks people out.”

Coontz has studied marriage and family relationships for more than 35 years. She says that Americans have a perpetual, simultaneous fascination and disgust regarding sex, much more so than other societies that don’t make as big of a deal out of it. She said these issues are central to Americans’ ambivalence about sexuality, the sexualization of breasts, women’s bodies and motherhood.

"Of course the Time magazine cover created a shock," she says. The media coverage presents a moment of opportunity for advocates to jump on the bandwagon and promote their causes, whether it’s attachment parenting or breastfeeding in public, she adds.  

These messages create anxiety for mothers because they are being told what it means to be a good mother. There is a conflict between the health benefits of breastfeeding and the societal norms about what is proper for mothers to do in public, says Hausman.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises mothers to breastfeed “for as long as mutually desired by mother and child,” whether your child is 6 months or 3 years old. The AAP website says that American culture has a limited view of appropriate breastfeeding practices, advises mothers to focus on their own feelings instead of listening to current public opinion.

Breastfeeding is a “source of profound comfort and security, laying the groundwork for a confident, happy, and healthy future” for your baby, says AAP.

A survey by the Centers for Disease Control shows that approximately 75 percent of women initiate breastfeeding in the United States, though those numbers differ geographically. This number has increased greatly since the 1970s, says Hausman. During the second-wave feminist movement, breastfeeding was low (20 to 25 percent) because formula enabled women to join the workforce, to demonstrate their equality with men.

Activism in the 1990s increased awareness about women’s rights to breastfeed in public, and several states passed laws protecting the right to breastfeed. Federal regulation also guarantees the rights of women to breastfeed anywhere on federal property.

Additional activism, also called “lactavism,” is another form of breastfeeding advocacy, where women hold breastfeeding sit-ins where a mother has been banned or harassed for breastfeeding.

“It is hard to know if these efforts of have changed people’s attitudes about public breastfeeding,” says Hausman. “Women are still very much influenced by other people’s attitudes.”

Individual temperament impacts a mother’s decision about whether or not she breastfeeds in public. Women who care more about other people think will do it less than someone with a more carefree temperament. 

“A lot of women are uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public,” says Hausman. “There is information that shows women how to do it in a discreet way, or so that no one knows what your are doing, which is ridiculous if you think about it.” 

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