It’s one of the biggest issues in modern motherhood – and it’s one that frequently makes the news. But is breastfeeding a modesty issue?
The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with since becoming a mom isn’t anything, really, to do with my kids. It’s not the blowouts and the all-night bouts of colic. It’s not the temper tantrums, the long gap between showers, or the constant lack of sleep.
It’s the judgement.
It doesn’t matter what your stance is as a mom. Whether you’re crunchy or not, whether you do or don’t vax, are pro- or anti-circumcision, give or don’t give pacifiers, do or don’t use crib bumpers, do or don’t spank, and no matter *when* you decide to turn the carseat from rear-facing to forward-facing, there’s always a host of other moms ready to pounce on you and claw your peace to shreds.
At least with most issues, it’s *only* other moms that give you glares and snide remarks. For the most part, everyone else hardly pays any attention – and even many of the moms who don’t agree with your stance are too polite to say anything. However, there is one big issue that seems to merit an opinion from just about everyone – mom or not. It’s breastfeeding.
In particular, the big debate centers around whether or not it’s appropriate for a mother to publicly nurse her child – maybe even without using a cover. Even the most polite and reserved of non-crunchy moms may be moved to make a remark to a nursing mother if she thinks there’s the slightest chance that her husband or son might notice. The pervasive idea that nursing moms are fighting is that breastfeeding a child in public is somehow related to issues of modesty. Is it, though? Or is this whole issue really just stemming from a culture that’s gotten too far away from a healthy concept of sexuality?
Perhaps no time in world history is regarded as more “modest” than the Victorian Era. Anyone referring to a “Victorian mentality” usually means extreme prudishness and buttoned-up morals. Young couples needed chaperones and hardly ever touched. Polite society wouldn’t dream of discussing sexual issues.
The fact is, Victorians considered pregnancy to be a more embarrassing condition than breastfeeding; pregnancy was referred to as being “in a delicate condition,” if it was mentioned at all – nursing, on the other hand, was a fact of life. Women were only pregnant for nine months (and even spent a few months of their pregnancy in “confinement,” when they stayed home to rest and keep out of the public eye until after delivering their child) but nursing a child could take years. Formula didn’t exist, nursing covers didn’t exist, and special rooms in public places for women to nurse didn’t exist. That meant options were few: women could either never leave home and never have company, or they could feed their little ones in public.
It wasn’t considered shameful, either. The best way to know what a culture was like is to read its books. For example, Charles Dickens makes multiple references to Mrs. Micawber nursing her twins in David Copperfield. One of the first references finds David being introduced to her as she is nursing one of her twins:
“…He presented me to Mrs. Micawber, a thin and faded lady, not at all young, who was sitting in the parlour (the first floor was altogether unfurnished, and the blinds were kept down to delude the neighbors), with a baby at her breast. This baby was one of twins, and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both the twins detached from Mrs. Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment.” – Ch. 11, pg 165
Another reference has David and Mr. Micawber meet by chance in the street, and when David politely asks after his wife, he’s given an update on her breastfeeding situation (which makes sense to me, since breastfeeding tends to make up a very large part of a mother’s life!)!
“…The twins no longer derive their sustenance from Nature’s founts–in short,” said Mr. Micawber, in one of his bursts of confidence, “they are weaned–and Mrs. Micawber is, at present, my travelling companion.” – Ch. 17, pg. 263
Isn’t that great? “Nature’s founts” – I love that nickname. The wonderful thing about those little references is how plainly they show the total lack of embarrassment. It wasn’t just okay to nurse a baby – it was okay to do it while meeting a stranger for the first time (a man, no less). It was okay not only to talk about it in public, but to refer to it as casually as if it were no different than if she were getting into gardening. Nursing was done without embarrassment even in an age when women were expected to blush whenever they were complimented and be mortified if they accidentally showed a hint of ankle.
Of course, for those in conservative circles, “modesty” most often refers to a standard that comes from somewhere higher – like God. As a conservative Christian, I’ve certainly had the word “modesty,” and phrases about “not causing men to fall into sin” leveled at me more than once. The truly sad thing, however, is that the idea that breastfeeding a child is somehow immodest couldn’t be further from what the Bible indicates!
I found this incredible and comprehensive article from the Alternative Birth Care website that details how the Bible treats the topic of breastfeeding. It’s mentioned frequently, and the references always fall into two categories: literal breastfeeding, or breastfeeding as a metaphor. As the author points out, all the references cast breastfeeding in a positive light. Here are just a few:
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” – Isaiah 49:15
The account in Exodus 2 of baby Moses being fished out of the river, and the daughter of Pharaoh looking for a woman to nurse him (his sister Miriam stepped forward to offer up his own mother as a candidate).
“…because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb.” [Genesis 49:25, NIV]
Metaphorically, nursing imagery is used to convey the tender care God gives to his people:
“Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for her, all you who love her; Be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her, That you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts, That you may suck and be delighted with her bountiful bosom. For thus says the LORD, “Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; And you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees.” – Isaiah 66:10-12
The great thing about the Biblical references to breastfeeding? They’re fairly graphic! It’s not just vague allusions – it’s detailed descriptions of the nursing process. There’s joy and excitement in the words, like the kind a mother sees on her baby’s face when he realizes it’s time for milks again. Yet these passages weren’t written to nursing babies – these words were written to an entire people group, including men and women of all ages.
Even Muslim women, who probably have the highest standard of modesty for women in the world, do not consider breastfeeding to be immodest – not if they live in the Middle East, anyway. The Qur’an, the holy book of the religion of Islam, prescribes nursing until age two:
“In travail upon travail
Did his mother bear him,
And in years twain
Was his weaning:: – Ch. 31:14
Some Muslim women prefer to use a “Hijab” (nursing cover) for public nursing, but as this article from the blog Green Prophet points out, it’s really not about covering or not covering. To quote the article,
“…I’ve found that modest dress and nursing in public are separate issues. Women covered from head to toe can be seen nursing their babies on a park bench, while some mothers in halter tops wouldn’t dream of nursing in public. In countries like the US, where babies are primarily bottle-fed, breastfeeding mothers are frequently asked to leave public places or cover up while billboards with exposed breasts are everywhere.”
The idea that breastfeeding is somehow immodest is not an historical idea. It does not come from any particular branch of faith. It’s a very recent phenomenon – with roots not in modesty, but in marketing.
Costly baby formulas would have been a tough sell when they were first introduced. After all, why spend money month after month when a mom could just feed her baby herself for free – or, as was common when for some reason a mother was unable, hire a wetnurse? In an age when nursing was the norm, it wasn’t uncommon for a lactating friend to step in to do some of the feedings – or, since many people kept animals, it would also have been cheaper to use raw cow or goat milk. There were a host of less expensive and fresher options!
The solution to marketing an otherwise unmarketable product was to claim that formulas were more healthful for babies – that mothers would give their little ones a better start to life if they were fed these magical man-made milks (this kind of marketing, while safe enough in some areas, produced deadly results in areas with substandard sanitation practices and contaminated water). These unsavory and dishonest marketing tactics led to increased infant mortality rates – and the ongoing Nestle boycott, and a call for stricter marketing guidelines.
So what are we supposed to do, as moms, as modest women, as women of faith? This incredible article by Red and Honey does a great job of giving responses to all the protests people around you might give to public nursing (including all those “do you want pervs looking at you” comments). It’s definitely a must-read for moms who find themselves getting the stink eye a lot – or worse, those nasty little comments!
I may never be the mom who is entirely comfortable with public nursing. I admit to using a cover, and I’ll even admit that I’ve never done it unless I had someone with me to give me moral support. I was raised in this culture, and I’m still something of a victim of it – at least enough that I’ll always be slightly intimidated by the glares of an older generation.
I still do it, though. I nurse in public when my baby is hungry, even though it freaks me out a little. I’m going to continue to do it, too, because I want to be part of the “re-normalizing” of breastfeeding, instead of yet another mom intimidated by the way things are. Hopefully, if enough of us just keep doing what we’re doing, our sons won’t feel awkward around nursing moms, and our daughters won’t be made to feel ashamed.