OPINION | 'If my breasts offend you, you’re staring too hard'

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There is nothing offensive, sexual or indecent about the breasts of a nursing mother
There is nothing offensive, sexual or indecent about the breasts of a nursing mother

In the disturbing and delicious new psychological thriller "The Lost Daughter", the brilliant Olivia Colman's character Leda tells a heavily pregnant woman: "Yeah well, you'll see. Children are a crushing responsibility."

Harsh words, but many mothers will relate. Motherhood is hard. It exhausts you on every single level: physically, emotionally, financially, to name but a few. Colman plays the role of a woman thinking back on her acts of cruelty towards her two, now grownup, daughters. The film explores, as is written in a review in The New York Times "the notion that motherhood can plunder the self in irreparable ways".  

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Of course the degree to which mothers will relate with this notion or with Leda's dark ambivalence to motherhood will vary greatly, but all mothers will agree: As rewarding and fulfilling as it is, motherhood is tough, it's relentless, it's often lonely and it's mostly thankless.

And yet the vast majority of us mothers get up every morning and continue to do, or at the very least try to do, what we think and know is best for our children.

One of these things - if circumstance and biology allow - is to breastfeed our babies. We do it even when we're dead tired, even when it's freaking sore, even when it's incredibly hard, even when we have to go back to work or we're in a waiting room or in a godawful parking lot. We do it because it's best for our children. We do it because nothing else will give them the same head start. We do it to comfort them, to bond with them, to nourish them and to protect them against disease. 

I've been breastfeeding my baby for 20 months now and I've often breastfed in public. To South African society's credit, I've never once had a complaint or as much as a funny look from anyone. My breastfeeding my baby has always gone either completely unnoticed or quietly supported. 

Enter the baby class cottage industry. When my little boy turned 18 months, I enrolled him for one of these fun parent-and-child classes. Everything went well until one day, during class, my baby asked to be breastfed and I obliged. I did it discreetly without attracting any attention or causing any disruption. I doubt any of the other parents even noticed as they were all focused on their children, happily bouncing to the music.

But afterwards the teacher pulled me aside and asked me to please leave the room in future if I was going to breastfeed.

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I was dumbstruck. This was a place tailored for babies and parents. Its very existence was thanks to mothers and infants. Her reason for asking me not to breastfeed my child? "I just don't want the dads to feel uncomfortable."

Oh but of course! The poor, fully-grown males whose very survival is under threat if their innocent eyes should meet the horror of a lactating mammary gland. Of course I'll go feed my child in the toilet if it can protect these most vulnerable amongst our species: the adult man, scared to death of a glimpse of a side of a breast. 

This incident was still fresh in my memory when I enrolled my son for baby water safety lessons last week. To my absolute horror, the exact same thing happened, as if it had been scripted. I (once again discreetly and quietly) breastfed my baby on the outside step of the pool to comfort and calm him when he got teary and scared of going into the water. Within a minute or two he was happy and could enter the pool and enjoy his first lesson.

But afterwards the instructor asked me to please refrain from breastfeeding in class, once again for the sake of the poor, uncomfortable dads. 

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Today I phoned three different baby swimming schools, asking whether they were breastfeeding friendly and was met with the exact same "you're welcome to breastfeed in the changing room" or "as longs as it doesn't make the dads feel uncomfortable" misogynist rubbish. 

Never once has a dad complained. All this intolerance came from women, most of them mothers, one even a breastfeeding mother. As the saying goes: We are our own worst enemy. 

These businesses - most of the well-known and popular baby franchises - make their money out of parents of infants, yet they ostracize mothers who do the most beautiful, natural and selfless thing in the world.

It is so absurd, I battle to find words for it, so I'll quote celebrated author and neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar instead: "The whole human world is born from the womb of mothers, and if we can't make the motherly act of breastfeeding free from stigma in such a world, then it's an insult to our very existence as a species."

In this day and age, no one will dare ask anyone to leave the room because of their race, sex, religion, age, sexual preference, appearance, amount of body hair or any range of other demographics - and rightly so. But dare breastfeed your baby in a place designed for - *gasp* - BABIES! and you get unceremoniously chased to the toilet. The Bill of Rights is reserved for everyone birthed from mothers, but not for mothers, especially not lactating ones.

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When a group of parents of babies and toddlers convene in a pool - all of their haggard bodies in swimwear - I promise you there is a lot to be offended by (bat flaps, hairy backs and butt cracks abound), but a mother nursing her child isn't one of them.

There is nothing offensive, sexual or indecent about the breasts of a nursing mother. And as someone famous once said: "Anybody offended by breastfeeding is staring too hard."

If it's tempting breasts and nipples you're after, you'll find them in abundance and on display at any public pool or beach. Yet, strangely, you won't find any dad complaining to the lifeguards.

These baby franchises' and swimming schools' reaction to my breastfeeding my baby is deplorable, and if anyone should be shamed, it is them. 

The ONLY appropriate and acceptable reaction to any breastfeeding mother anywhere under any circumstance is unconditional support, kindness and encouragement. We go through enough, we are judged enough, we feel isolated enough. 

As The New York Times says of Colman's character: "(She) doesn't need our condemnation; she's harboring more than enough of her own."

Marida Fitzpatrick is a writer and the mom of a 20 month old boy. 


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