THAT'S MEN: Discomfort over breastfeeding is irrational, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN
BACK IN the last century, a female colleague threw her male co-workers, including myself, into a state of alarm by announcing that she would be taking her baby to the Christmas party. She needed to breastfeed the baby every two hours, so if she was at the party, baby had to be there too.
Why were we alarmed? I suppose because having a mother sitting at a table and breastfeeding amid the turkey, ham and stuffing seemed incompatible with the night of serious boozing we had in mind.
The trouble was, it would be politically incorrect to raise this issue with her, and we were a very politically correct bunch of people.
In the end, it was other mothers who worked with us who saved the day. They explained to the new mother that they got enough of babies and children in their own homes and that they simply did not want to have a baby around when they were trying to enjoy a good knees-up.
The mother relented and stayed away while the rest of us went on to murder trillions of brain cells with alcohol as planned.
I was reminded of all this when I got a press release from the HSE promoting National Breastfeeding Week, which is under way as you read this. The week features breastfeeding art exhibitions and also coffee mornings, though the babies, I presume, will be sticking to milk.
But why did the idea of a woman breastfeeding at our party spook us all back in the day? I don’t think it was really to do with the booze – I think we would have been equally spooked if we had all been going to, say, a coffee morning.
What’s more I think that a similar announcement by a mother today would have the same effect on quite a lot of people.
It’s all totally irrational. A woman’s body is not actually a bomb and it is safe to let it out in public. Moreover, we are used to seeing breasts exposed in newspapers and on television – so used to it that we don’t actually notice half the time.
We still hear lots of stories from the US of women being thrown out of supermarkets and other places for breastfeeding on the go.
American women with their wonderful feistiness tend to respond, not by ringing Joe Duffy but by holding nurse-ins where lots of them turn up at the offending institution and breastfeed in protest.
When Barbara Walters said on TV five years ago that sitting beside a breastfeeding mother on a plane made her uncomfortable, 200 mothers held a breastfeed-fest outside the studios.
I notice that the HSE’s Lisa Corbett urges us, the Irish people, to “ensure breastfeeding mothers feel more confident in responding to the needs of their breastfeeding babies when outside home”.
That suggests that we, or some of us, continue to be spooked by public breastfeeding – that’s probably why you can go from one end of the year to the next without seeing anyone doing it. Even the pyjama brigade who go to the shop, the school and everywhere else in their PJs seem to shy away from being seen to breastfeed, though they may not be into it in the first place given that smoking and breastfeeding at the same time can be tricky.
Why are we still discombobulated by the sight of a mother breastfeeding in public? I don’t know but I think it’s fascinating that the question even arises.
Are we paying for sexualising the female breast in Western society? After all, in some societies breasts are just for feeding babies, though I have to admit that I derive this information entirely from National Geographic.
Perhaps we dislike the reminder that, after all, we are not the divine creatures we sometimes like to make ourselves out to be?
Whatever the answer, good luck to the breastfeeding cohorts of mná na hÉireann. And everyone else, keep calm.
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by e-mail