Friday, March 17, 2006

Breast-feeding in Shule

A couple of commenters took me to task for indicating that breast-feeding in shule is inappropriate.

My feelings about breastfeeding in public, and specifically in a place of worship, are actually more complicated than those commenters give me credit for.

I don't have time right now to write a fully comprehensive, logically-ordered post, so I'll just make a few points for everyone to digest:

1- Breastfeeding IS a necessary, natural, and beautiful way to take care of one's child. I hope to do it myself one day.

2- Western society does indeed often make it uneccessarily uncomfortable for women to feed their babies. Often there is no appropriate place provided to do it (and no, a toilet is not an appropriate place), and women are given flak (flack?) for doing something that they need to do - or, more specifically, that their babies need for them to do.

3- Relegating mothers to nurse in back bedrooms, in hallways, etc means that they will miss out on just about any adult conversation or adult activity they can ever do - which just makes mothering even more frustrating and lonely than it already is.

4- Breastfeeding is NOT a sexual act.

5- Asking men to "get over it" and not be distracted by the sight of a woman's bare breast is, frankly, asking too much and belies a certain fundamentalist attitude about breastfeeding among certain women. Just as babies are wired to suck, and women are wired to produce milk, men are wired to be distracted by the bare breast. That is how babies get into the world in the first place. Just as it is unfair to tell a woman to leave just because she needs to nurse, it is unfair to tell a healthy man to just look somewhere else. Personally, I think it would be very sad if all the men in the world became immune to the site of a bare breast.

6- I personally think that breastfeeding anywhere is OK as long as the mother and baby are covered up with a blanket. At that point, if men can't help but think about what is going on under the blanket, then it's in the same league as men thinking about anything under a woman's clothes. The woman is covered up, you can't see anything - if the men's minds are wandering, then at that point, in my opinion, the woman has done her part and it's now the man's issue to deal with.

7-In the case mentioned in my last post, the woman did NOT use a blanket, and I think that bare breasts are inappropriate in most public places, but particularly in a place of worship, no matter why they are being bared. Marital sex is also natural and beautiful- and inappropriate for shule. Changing a diaper, while not beautiful, is a natural part of taking care of one's child- but you wouldn't do it in the sanctuary of a synagogue. If a person has a condition in which they always feel hot, I wouldn't tell them it's OK to strip naked in shule, either, even though in that case it is similarly NOT sexual.

8- My friend who breastfeeds tells me that some children will not nurse under a blanket. So, to be very dan l'kaf zchut (giving the woman the benefit of the doubt), since I later found out she's married, we'll assume that this 12-to-18 month old child nurses more than once an hour, and therefore must be brought to shule with the mothern while she hears megillah for 60 minutes; that he refuses to nurse under a blanket; and that the woman already knew there were no chairs right outside in the hall, outside the sanctuary, where it is still perfectly possible to hear everything going on.

9- It is really unfortunate that so many women are given a hard time about breastfeeding in public, when all they are trying to do is feed their children, and that they are made to feel "dirty" for doing something non-sexual and a necessary part of mothering.

10- It is also unfortunate that so many women are fundamentalist about their breastfeeding and insist that baring their breasts in public must be OK, by definition, no matter where they are (in shule, at a press conference with the president of the United States, in an audience with the Dalai Lama . . . ) or who else is around (TV cameras, single 25-year-old Orthodox men, Prince Charles . . . ), as long as there is a baby sucking at it. Not every natural behavior is appropriate in every circumstance.

11- I do not mean to equate breastfeeding, which is beautiful, necessary, and natural, with diaper-changing, which is necessary and natural but NOT beautiful . . . . but I'm thinking that a good rule of thumb is: if you are in a place where it is inappropriate to change your baby's diaper, then you are in a place where it is inappropriate to bare your breast. (Again, I think nursing under a blanket is OK just about anywhere that you would bring your baby to begin with.) Thus, baring your breast (for example if your baby will not nurse under a blanket) is OK in a crowded airplane where there is nowhere else to go, or at a mommy-and-me meeting, or in a public park when you are on a picnic. But it is not OK at the Shabbat table (under a blanket is OK!), or in the sanctuary of a shule, or at a business meeting, or in the middle of your graduate-level Economics class, or in front of Queen Elizabeth. My rule of thumb leaves some grey areas-- do you want to be breast-feeding at a Red Sox game in front of beer-guzzling fans? Do people bring babies to Red Sox games to begin with?-- but some things just have to be left to individual circumstances.

11a. Actually, to refine my rule-of-thumb further . . . . or maybe change it completely; I reserve the right to change my mind after thinking about this further . . . . I think the issue with baring one's breast is mainly that it is distracting. So, in a place where distracting other people is impolite (in the middle of Economics class, in the middle of megillah reading, etc) it is impolite to nurse a child without using a blanket. When I was a college instructor, one of the rules in my class was that you could snack, but not on hot food or food in packages that make a lot of noise when you open them. Grapes or a peanut butter sandwich were OK, but not piping-hot lasagna or potato chips -- because they are distracting. Now, eating is a natural process of being alive, and I certainly did not want my students to be hungry in class, which was why I allowed snacks. But their need to eat does not, in my judgement, supercede (supersede?) the need of other students to concentrate on my lecture. What I'm saying is, an action can be perfectly natural and wonderful, but not in every environment under the sun.

12- I'm sure there will be lots of arguments that my rules-of-thumb don't work, and I'm not claiming that either of them do work in all circumstances. But to those who vehemently disagree with me, I just have to say again, the world would be a much better place if everyone would just listen to me and do what I say without question. :-)

13- Telling me "your opinion will change once you are breastfeeding" may be correct but it is irrelevant. Everyone feels that their needs are more important than those of others. And, probably, before you breastfed, or before your wife did, you found it incredibly distracting and sometimes impolite, too. Women who breastfeed have to deal with a world that includes people who are not breastfeeding, or who do not have breasts . . . . just as men, and women who have never breastfed, have to deal with a world in which babies nurse, and have to eat. The needs of mothers and babies are really, really important, and we should be as understanding as possible about the fact that when babies get hungry, their mothers have to feed them. But that doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate reasons that bare breasts make other people uncomfortable, and I think the "just get over it" attitude on the part of some mothers is just as insensitive and unhelpful as the "go nurse in the bathroom" attitude of others.

14- I probably would have been a lot more on the side of nursing mothers in this post if the commenter Margalit had not displayed such a huge amount of bad attitude in her comment to my last post. So, I apologize to all the mothers who engage in behavior I may otherwise have more readily defended, but when someone writes a comment in such a condescending and judgemental tone, I take umbrage. I wish I were better than that, but I'm not, especially since I've had a hard week.

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