The One Thing We Don't Say About Public Breastfeeding

I chose and, more accurately, was able to breastfeed my son, and in doing so, made the decision to feed my son at any time — day or night — and anywhere, regardless of whether or not it was a public or private place. When we were at the mall, I breastfed my son. When we were at a restaurant, I breastfed my son. When we were on a walk and saw a bench next to a beautifully groomed and highly populated path, I breastfed my son. In doing so, I received some judgmental looks and — at times — some outright horrible comments. At first I thought it was the fault of our collective society's inability to de-sexualize women's breasts (or, you know, bodies in general) but then I realized it was because of the one thing we don't say about public breastfeeding at all:

Breasts are both sexual, and functional, and adults are — or at least, should be — more than capable of viewing them as both, simultaneously.

The pro-breastfeeding movement is quick to de-sexualize women's bodies, especially breasts used to sustain new life. I can understand the thought process, as our social pendulum has swung so far towards constant, shameless sexualization of women that many people lack the ability to view a woman's body as anything other than an object of sexual pleasure. So, to combat this narrow-minded and downright dangerous way of thinking, the pendulum has swung severely in the opposite direction: de-sexualizing women's bodies — especially mothers' bodies — to the point that a sexual mother is considered a "bad" mother. In an attempt to correct a cultural atrocity, we're over-correcting by stripping mothers of their right to be seen and celebrated as sexual human beings while being respected and supported as life-giving human beings.

Which is why we need to talk about breasts as both sexual and functional, because that is exactly what the are. We need to be able to realize when a breast is being used to sustain life, and when it being used for sexual pleasure. We need to be, for lack of a better word, adults. What happens with breasts in a bedroom does not inhibit their ability to be used and displayed when feeding a newborn, and feeding a newborn in public does not keep breasts from being enjoyed, consensually, in the bedroom. We're more than capable of compartmentalizing and separating sexuality from functionality — after all, we all pee out of the same places that give us pleasure — so why is it that we cannot do the same for breasts?

Our cultural inability to view breasts as sexual and functional, simultaneously, is why I felt so incredibly awkward having sex for the entire seven months I was actively breastfeeding my son. My partner wanted to touch my breasts the way he did before our son was born, but as I started using them to keep our child alive, I began to desexualize my body in order to justify using my breasts, in public or anywhere else, to feed my son. I was convinced that my breasts couldn't be multifunctional; so when I was — or perceived to be — presented with the choice between using my breasts for sex or for functionality, I chose the latter. I deprived myself (and my partner) of an entirely valid, normal, and useful function of a part of my body, all because society is deeply uncomfortable with women's bodies being both nurturing and sexual at the same time.

Our culture is constantly trying to pigeonhole women into being one specific thing, and one specific thing only. Rarely are women "allowed" to be as complicated or as multifaceted or as flawed or, you know, as human, as men. Mothers, even more so, are pressured to be one thing for the rest of their now mother-lovin' lives. You can't work and be a mom and be a friend and be a lover and be a family member and be, you know, be a person, all the same time without subjecting yourself to an endless barrage of judgement and shame and condemnation. No, when you're a mother, you're often expected to fulfill some preconceived, singular and often exclusive notion of motherhood. It's no wonder, then, that our society is incapable of looking at breasts and seeing more than one thing. By de-sexualizing breasts order to fight for the right to breastfeed in public, we're telling women that they have to choose: be a sexual human being or be a maternal human being, but don't be both.

Which is why we need to talk about breastfeeding in public — or in private — in an honest, open and realistic way. Breasts are sexual. Breasts are also nourishing. We don't need to pretend one aspect of a woman's body doesn't exist, just so that it can successfully be used for another. Instead, we should celebrate women's bodies for absolutely everything they can do.