“This fudged legislation wouldn’t help the mother who was told her breastmilk ‘stank’ when she tried to feed in a changing room
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 March 2010 11.11 GMT
“I’m afraid too many mums are self-righteous,” writes Jan Moir in the Daily Mail. She does appear to be genuinely scared. “Society,” she writes, is being “terrorised by militant mothers” and “breast-is-best propagandists”.
We’re talking about breastfeeding in public. Actually, we’re not even talking about that. The incident that is said to have provoked “Curse Of The Mummy-style fury” is where mother Anisa Baker was prevented from breastfeeding in charity shop in East Dulwich, London. While she was getting changed. In a cubicle. With the curtains closed. Whereupon the manager squirted air freshener at her baby and told her: “Your breast milk stinks.”
“This is an ongoing skirmish in the milk wars,” writes Moir. And she’s right: women’s struggle to breastfeed has been playing out for a generation now. Moir’s position? “Mothers always like to occupy the moral high ground by insisting that … breastfeeding is the most natural and beautiful thing in the world … Well, so is urinating, but no one insists on doing that wherever and whenever the need takes their fancy.” She goes on: “The argument that women should be allowed to breastfeed wherever they like has gone too far.”
Let’s lay the invective to one side for a minute. Let’s not rise. We don’t need to get depressed about the effect this kind of polemical tirade may have on shaping the opinions of the Daily Mail’s 2 million readers. Instead, consider this as a philosophical exercise in helping our society to function smoothly.
The “issue” of breastfeeding outside the home is commonly perceived as a balancing act. The needs of mothers and babies must be accommodated, yet the right of members of the public not to be offended by “indecency” carries equal weight. The logical consequence of this position is the fudge that we currently have in this country, where mums are routinely, randomly humiliated for following the needs of their babies. These two positions aren’t compatible. Either we ban breastfeeding in public, in order to absolutely guarantee that the female nipple will only be displayed in its socially acceptable context – on page 3 of the tabloids. (Of course that would mean condemning breastfeeding mothers to some kind of purdah, but plenty of Mail readers seem to support the idea.) Or we legalise it.
Step in the government’s long-overdue equality bill. This will make it illegal to discriminate against a woman for breastfeeding. If you’re allowed into a shop, or a bus, or a cafe with your baby, then you’ll be allowed to breastfeed, and it’ll be against the law for someone to stop you. This should make a real difference. Breastfeeding only offends because it’s an unusual, almost subversive act. Make it familiar and ubiquitous and the shock factor disappears. Hooray! A source of tension in society evaporates! We’re mammals. We might as well come to terms with the fact.
It should make a difference, but it won’t. The equality bill contains an important proviso, another fudge (and really, what else should we expect from Whitehall bureaucrats?). This vital legal protection only lasts for six months after a mother gives birth.
This matters, because in ring-fencing what constitutes legal behaviour, the legislation inadvertently makes breastfeeding an older baby more illegal. Picture this: an altercation arises between a charity shop manager and a mother. The police are called. “Ah,” the mother is told, “your baby is over the legal limit for breastfeeding in public.” This may not be the way this bill was designed, but it’s how it’s going to be interpreted.
Breastmilk is the only recommended food for a baby of less than six months. Meta-analyses of scientific studies into the subject prove that feeding anything else to young babies is more likely to make them ill. Only a quarter of six-month-olds in this country get any breastmilk at all, and exclusive breastfeeding rates run at less than 1%. Six months is not a good age to withdraw a baby’s legal rights. She still has a physiological need for either breastmilk or formula until she’s a year old, and formula is more likely to make her sick than the alternative.
Anisa Baker’s baby is 10 months old. The feedback her plight has elicited from Mail readers includes the comment: “That child is far too old to be breastfed.” But it’s for mothers, not politicians, policemen or social commentators to decide how, and for how long, to feed their children. This legislation is a missed opportunity. It will give Baker no protection at all.”
Kate Evans is the author of The Food of Love which is a fresh and funny look at motherhood.