Monday, September 24, 2007

Boobs were for babies back then: my guess as to what has happened

There has been so much about nursing in public lately, that I scarcely can deal with writing about it. Where I probably should find myself all enraged, instead I feel tired, annoyed, bored with all the sassy comebacks and what-we-oughta-tell-those-jerks, i.e. "You eat in the bathroom!", and, "Put a blanket over your head!" I dunno. I guess after so much of that, I really was left with my own reality and just a vague, tired feeling that hopefully, somehwere out there, would be a new, more interesting channel that had not been opened in my mind yet--and then poof! The always awesome Rixa posted her newest! Hooray!

Inspired and thrilled by Rixa's post about this article, I wanted to touch upon this cool photographic find, myself.

I loved these old pictures, and was not TOTALLY surprised. I have mentioned before that I was once the proud owner of a baby care book from the 1930's and it presented homebirth and breastfeeding in about a 50/50 equal light as it did hospital birth and formula feeding. (If that book would have been written just a few years later, it would have been a verrry different story, to be sure!) It was an interesting time in American motherhood, no doubt.

My guess as to why, even in an era of less rights for women, and more repression, and less equality in general, mothers would or could nurse in public with such casual comfort as displayed in these two fantastic pictures is pretty simple:

Precisely because this was pre 2nd-wave feminism*, precisely because this was back when women did women things and men did men things, and the battle for equality wasn't so literal yet, and precisely because the muddy, murky, futile waters of the Mommy Wars hadn't yet been dumped over everyone's heads like so much sewage, these women heard their baby cry for some milk, and just like that, they gave them some milk. Like I'm doing right now as I type. And like I would not feel as casual doing at the ballpark or on a bench on Main Street. I have, and I would, but not with the completely indifferent air that the woman in the first picture seems to possess. That scene is the one that I do in front of my children, my husband, my nursing mom friends. At those times, and those times only, my whole boob is out, (gasp!) and I could not care less. Baby is doing his business, I'm doing mine. Go ahead, call me chicken, call me a flop. I'm just being completely honest with you. I don't go and hide in the toilet, but I don't usually just sit there and nurse. A shame, a disservice to other moms, etc. Today I call myself a person living in these times and in a moderate political location, being truthful on my own blog.

I liked what these pictures re-reminded me of, something I have wanted to blog about forever, but have nt yet: the fact that not every "nursing session" is a lovey-dovey affair. Not by a long shot. I guess you could compare it to taking a shower: It could be the most amazing, sensual, meaningful, relaxing, fulfilling highlight of your day--or it could be rinsey rinse rinse, scrub a dub dub.

But back to breastfeeding not being a wine n roses affair--sometimes it lasts for 30 seconds. Most times you don't even rememebr if or when or for how long your baby took a moment to have some milk. That's what was so remarkable, for me, about the very unremarkable events that were captured in these pictures. There was no blanket, there was no nursing flap, and that was neato--but the real wisdom we can connect with in these photos is just the very lack of preciously gazing into each other's eyes, special rocking chairs, foot stools, or really anything else that implies breastfeeding is anything other than the most common and simple of daily affairs. Which is truer than anything else I have heard about this topic in a long, long time.

Oh, and another thing, which is honestly most likely to be the biggest reason that we all still can't say that we see this beautiful lack of self consciousness in mothering in 2007:

Boobs were still for feeding babies back then, not for selling beer.
Tell me what you think, or tell Rixa what you think. But it's really worth looking at, historically.

* My rudimentary view of the waves of feminism:
1st wave: the Suffragettes
2nd wave: Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, N.O.W.
3rd wave: Riot Grrl-present


Rixa said...

You have nailed it, girl! Yes, I think that's exactly why nursing in public now cannot be entirely un-selfconscious. Even if our outward actions don't seem any different, the reality is that we are nursing in today's political & cultural climate that always always has the background of breast-as-Playboy-objects.

I also agree that nursing is often just an everyday thing, not always a sentimental "bonding" experience. Especially with a wiggly girl who pinches and pulls and sticks her fingers in my mouth and claws my gums with her sharp fingernails and laughs if I pull a funny face. No violins playing in the background on those days!

I take issue a bit with the original blog posts that used those two photos to say "see, people didn't object to nursing in public because they aren't freaking out in these two pictures." For a historian (one of my graduate degrees) that's faulty logic. It could be true, sure, but two pictures aren't enough evidence to draw conclusions about historical trends. Now, I think it's fine to use them today for our own "political agenda," so to speak--to raise awareness of the issue of nursing in public and to talk about why it can no longer be as simple and matter-of-fact as it was (or might have been).

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of saying that your ideas were very tantalizing and thought-provoking.

Rixa said...

BTW I need to email you about something but don't have your address...could you send it to stand dot deliver at gmail dot com? Many thanks!

Angi said...

I definitely agree with your bit about the change also being attributed to the 2nd wave of feminism. I think that in this wave, the leaders in their zeal to make us "equal" to men, got caught up in an effort to strip us of what made us truly feminine-motherhood, breastfeeding, nurturing children and hubby, etc. They began to view these things as weaknesses, as part of what was "keeping us down". Many women made the decision, or were raised, to turn their back on their nature. Men may have bought into it, too. I think a leftover of this thinking is some animosity toward this side of femininity.

Andrea said...

You know one big thing that I think happened to contribute to this? Freud. He would have been permeating in English translation right around the time when things were really changing in the early part of the twentieth century. I think America digested the Oedipus complex concept a little too completely.

Housefairy said...

Rixa-- I am so glad you see where I was coming from on this. I really was moved by your post, and the pictures, and all of it. It is about what time you mother in, and the political time is often more consequential than the calendar year.

Andrea--I so agree about Freud. As a psychology major, I got the displeasure of being immersed in his jabberwocky all too often.

His ideas were beginning to take mainstream hold around then--good point.

Angi--I have been wanting to write about Feminine equaling "lesser" for so long now, but really wanted to make it a good one and so havent gone there yet. Lots of groups to watch out for offending, etc. But I get ya, I really do.

Kelley said...

I don't have anything profound to say here, but I do have to say that I am enjoying all this commentary. I love your blog, and I love Rixa's, and both make me think in ways I never thought about thinking before.

Keep it up.

Rixa said...

Even more interesting historical NIP pictures posted today on the Black Breastfeeding Blog--check them out.

Housefairy said...

Thank you, Rixa for this link. I spent alog time on there tonight--really great blog.