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Normalize public breastfeeding and show mothers respect

Why are hypersexual portrayals of women publicly acceptable while feeding an infant is not?

I was Minnesota nice long before I arrived in Minnesota. I prefer polite petitions to protests, and I avoid behavior that might invite public scrutiny or incite debate. But if I were currently lactating, I hope I’d have the courage to participate in the nurse-in that is scheduled to take place this morning at Eagles Nest Indoor Playground in New Brighton.

You’ll find the full story on the Facebook page “Breastfeeding does not need to be hidden.” In brief, the nurse-in was conceived after an Eagles Nest employee asked a breastfeeding mother to move from her spot near the play area to a private room. The woman mentioned her experience to a friend, Susan Berlien, who works as an RN and certified lactation specialist. Berlien went to Eagles Nest to inquire about its breastfeeding policy and learned that employees are trained to escort nursing mothers to a secluded room. Why? Because some people find public breastfeeding offensive.

I am disappointed in Eagles Nest, a place where I’ve found community and my kids have enjoyed active play since our first winter in Minnesota. Though management has since clarified that “there are no restrictions on breastfeeding” in the facility, I am disappointed that its staff would humiliate nursing mothers, treat them as though their actions were shameful, and expect them to herd their older children into a closed room during feeding time or leave those children unattended. As part of New Brighton’s Parks and Recreation Department — which, according its website, “contributes to the overall health of the New Brighton community, neighborhood and residents” — Eagles Nest should support healthy behaviors like breastfeeding. Its management should train staff to uphold Minnesota Statute 145.905, which allows a mother to breastfeed in any location she is otherwise authorized to be.

Broader attitude is offensive

While I am disappointed in Eagles Nest, I am downright exasperated at the broader attitude that breastfeeding is offensive.

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Consider the absurdity: You can’t stand in line at a grocery store or walk through a mall or watch a televised sporting event without encountering some woman falling out of her dress on a magazine cover or Victoria’s Secret storefront or beer commercial. Why are hypersexual portrayals of women publicly acceptable while feeding an infant is not?

Most nursing mothers are all for modesty. You’d see a lot more skin if we only cared about ease of access. But disdain for public breastfeeding is about more than modesty. In fact, it’s about more than breastfeeding.

When a woman becomes pregnant, she begins to hear voices. They grow louder after childbirth and louder still as her children age. The voices tell her where and how to give birth and who should be in attendance. They declare if and when she may return to her job and how many hours she should work. They say she must breastfeed for at least a year, but she must not let anyone see her doing it. (I suspect some women who are uncomfortable with public nursing are mothers who felt bullied or judged for their own decisions to use formula.)

The voices criticize a mother’s diapering and potty-training choices, where and when her children sleep, and her approach to discipline. They condemn her if her child throws a tantrum at Target, if she lets her daughter watch television, or if she sends her son to half-day kindergarten instead of full-day or public school instead of private, or vice versa.

Time to acknowledge, appreciate

It’s time for all of us, mothers included, to acknowledge the tired woman in the adjacent minivan as a responsible adult who knows far more about her children’s unique needs within her family’s particular situation than we do. It’s time to recognize that she deliberates over and commits to each parenting decision with her children’s best interests at heart.

It’s time to appreciate the juggling act she performs to accommodate her family’s competing demands, often setting aside her personal desires in the bargain. Today that might mean scheduling a trip to Eagles Nest for her active 3-year-old during the two-hour window when nobody is napping, even if it subjects her to scornful looks when she nurses (or bottle feeds) her baby. And today it might mean returning to Eagles Nest for a collective effort to normalize public breastfeeding.

Kim Kankiewicz is a freelance grant writer and marketing communications provider for nonprofit organizations. She was not Minnesota nice to the 20-something guy at Disneyland who suggested that if she couldn’t keep track of her high-energy toddler without a leash, she should have stayed home.

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