Support breastfeeding women, in private or public — Raudah Mohd Yunus

FEB 6 — When I was pursuing my postgraduate studies in 2014, I had a friend who was a staunch breastfeeding advocate. She was often vocal about encouraging women to breastfeed. Particularly, she was fierce on the issue of breastfeeding in public. At that time, I did not really understand why she was so passionate about promoting dialogues on public breastfeeding. Little did I realise that many mothers out there were struggling with this issue, and the pervasive judgment surrounding it.

As time flew, I began to have a deeper insight about the struggle of a breastfeeding mom, especially when she is out in the public. Throughout those years, each time I went out with my first or second daughter – either for grocery, recreation or getting essential services – I noticed that it was difficult to find a nursing room, or even a spot that would permit a mom to feed her child in privacy. In some places where nursing rooms were available, they were small and inconvenient. At one clinic, I saw how a few mothers cramped together in one stuffy room, each trying to find enough space to feed their child. Sadly, spacious nursing rooms to this day are few and far between. This is despite the chanted health slogans that emphasize the importance and value of breastfeeding on the mother and child.

Breastfeeding requires constant effort; waking up every 3-4 hours at night and during the day a mother is likely to be pumping and storing milk to ensure adequate supply. — AFP Relaxnews pic
Breastfeeding requires constant effort; waking up every 3-4 hours at night and during the day a mother is likely to be pumping and storing milk to ensure adequate supply. — AFP Relaxnews pic

Breastfeeding is a huge challenge. Women who choose to breastfeed their children, or those who tried,(kudos to all moms regardless of how you feed your child!) know this very well. It’s constant effort; you wake up every 3-4 hours at night to breastfeed or pump, and during the day you are likely to be pumping and storing milk (if you work outside) to ensure adequate supply for your bundle of joy. Not to forget the amount of money, time and energy you spend purchasing, using, cleaning and carrying those not-very-cheap breastfeeding ‘accessories’. Oh yes, and the tears and frustration when your precious expressed milk spills or when you have to throw away your milk stock because of power outage.

Recently, while visiting a famous local recreational spot, I witnessed how a distressed mother struggled with her screaming child. The boy was restless, and the poor mom desperately attempted to calm him down, without much success. So she did the most natural thing – she took the child to a nearby bench, sat down and breastfed him. The child was immediately pacified. But what happened next shocked me. The woman’s husband came up to her with an angry face and began chastising her. ‘How can you ‘expose’ yourself like this?’ I heard him say.

I looked at the woman with sympathy. First, she was not ‘exposing’ herself as the man had accused her. She was doing her job as a mother, in the most natural and loving way. Second, she was hijab-clad and I saw that she tried to carefully cover her boy’s face in order not to expose herself. Even if she did, that was not intentional and was clearly a trivial issue. Third, no mother would happily breastfeed her child in public if there were proper facilities available. If they do, it is usually out of urgency or desperation. I turned around and to my dismay, there was no sign of nursing room, even though the recreation spot was among the most famous in the country.

If we are to support the culture of breastfeeding, consistency is key. We cannot be telling a mother that breastfeeding is crucial, but shame her when she does it in public. Do we expect all breastfeeding mothers to stay at home or remain invisible, simply because some people happen to feel ‘offended’ by the sight of breastfeeding? Or do we expect every mother to accurately time their child’s feeding circle so that she doesn’t need to breastfeed her child when in public? All mothers – breastfeeding or otherwise – go through long and overwhelming battles. Being patronised about ‘the right way’ to feed their child or ‘how much they can expose while breastfeeding is the last thing they need.

If we want to help breastfeeding women, it is not by telling them what is appropriate and what is not, in public. It is also not by using ‘shame’ or ‘decency’ or ‘male gaze’ as a justification. We can help them by fighting for more proper nursing rooms in the public sphere like malls, recreational areas, grocery stores, worship areas, and so forth. Alternatively, there can be a child/mother-friendly space at every public facility that is commonly visited by families. This will enable mothers to breastfeed in peace and attend to their child’s needs in privacy.

To husbands/fathers out there, I have some (unsolicited, but needed) advice. First, instead of telling your wife not to ‘expose’ herself (again, she’s not exposing herself, she’s feeding a child. Reframe your lens), support her by sitting next to her to give her a sense of privacy/protection. Second, write to the local council or the public facility management to provide a nursing room. Third, buy a nursing cover/garment for her. Lastly, if you cannot do any of those, the best thing is to keep quiet and do no harm.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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