My daughter was never one to play with dolls much, but when she did while we were living in Israel, she had a preferred method. Dolls were placed under her shirt and she’d rock them, telling me she was feeding her babies. No surprise really, given that where we lived—in a small community in the Galilee from 2009-2011—breastfeeding in public was common.
We saw mothers nursing their infants everywhere we traveled in Israel. Family did it. Friends did it. Neighbors did it. During family Shabbats at my Orthodox in-laws’, my sisters-in-law would nurse their infants. Some members were Orthodox, some were not, but all of them fed their children on-demand, and no one—not my in-laws, any of the men, or any of the older children—ever batted an eyelash at seeing a breast.
If anyone was uncomfortable for a brief moment, it was me, the California transplant, unaccustomed to seeing women do with their breasts what they were meant to do—nourish and sustain life.
Letting go of my socialized squeamishness about breastfeeding was actually a surprising shift in perspective. For example, when the breastfeeding doll came out a few years back, I was on the side of it being creepy, not groundbreaking. I didn’t breastfeed my children, not unless you count the one-week post-delivery when my baby girl latched on, and the two months I pumped milk when she refused the breast in favor of the bottle.
Truth be told, I wasn’t a fan of breastfeeding and it had nothing to do with worrying what it would do to my body. My discomfort was based on my experience with what felt like militant insistence from the La Leche League consultant in the hospital during my son’s birth, now 13 years ago. When he couldn’t nurse for medical reasons I’m not comfortable sharing here, they made me feel like a complete idiot and neglectful mom for not being able to figure it out.
I still remember that awful moment when the consultant first came to visit me. I was semi-conscious after a semi-emergency C-section, anxious at the sound of my hungry newborn crying, and exhausted by a long delivery and lack of sleep. What happened next scarred me for years.
Without permission, the consultant whipped open my hospital gown to expose my breast and began to squeeze and pull and poke at me, ignoring my feeble plea for privacy. She insisted I could breastfeed, even and despite the physiological challenges, and seemed to care less about the extraneous medical factors that were making it difficult. I got the distinct sense that according to her, formula feeding was tantamount to poisoning my child; he’d be better off hungry than given a bottle.
I was exhausted, weak, and confused, and felt violated by how she kept touching my breasts and squeezing my nipples all without having asked if it was OK by me. When she told me she was still breastfeeding her 5-year-old daughter, I was aghast. She finally left the room and the nurse, a kinder woman who seemed to recognize my fear and frustration, brought a bottle along with comforting words of advice: do your best, trust yourself, and don’t feel bad if you can’t breastfeed.
That memory was so powerful that, five years later, when my daughter was born, I refused the lactation consultation all together. No one was coming near my boobs. More than once, I even defended bottle-feeding when mothers on the La Leche League activated my self-defenses. Just because a woman doesn’t breastfeed doesn’t make her a derelict mom.
In hindsight, I can say that I wasn’t against breastfeeding; I was against the shaming of women who don’t do it.
I’m equally against the shaming of women who do breastfeed, especially in public. I don’t think I would have such a strong opinion about this if I hadn’t lived in Israel those two years, seeing how different another culture can be. The quiet casualness of the breastfeeding women I knew in Israel helped me come to terms with my own discomforts. When my daughter mimicked what she was seeing around her, I finally learned to be OK with what I was seeing too.
Apparently, that openness affected my older child too. My son was 7 when we moved to Israel. When he was 9 years old, we returned to California. A few months in to settling back on the U.S. west coast, he turned to me out of the blue and said, “Mommy, why don’t I see more mommies feeding their babies here? I saw doda (aunt) Noga feed her babies. I saw doda Vardit feed her babies.”
He then mentioned several moms of friends in Israel whom he’d seen feed younger siblings, finishing with, “I saw lots of boobies in Israel, but I don’t see any here.”
I’m sure someone reading that will imagine bad thoughts, to which I say, stop it. We are talking about a third-grader stating what was the obvious for him and many children growing up in Israel, and, I suspect, many other first- and third-world cultures.
Breastfeeding, and even partial or whole nudity for that matter, is no big deal in many parts of the world. It is natural, part of life, and why are we so freaked out about it? When faced with extremes—the militant consultant vs. the squeamish prude—it’s challenging to find the middle ground.
It’s time we in the United States follow Israel’s lead and put our breast forward as a society. We need to accept that a woman’s body is her own, and if she becomes a mother, it’s her prerogative to feed her child in public or in private, in comfort and dignity.
A longer version of this article was originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal and is reprinted here with permission.