Photo credit: Jaime Monfort/Moment Open/Getty Images
If VH1 was doing a "Best Month Ever" for June of 2014, the winner would probably be nursing moms. This month, we've seen some amazing strides toward normalizing public breastfeeding, from the Bob Evans response to Facebook's policy update to the awesome teenage Starbucks barista who stood up for a nursing mom in Ontario. Some breastfeeding advocates have even co-opted the #FreeTheNipple campaign, which was started to affect gender equality but fits in quite well with the breastfeeding normalization movement.
One step forward, two steps back?
Even with this awesome month there have still been negative stories making the news. In mid-June, a group of Connecticut moms staged a nurse-in at a Norwich Friendly's restaurant after a breastfeeding mom was asked by management to cover up, then had her breasts mocked on Facebook by a staff member. And just this past week a mom in Kingsport, Tennessee, was told to stop nursing her baby while at a public pool.
Gratia Cash says she was on the "Lazy River" at the Kingsport Aquatic Center with her 11-month-old son. He started to fuss, so she did what most nursing moms would do to soothe him and put him to her breast. According to Gratia, as soon as her babe latched on, a lifeguard whistle was blown and she was ordered to stop. "One of the lifeguards walked around and yelled at me across the river, 'No breastfeeding in the Lazy River.'" Gratia said she was "shocked and embarrassed" and spoke with management. After informing the manager of her rights under Tennessee law, Gratia says she was apologized to but the manager didn't change his stance on the aquatic center's policy on nursing in water areas.
No food or drink
While this seems like a cut-and-dry violation of a nursing mom's rights, it really isn't. The Kingsport Aquatic Center is actually pretty pro-breastfeeding, shown in their public statement on the incident: "The Kingsport Aquatic Center welcomes breastfeeding moms to use any of our indoor or outdoor areas. In an effort to make breastfeeding moms comfortable in the hot, humid days of summer we offer a private, air-conditioned space just for them… If breastfeeding moms choose to sit elsewhere, that's OK with us, too."
If the aquatic center is so pro-breastfeeding, why was Gratia told to stop? Because she was in the water, and the Kingsport Aquatic Center has a strict "no food or drink" policy for the pools. This applies to everyone: grown-ups with sandwiches, toddlers with crackers, infants with bottles, and yes, babies who breastfeed.
Now breastfeeding ≠ eating?
The main pro-public breastfeeding refrain always includes the fact that nursing is just feeding your baby, a perfectly natural and non-sexual part of mothering. The feeding component of nursing in public is so central to its advocacy that a recent campaign to support breastfeeding protection legislation in Texas — When Nurture Calls — based its print ads off of the slogan "Would you eat here?" with pictures of nursing moms relegated to bathroom stalls to nurse their babies. Go to any nurse-in and you will see at least one sign with "my baby has a right to eat anywhere," or something similar over and over again.
So if nursing is just feeding your child, and Kingsport Aquatic Center doesn't allow food or drink in their water areas (breast milk being, well, both), how were they were wrong to make Gratia stop? Granted, the lifeguard could have been more tactful about what he said — perhaps "no eating in the Lazy River" rather than "no breastfeeding" — but overall the center has a fantastic stance on nursing, one other attractions could learn from.
Don't dilute the message
With advocacy, it's important to remember what the battle is, and not get so caught up in expecting a fight that you make one where one isn't. There is no doubt it was embarrassing for Gratia to have attention brought to her in such a negative way, especially when all she was trying to do was soothe her child. But the goal of normalizing breastfeeding is to make it as commonplace as bottle feeding — more so, really. That is achieved when a mom nursing and a mom bottle feeding can do so side by side wherever they choose, without so much as a sideways glance. That wouldn't be possible on the Lazy River of the Kingsport Aquatic Center. No food or drink allowed.