“Yeah, I just said boob in front of the Capitol,” laughed Rachel Papantonakis, Washington D.C. mom of two and founder of the Great Nurse-In, the big white dome of the center of United States government looming behind her. The Nurse-In, a rally to normalize public breastfeeding, took place yesterday, August 4th, on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol building in downtown Washington DC.
“I started the event because I kept reading stories about moms who were harassed for breastfeeding in public. And oftentimes it wasn’t even malicious, it was just misinformation. It turns out in most places the law protects us to some degree, but because there’s no public acceptance and understanding, women face these challenges every day. And when you feel like can’t nurse in public, it can ruin your nursing relationship.” said Rachel, as her nine-month- old son Ian nursed while strapped to her chest.
I’m not a mother, but I am a new doula, so I thought it would be fun and enlightening to go to the Great Nurse-In and see what it was all about. Even as a birth professional, though, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Would the event be filled with stereotypical “lactivists,” hippies in flowy skirts drumming on bongos? There were more than 600 people at the event, families of all shapes, sizes and persuasions with one common goal: supporting breastfeeding mothers and babies. Families were clustered around the small shade-giving trees around the west lawn of the Capitol on a 90+ degree day, lounging on blankets and listening to family-friendly music and speakers. There were water stations, tables where children could color and draw, and lots and lots of babies, some latched on to their mother’s breasts and some taking wobbly, unsure steps in time with the music.
The Big Latch-On, a yearly worldwide public breastfeeding event where women participate in simultaneous breastfeeding, took place at 10:30 am, for one full minute. Great Nurse-In organizers walked around and counted the number of breastfeeding pairs, hoping to contribute to breaking 2011’s world record of 5,867 breastfeeding mothers and babies. It was both amusing and awesome to see typical tourists taking photos in front of the U.S. Capitol while, just a few feet away, scores of mothers had their boobs out—but that’s the idea of the event: to make breastfeeding in public no longer odd or amusing, just normal.
I was surprised at how many men were in attendance at the event. Mike Bolds, a Washington DC father who accompanied his wife Iris and infant daughter Ife to the Great Nurse-In, said: “At these type of events, I’m usually taken aback by how few men there are. Today, I’m surprised at how many men there are.” Mike said he wanted to come to the event because, “I really see breastfeeding as a family endeavor, not just something between a mother and a child, it’s something that has to do with the health of the whole family. The healthier that my daughter is, the healthier we all are.”
Most people I spoke with said they were there because they wanted to show their support for public breastfeeding, something that’s been increasing in the news during the past few months. 45 states, including the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, have laws that specifically support a woman’s right to breastfeed in any public or private location, and 28 states have laws that exempt public breastfeeding from public indecency laws. Katie Daily, a doula who is training to become a certified nurse-midwife, said “I don’t think there’s enough people who support women breastfeeding out and about.”
But attendees at the Great Nurse-In were careful to address the fact that breastfeeding doesn’t come easily to every woman.
Margaret Wills, a certified lactation consultant who works with the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington, talked about the difficulties modern women who want to breastfeed face, especially working mothers: “We’re trying fo fit breastfeeding into lots of different lives, lots of different circumstances. It takes a lot of ingenuity in the modern world. We’re lucky we’ve got the tools that we have… Mothers work very hard at this.”
Dr. Marguerite Duane, a family physician, also commented on the difficulties of breastfeeding in today’s world: “There’s a lot of misinformation. That’s why I think it’s so important to breastfeed in public. Women need to see that this is normal, this is easy, that you can do this, that this isn’t hard to do.”
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent “Latch On” initiative has been controversial, with many women objecting to the idea that formula will be less readily available to women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed their babies. Dr. Duane continued, “The idea of locking things up, then it becomes more difficult. The problem is formula feeding is driven by pharmaceutical companies. They make money off of giving women formula. And because there’s such a demand on nurses’ time, it’s easier for them to give a bottle of formula.”
When I mentioned to Rachel Papantonakis that lots of non-breastfeeding moms feel attacked by the rhetoric behind lactivism, she said: “I had a lactation consultant in the hospital bully me into breastfeeding. Because there’s this concern about formula, the lactation consultants have to be that much more forceful…and I’m hoping that normalizing breastfeeding will make it so that lactation consultants will become more toned down….just because breastfeeding is natural, it doesn’t mean it comes naturally. And when we have limits to information and to support, that’s when we fail. These mommywars are ridiculous to me. It’s not about what you decide. It’s making sure that you make that decision.”
The Great Nurse-In was sponsored by The Breastfeeding Center of Greater Washington, which serves about 100 people a day at their location, as well as Bringing Home Baby and Community of Hope, an organization that supports homeless and low-income families in the D.C. area.
Whatever your attitudes towards or experiences with breastfeeding, there’s no question that the right to public breastfeeding should be supported. The Great Nurse-In was the first annual event, and I hope that the important work of raising awareness will serve to make breastfeeding normal: for parents, for babies, and more importantly, for generations of parents and babies to come.