Is breastfeeding more accepted here than back home?
In November of 2006, an American named Emily Gillette was removed from a flight in the US after refusing to cover her baby while breastfeeding on the plane. A flight attendant had grown uncomfortable when Gillette started nursing and asked that the passenger cover up with an airplane blanket or else get off the plane. Gillette gathered her things and walked out before takeoff. “It embarrassed me, which is a weird reaction for doing something so good for a child,” she said in interviews.
Around the world, laws make public breastfeeding legal and forbid companies from prohibiting it in the workplace, but the sight of a nursing mother continues to elicit mixed responses. For mothers, it’s sometimes unclear how different cultures will react to public breastfeeding. Some say people in the US may be touchier about the matter than in other countries. Liora Perlman, an American who has lived in China for five years, says, “My grandma breastfed but she felt shame. She was told, ‘That’s only what rural people or poor people do’. Out of all my cousins, I’m the only one to breastfeed; everyone else is formula feeding.” Perlman nursed her first child, Rachel, until she was three-and-a-half years old and is still nursing her son, Yaakov, who is two-and-a-half years old.
Although it’s legal for a woman to breastfeed in all 50 states in the US, mothers don’t always feel comfortable doing this. Bottle-feeding was popular in the US during the post-World War II era, which may explain why a nursing mother might provoke a conspicuous reaction. “I’m always on guard in America,” says Perlman. “I’ve had a few people smile and be openly supportive, but a few people point and stare and herd their kids away.”
On the other hand, the experience may change with local culture. Across the Bible Belt of the US, mothers may need to be more discreet while breastfeeding, but in cosmopolitan areas, the activity is often commonplace. “I nursed my son through toddlerhood, and I don’t think I had anybody come up to me with a negative comment,” says Chinese-American Ivy Makelin, who has lived with her baby in the US and China. “I did try to be more discreet in America, but I was a proud nursing mom and proud to nurse publicly.”
China is often thought of as a conservative society, and many people assume that it’s rare to see a Chinese woman breastfeeding in public. But both local and expat mothers in Beijing believe that breastfeeding outside the home is not taboo. According to older Chinese mothers, the practice has always been common in Beijing, not to mention perfectly acceptable. Visit any hutong, or even a shopping mall, they say. Adds Makelin, “I think Chinese women are less squeamish, at least compared to American women. Chinese women see it as a natural and accepted part of society, so women don’t feel as inhibited.”
Less inhibition in China doesn’t prevent public interference, though, and some expats do receive unwanted attention. For every mother who’s had a positive experience, there’s another mother with a story about being filmed on a camera phone while feeding their babies in coffeeshops or being scrutinized at the Summer Palace. Some argue this is because of heightened interest in foreigners and babies rather than any scrutiny of nursing mothers. Nevertheless, for many women, such as Sharon Hill, a Canadian and mother of two, breastfeeding in public is simply too much of a display.
Nursing mothers should always be aware of the disposition of their environments when breastfeeding and be prepared to put up with unwanted attention until people become more accustomed to the practice. Veni Neykova-Dimitrova, who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, with her three-year-old son, says, “It is a very personal experience, which I don’t want people commenting on. It’s perfectly natural to breastfeed, but it’s also very exposing.”