More on Breastfeeding History- The Victorians

In this day and age, there are many soap-box topics to jump on.  We have a myriad of options to support or speak out against both anonymously through silent petitions or very vocally via social media.  Most people in western culture today are pretty internet savvy and love to share their opinions with their friends on any number of communication mediums from Twitter to Instagram, Facebook to Foursquare.  In fact, we’ve developed somewhat of a love affair with our opinions and our ability to share them with others.
One such issue, I never really considered until I became a mother.  I’d seen people pounding their fists about it and I just sort of shrugged and did a “whatever” and went on with my life that had absolutely nothing to do with that.  I saw people on both sides of the issue, mothers in each corner finger shaking one another to death and I really couldn’t have cared less.
Well, it’s amazing what a little perspective can do!   The topic is nursing in public.  The sub-topic is “to cover or not to cover”.  I find that experience and time has modified my opinions on this greatly.  At first, pregnant with my first born I wanted a cover because they were pretty and I thought the baby would like it, feel safe and snug under a cover all comfy like a canopy.  After he was born, we took him to Disneyland at 3 weeks old.  It rained that day. Hard.  And I thought the cover was great because it shielded him from the rain while I nursed on a bench in the rain getting all wet, but he stayed nice and toasty and dry.  As he got older, I noticed the cover seemed to annoy him.  It was hot by then, summer time- and the summer heat was four times as horrible inside the cover so close to my skin.  He’d nurse and be soaking wet with sweat when we were done and even though he would be satisfied hunger-wise, he would be crying and miserable because of the heat.  I started nursing with the cover around my neck but with him uncovered in places no one could see so that he didn’t get heat stroke, but if anyone came by, I’d quickly flip it around and cover myself.  Doing this would usually make him stop nursing and cry, but what was I to do?  Just hang it out there?  I’m not small, I am not one of these women who can descretely nurse in an open area and have no one know.  I am currently a 34DD.  When my first was small, I was a 36G and for a while in the beginning, a 38H, so there was no hiding myself… if I was out, I was OUT and there was no hiding it.  So baby suffered and sweated under the cover in public to avoid the negative glances of people who judged.
Time went on further and my infant became a toddler and I continued to nurse him.  I did so with a cover in public but it became increasingly more and more difficult to do so as his will became stronger than the fabric that covered us.  I had to cut short feeding sessions because he wouldn’t leave it alone. He would pull on it, lift it up, play “peek-a-boo” with it and eventually it would turn into a sad experience because he’d get told “no” and I’d have to stop nursing altogether because he wouldn’t stop exposing me.  Our normal 20 minute nursing sessions became 5 minutes, which always left me engorged and in tons of pain because I’d be way too full for too many hours at a time.  After a particularly painful episode of plugged ducts on both sides, I began to get a little braver and nurse him without a cover in certain places, always being sure to cover as much of myself as possible and to wear clothes that could easily conceal me.
This worked great until #2 came along and the juggling act of tandem nursing was explored.  They don’t make covers big enough for two.  They should… or rather, I should.  I’d make a fortune, I’m sure of it.  Anyway, tandem nursing under a cover is just flat out impossible.  If I do need a cover, they have to nurse one after the other- there’s simply no way to do it.  It’s complicated enough with one baby under a cover but two is just stupid.
SO…. I learned firsthand what this controversy is all about and I have gone from needing to cover myself in all circumstances to standing up for my childs’ comfort and nursing without a cover in certain places.  In my home, I don’t use a cover unless there are family members or friends present who I know find it uncomfortable.  In my family’s homes, with just the “women folk” present, I will nurse without a cover because I know none of them care, but I do cover myself in front of my brother and father-in-law, my teenage nephews and only because I don’t really want to see them blush.  LOL
This is what works for me, but I realized just because I’m comfortable with it, many women just wish they could even talk about nursing and they don’t feel like they can.  Or even worse- they’ve been taught that they don’t need to talk about it and have therefore, learned nothing about how to properly do it and they don’t troubleshoot when there are problems. They fall back on old, outdated information because they are too afraid to ask for help or worse, just stop.
The point ladies, is breasts are for babies. First and foremost, that’s the whole point of their existence.  Anything else is secondary and that is the message that ought to be taught.
That is my cause.  I seek to remind society that breasts are there for a functional purpose; feeding a child.  In many cultures, nursing a baby openly is not only commonplace, but expected and uninteresting.  No one stops to watch, no one peeks from behind newspapers and judges harshly at the indecency of the act.  It’s just feeding a baby- no big deal- who cares??
It would seem the people who care most, are the people who find any suggestion of public sexuality appalling.  So then, why aren’t these individuals our greatest allies in this fight to normalize the feeding of our children in public?  Why are they the first ones to judge and not the first to stand up in solidarity to fight for our cause to remind the world that we are feeding an innocent child, free from sexual or perverse natures?  Well, there really is a reason for that. It’s quite literally, a hundred years of negative reinforcement based on a lie.  Curious yet? Well, here’s your history lesson to explain it all…
In the height of his fame, Doctor Sigmund Freud decided to announce that he believed infants received sexual pleasure from the action of suckling.  This notion horrified the civilized society women so deeply, they began shying away from breastfeeding and began instead, to prop their babies up in small chairs, handing them bottles at arm’s length to avoid any physical contact, lest they become an aid to an unpleasant and yet (according to Freud), unavoidable incestuous reaction from the child.  He explained the action of breastfeeding would cause a boy to grow up with an inappropriate attachment to his mother and to all women and the only way to avoid this was to cease all unnecessary contact between mother and child.
Conveniently, breast pumps were invented in the 1850’s, so a woman could “safely” express her milk and provide it to the baby without the nasty business of infant sexual arousal becoming an issue and many women chose this route from the get go.
This myth of infant arousal, however ridiculous it may seem to us today, coupled with a strange fad of feeding babies the milk of a cow instead of their mother’s milk, caused women all over the globe to discontinue the act of nursing their own babies and to shun any activity that openly displayed it.  Babies of course, became sick on cow’s milk because a human’s body is not capable of metabolizing the enzymes in cow’s milk until much later in development and thus, the mysterious phenomenon of “colic” was born. Colic was described as a dis-ease in the child for absolutely no reason.  The child is fed, clean, and not overly tired and yet they cry incessantly!  Believing this to be the manipulative nature of the child’s misunderstood sexual need to suckle, a crying child was left to do so alone or with a nurse, away from the mother and any temptation of the flesh it might be subconsciously harboring.  It was thought best among the educated community to push off children’s needs because there may be some terrible, underlying sexual desire hidden in those cries that a mother would be irresponsibly provoking should she get too involved or give into her child’s cries.
About the same period in history, the “stork” was beginning to gain popularity as the deliverer of infants rather than some vulgar sexual activity resulting in the even more vulgar process of birth.  Leaning on a myth of a bird delivering the perfectly clean and healthy newborn to one’s windowpane was society’s answer to create a far more acceptable and refined facade surrounding what would to them be considered the gruesome, bloody truth with all it’s very human secretions, pain and recovery time.
At the same time, women were more and more pressed to take on the responsibility of a dutiful wife both in public and in private.  They had been doing so for thousands of years, but the difference in the late 19th century was the open and transparent nature of these duties.  Tending to house and home was a status symbol of the middle and upper classes, a responsibility not to be taken lightly and the only thing that made a woman a valuable member of society.   These tasks included caring for a household, tending to her husband’s needs and presenting her pristine family while playing hostess at all times to any callers, arranging events to prove her husband’s worth and pride in her home and family.  Additionally, an ever present factor was that women were bonded by an ideal of chastity and servility.  Tending to children was important, yes… but secondary to the needs of the house and husband.  The husband’s needs were paramount and if a child were to interfere with those needs, well, that’s what nannies and nursemaids were for.  A child’s needs were seen as greedy, selfish and unimportant.  They were banished to a nursery and left with a caregiver to play and learn alone.
Today, we live with the remnants of these high society Victorian principles.  We step over the lines of the obviously misguided and uninformed opinions from over 100 years ago with tiptoes and even as foolish as they may seem, the standards are stamped into our culture.
Even as recent as the 1950’s,60’s and up through present time in some families and parts of this country,  a woman’s role is to make babies and care for house and family.   Her primary role is to care for the husband’s wishes, to anticipate his and the family’s needs and to present his children and herself in a way that shows modern society that he was successful with a loving and dutiful wife and perfectly well behaved children who are ready to make their own mark on society for the greater good.
As a result, women have been told nursing was harmful and that it promotes negative attachment that causes their children to be unable to function as independent adults.  They have been told their feeble bodies were not capable of providing the necessary nutrition for their babies and to leave it to medical science and the intelligent men in government to provide the best options through formula.  They were told their role was to do what was best and to ignore their feelings of intuition, their desire to nurture and their body’s natural responses to crying and to feeding their babies.
In the late 1950’s the La Leche League appeared on the scene and did their best to undo the decade’s worth of damage done to the image of nursing.  They passed out fliers and tried to educate young college women on the joys and benefits of nursing, helping them through education and awareness to take a chance on trusting their own bodies enough to sustain their babies without formula. They jumped on the “women’s lib” movement by showcasing how amazing it could be to know their bodies didn’t need any additives to be perfect, that breast milk contained all that a baby could need and that was as God intended.

Unfortunately, we continue to fight these ridiculous ideals of the nuclear family ideal, Victorian erotiphobia and Freudian foolishness even today in 2013.  Sometimes it’s obvious, as when a mother is scorned or looked upon with disgust when feeding her child in a park or other public location- but sometimes it’s in ways we don’t realize- marketing campaigns that show men asking their wives to use a bottle so they can “have their wives back” or ad campaigns for bars, automobiles or even clothing stores featuring the concept of the “girl’s night out”, showing women battling home life issues, child outbursts, kitchen disasters and laundry mountains, showing them how much better their lives are once they can just… get away from it all.  The worst offender of all is the blatant, overly sexualized use of cleavage in nearly every marketing ad since the invention of the billboard.
Why does this impact a mother’s ability to nurse in public?  Because if breasts are seen as a sexual tool, they can’t simultaneously be seen as a means of infant nutrition, as they should be.   Ads like these contribute to a displaced body image and skewed sense of purpose when it comes to motherhood.  It shows it to be something to endure until you can be let off the hook and once again be who you want to be without consequence.   I know someone who said that her breasts were not for her children, they were for her husband.  That the idea of nursing “grossed her out” and she couldn’t imagine doing it and hated everything about it.  I believe these ads are major contributors to this perspective, but not exclusively the cause.   I believe the root cause lies in an ideal and untrue romanticism of the Victorian era which has left its stamp of foolish, uneducated male pride upon the very important maternal practice of breast feeding.
When I look at the Victorian era, I look at the beauty.  The clothing, the culture, the manners and education of the middle and upper classes is beautiful, magical even.  My whole life I have idealized this era and wished so often to have been born a hundred years earlier!  When I look with open eyes and the dirty, vicious truth behind those rose colored classes, this era was a period of hate.  Sure, it was pretty to look at if you were of high society or in the “in crowd”, but to be shunned by this culture was as good as banishment.  Unless you fit into the mold of what the majority decided was acceptable, you were unfit to walk the streets alongside those who were simply “better people” than yourself.
So- with all this lovely new information, I decided I shouldn’t perpetuate the standards that were developed out of a culture that perpetuated superiority, class separation and outright hatred of anything the majority found distasteful.  I decided I wouldn’t continue the practices developed in an era of ignorance when we live in this amazing age of technology, science and understanding and would instead, foster the feelings of good hope, healing, comradery and education for all women, so they might truly learn and share that knowledge with their babies.  Maybe together, we can build a new world where feeding a child is more important than what some stranger thinks of you.  Maybe together, we can help build one another’s courage to bravely ask the questions we need to ask and to be strong enough to go the distance instead of settling for the bare minimum.
When I took the picture that caused the family controversy, I felt beautiful and empowered.  The funny part about it is I hadn’t really intended on sharing the photo at all!  I literally have hundreds of similar shots that I am really proud of but wouldn’t necessarily share with anyone.  I just wanted to capture that soft, quiet moment of relaxation and happiness.
I’m not “showing off” or uncovering myself as means to make a statement of some kind or because I want to shove it in anyone’s face.  This is simply my life.
This; a nursing mom… is who I am.  Devoted and doting and what was once a life filled with frivolity, nonsense and a misplaced sense of self and direction, has been replaced with the joyous and deeply profound responsibility of motherhood.  Simply nothing else is more important.
That being the case, I posted it.
The image I posted wasn’t even remotely sexualized; I had no make-up on, I was running on 4 hours of sleep in a freezing cold parking lot in Baker, CA. in front of the Alien Jerky store. I was tired, anxious and uncomfortable but in that moment of chaos in the middle of what would become a 5 hour road trip, disorder turned to calming peace as I fed my baby.  In that moment, stillness covered us both and I suddenly felt quiet.  I took notice of how beautiful a day it was, the cool wind blowing, the crystal blue sky above… It was a perfect moment, (as are most of them when you are nursing) when all the insanity cleared away and nothing else existed but her beautiful crystal blue eyes looking up at me.  All pressing issues melted away and the focus faded to only show the closeness of the moment, the bond and loving exchange between us.  I remember thinking a thought that regularly goes through my mind in such moments of stillness; I hope she always knows how much I love her.  I hope she always feels the closeness of this moment, deep in her heart.  I want her to remember, no matter where she goes, no matter how old she is, this feeling of peace and to always know that my arms are a safe harbor for her, no matter what storms come into her life.    I wanted to capture that moment for her and for me.  That she could see this moment one day and know that love, even if she can’t remember the day through her own eyes.
Once the image was posted, I instantly received a flood of compliments on the thread, as well as personal messages from women and men alike on my friends list congratulating me for my confidence, thanking me for sharing and showing me respect for having posted it, calling it beautiful, inspiring, embodying both strength and love and telling me I was a great example for other women.
I saw a few unnecessary comments from a few friends, but the fact that there is a “boob” in the picture, honestly (and I genuinely mean this) wasn’t even a thought in my mind!! In fact, when I saw these comments, I considered taking it down because that wasn’t my intention and I didn’t like that association in a picture with my sweet baby girl, but just as I was about to change the image, a friend sent me a version of my picture, black and white, cleaned up and edited, beautifully done.  She let me know how beautiful she thought it was and how it reminded her of nursing her own baby.
A profile picture is usually something that embodies you, a representation of your personality and lifestyle.
Well, at this point in my life, there is no better representation of who I am!
I am a strong mother and I stand unafraid to showcase what that looks like, for anyone to see.  If you don’t like it, take a walk.
All I was thinking was I wanted to share this beautiful moment with the people I loved. Since then, this image has taken on a new, unintended life of its own- it’s become a statement. A statement to show women should not feel afraid, embarrassed or exploited by the act of feeding their child.
Yes, I do use a cover in public or around family.  Not for my own sake, but for theirs.  Many are afraid of the body taking on a sexualized tone no matter what form.  They are teaching their children to cover themselves and to shun anything that displays the beauty of God’s creation of mankind as not to “over stimulate” them or make “nakedness” commonplace.  They hide pictures of Victorian fairies and renaissance masterpieces from their children because they may be showing breasts and other private parts, and however “holy” the work or historic it may be, a naked person is still a naked person to them, no matter what the circumstance.  I do not share these beliefs, but I respect them enough to inconvenience myself and my babies when I’m around them.
Yes, it is an inconvenience to use a cover, (You try keeping a toddler still and comfortable with a sheet over his head for more than a few seconds and see how easy that is for you!) it’s uncomfortable for the babies, especially if it’s hot out- the poor things get all sweaty and miserable- but most times I will use one anyway.  Do I like that? Absolutely not!  I get angry with myself for not being more brave- to put the needs and comforts of my children ahead of others’ opinions- but yet, I do it.  90% of the time, I do it to make others happy.
I can resign myself to the fact that I have to do it, not because I am placating to their close minded needs, but because they simply were not brought up to appreciate the naturalness of this aspect of motherhood.
Breasts are considered “secondary sex organs” and in our culture have taken on a ridiculously over-bloated importance.  Even the most pious and virtuous, God fearing folk look at breasts as a sexual  tool- not as a functional one, designed to give a new child her sustenance until she is strong enough to take on solid food.
Here is my question for all; covering up for the sake of these conservative perspectives, is this the “right” thing to do?  To perpetuate that over-sexualized association with something so completely opposite in nature?  The conservative perspective would make nursing out to be seen as a vulgar obscenity, something that’s great to do, but only if you hide it. Wouldn’t it be better for all if we acknowledged that the reason it’s not acceptable to nurse openly is because of a misguided, Victorian ideal that has no business in modern society? Should we not embrace this act of loving sacrifice from our mothers as a beautiful display of nurturing?  Should we not use seeing mothers feeding their babies as teachable moments to our sons and daughters?  I believe our sons may learn proper respect for women and the gifts they provide this world by witnessing a mother feeding her child.  I believe our daughters may learn to respect themselves all the more, seeing that she may one day offer another being it’s life’s substance and not feel that she needs to exploit herself by overly sexualizing her own body.

The image I posted had the same amount of cleavage as many pictures in the past, some were Halloween costumes, some were ren-faire outfits and no one batted an eye or even commented at all.  Yet here, on an image of me nursing my infant daughter, someone had to shake their finger and tell me how inappropriate it was.
How very sad our world has become… I’m finally to the point in my life where I stopped sexualizing my own body and it is now that I am being told to cover it.
What a confusing message we are teaching to our children!  To those who would rather a nursing mother stay hidden, I say- shame on you for perpetuating a lifestyle in this nation that overly sexualizes something so completely non-sexual!  In your desire to “shield” young eyes, all you are doing is shielding them from understanding the natural process of nurturing a child.  This does not help us as a culture in any capacity to raise men and women who respect their and others’ bodies, it does not help to teach them about the sacred duty we have to nurture our children and it certainly doesn’t help them to learn to respect the act of nursing.
I believe the only way to “unsexualize” nursing is to make it a normal part of life- stop hiding it behind pretty sheets and covers, in back rooms and exiling new mothers, who already feel self-conscious and afraid of making mistakes into tiny stalls and bathrooms in order to feed their babies.  So many women stop nursing before they need to because of this perspective- so many of them are afraid to voice their troubles, their challenges with nursing and the struggles they have because of this attitude that it has to be hidden!  So many babies lose out on the benefits of nursing, the nurturing closeness and bonding, the antibodies and vitamins because women are uneducated, afraid to ask and unsure of where to go for help.  Some don’t even know they need help!  I see women posting every day that they’re feeding rice cereal at 4 months and then weaning at 1 year because well, the child just turned one so that’s how it’s done, right?

We need to educate our children and teach them the truth- that breasts exist to feed babies!  Only then can we have a culture of adults who know the value of breast milk and the bond that exists between mother and child as a result.

All this aside, please understand I am not going to stop respecting my family and friend’s perspectives.  I’m not going to walk around bare-chested with a baby attached for all to see everywhere I go.  I will continue to use my cover in places I feel I need to, because I respect others’ rights just as I wish they would respect my own.  While doing so, I will continue to do what I can to change the perspectives of those around me.  I won’t force these images upon anyone, just know that in my own home and my own space online, I will feed my babies covered or uncovered, as I choose, when I choose and I will do so unapologetically.

My goal is to help even one person gain a new and true respect for nursing mothers by realizing that nursing in public, with or without a cover is not only acceptable, but quite possibly necessary to our children’s development and the morality of our culture.
The more we teach love and understanding, leaving these Victorian ideals behind us as a civilization, the closer we will be to a world where compassion rules ahead of selfishness and true health and total body/mind wellness rules over convenience.

Categories: Tags: , ,


  1. Thank you for this post Janelle. I didn’t know about Freud’s crazy theory on breast feeding. No wonder women in that era didn’t want to breast feed their children!
    I had a difficult time nursing when Sophie was born. I asked for help from the “lactation specialist” (I use that term loosely) at the hospital and got very little. Because she wasn’t nursing well her blood sugar was low, so they gave her sugar water in a bottle! After several days of trouble I called a friend who I call my “all natural friend”. She gave birth at home, breast fed her toddler and newborn at the same time. WHAT?!? Who heard of such a thing! She sat next to me on the couch, pulled up her shirt, unhooked her bra, called her toddler over and showed me how to do it properly. 20 years later, I am still so thankful for her help. When Clayton was born we had a different pediatrician. When he was a few months old she told me I could start giving him a bottle a few times a day. When I asked why, she said “So you can have a break”. A break from nursing my baby? From holding him? From giving him the best food on earth? I am glad I was confident and knowledgeable enough to not listen to her.
    Looking back I was pretty free about when and where I breast fed my kids. Now, I probably wouldn’t be as casual about it. Breasts are sexual. There is no getting around it. Several years ago we were visiting with a friend who is a pastor. When he was pastoring a very small church there was a woman who nursed her baby during the service. He said it was very difficult to concentrate on preaching when she was in the front row nursing. I had never thought about it from a man’s perspective. Now that my son is a teenager I think about it even more. He knows that he and his sister were breastfed and that it’s the best thing but, I am more sensitive to the struggles teenagers and men have with sexual desire and temptations. To me…they’re just boobs. To them they are BOOBS! WOW! YOWZAA! Looking back I would have been more aware of where I was nursing and who was around, making sure I was covered. And I understand your struggle with trying to cover a nursing toddler. It can be quite an adventure. Just when you think they’re content, and dozing….Poof there goes your cover and then they sit up and laugh at what they’ve done. Leaving you exposed to the world, the head shaking disapproval of your mother-in-law, the Tsk! Tsk! of old ladies, the eye-popping stares of strange men in the restaurant, and the pointing of little kids! Awww, the memories! 🙂

  2. An intriguing discussion is definitely wokrth comment. I do think that you should write more about
    this topic, it may not be a taboo matter but typically people do noot speak about ssuch issues.

    To the next! Cheers!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s