By Silpa Satheesh
This is the second in our new series, Undercover, on things women do that they wish didn’t need to be kept secret. Read part one here.
As a single mother with a breastfed child, travelling using public transport often terrorises me.
Last month, I travelled with my son from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram by train. As soon as we reached the railway station, the announcement informed us that our train was running two hours late. After almost thirty minutes on the platform my son needed to be fed. I struggled to find a place on the crowded platform or in any of the waiting rooms for a spot where I could sit and breastfeed my son. After looking around for almost half an hour, I tried to squeeze into the crowded women’s waiting room with no door, sat on the floor in a corner and started breastfeeding him. Like the average railway station waiting room, it was filthy and smelly from the poorly maintained bathroom attached to it. I sat on the floor that was wet from the water overflowing from the bathroom. The station has many recent improvements including newly installed escalators, free wi-fi, and new chairs, not to mention the electronic ticket vending machines, but no clean and safe lactation room where we can feed our children.
The situation in bus stations is even harder. Try and spot a feeding/lactation room in any public space ranging from restaurants to hospitals. Women who have tried to feed in a crowded public space may have noticed that many a times they have to suffer looks from men as well as women who are offended that you are not deft at quickly and miraculously achieving modesty. It is quite possible that in the end you end up cursing both these groups and just go ahead and satisfy your child’s hunger. I’ve dealt with many instances where I have had to change seats in trains and at bus stations multiple times. Or other instances where I have entered into verbal altercations with onlookers who have assembled to watch me breastfeed, beginning with my asking “what are you looking at?”
To feed your child in the open but covered up requires no less skill than a gymnast as you slide your kid stealthily under a cover, unclothe yourself and make arrangements to help him/her latch on to your breast in a sort of blindfolded game. Many times this ends up in a wrestling match between you and the little one over the feeding cover, a match my son often wins. He then whirls around the feeding cover celebrating his victory. Though his constant attempts to remove the cover irritate me, I completely understand his frustration at not being able to have his feed comfortably in fresh air like the rest of us.
Breastfeeding is especially problematic when you are a single mother. According to an older woman acquaintance, this ‘deviant’ behaviour has left me with no ‘man by my side whose presence will keep away potential predators’. I have often encountered situations where the absence of this ‘security personnel’ next to me during travels is taken by many as a license to trouble me with invasive and nasty looks during breastfeeding. I have noticed that I received fewer creepy looks when I breastfeed in the presence of my parents than when I am alone.
Despite all the ads showcasing our National Breast Feeding Promotion Programme, MAA (Mother’s Absolute Affection, Programme for Promotion of Breastfeeding), there is very little that has been undertaken towards the creation of spaces to express milk or feed children in public. Most of these ads represent mothers as individuals who stay at home enjoying full familial support to continue breastfeeding. The programme wants to “enhance optimal breastfeeding practices, which includes early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and continued breastfeeding for at least two years…” In reality, many young mothers, particularly those who live on the margins taking up work in the informal sector have non-existent child support systems and are forced to resume work weeks or months after giving birth. MAA certainly is a commendable first step in creating awareness about optimal breastfeeding practices but does absolutely nothing to create the necessary infrastructure or material support for mothers to continue breastfeeding.
There is also no discussion about lactation rooms or a plan for creating mother-friendly public/work spaces anywhere on the program website or outreach documents. Does this imply that new mothers should stay home until our kids turn two? How does a program envision promoting breastfeeding without considering the creation of safe spots for feeding in public spaces? Such omissions stem from the guiding assumptions of the flagship programme that confine new mothers to the four walls of home. The unit of intervention for most of these campaigns is family, assuming that women do not access public spaces with an infant. It is high time that we challenge this conservative and paternalistic framing of motherhood. We need to travel and access public spaces and it is a disservice to motherhood that we find it hard to navigate this with breastfed kids. Such selective omissions expose the privileged and faulty assumption that mothers can afford to stay at home all the time to take care of young kids. Even new mothers who travel leaving behind their kids need to express milk often to offer relief to their engorged breasts. We resort to using public toilets or washrooms at our workplaces to do so. Can we imagine eating in the bathroom?
It is disappointing to see such a state of affairs in a context where laws that ensure mothers private places for nursing their kids are being passed in many countries. The Kenyan parliament passed a law requiring companies to set aside special breastfeeding areas for employees with children. Similarly, Brazil has done a commendable job in promoting breastfeeding and has also set up the largest human milk bank in the world. Philippines passed a law in 2009 which requires all public establishments to have well-equipped lactation stations. Instead of spending a fortune on advertisement, our country has to pass legislations that guarantee the rights of breastfeeding mothers. We need to have laws that hold the state accountable to breastfeeding mothers. By placing the entire responsibility of breastfeeding on the shoulders of mothers, we normalise mothering as an act in which women have received some kind of training by birth and silence women on the margins who are raising children.
Also, I do not believe every mother should breastfeed. Not at all. It is most certainly a matter of choice. However, those who decide to breastfeed should not be left alone to deal with it themselves. The idea of feeding in private is most certainly very repressive and an outgrowth of the sexualisation of women’s breasts. Am I saying that breastfeeding without a cover is problematic? No. I think it would be the ideal scenario for us all to be in a position where we can freely feed our children without having the need to suffocate them in a cover. At least that allows our kids to have a feed like the rest of us do. In June 2017, Laissa Waters, an Australian senator breastfed her three-month-old daughter while moving a motion in parliament. Over the years, from Argentina to Australia to Hong Kong, women have gathered in massive rallies to openly breastfeed their babies in protest of the demand that lactating mothers stay undercover.
However, can we say this should be the case for all? In other words, I am all up for open breastfeeding (as resistance or not), but that should not be an excuse for not providing feeding mothers with what they need.
Let mothers travel with less worries of finding a room to feed.
Silpa Satheesh is a mother and a doctoral student.