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London - Making my way towards the stairs in a town centre camera shop, I almost came to a crashing halt after catching sight of something on display I hadn’t expected to see.
No, not a state-of-the-art tripod or elegant pewter frame, but a generous glimpse of a globular breast, crammed into the mouth of a suckling infant.
Breast and baby belonged to a woman in her early 30s who’d selected the bottom step as a place to feed her baby.
Feeling queasy at the unanticipated sight, as well as more than a little disturbed by the woman’s apparent indifference to the feelings of everyone else and her unapologetic willingness to feed in the centre of a busy store, I tried to look anywhere other than in front of me.
This was especially difficult since I had to navigate my way around mother and child before sprinting to the first floor.
What is it about some breast- feeding moms? Why do they think they have the inalienable right to nurse their babies anywhere they like, without giving any thought to the location or the sensitivities of those around them?
I say this not as some dried-up prude who’s never experienced a cracked nipple. No, I say this as a mother who breast-fed four children, but always resisted the urge to do so in anything other than a discreet way.
Aside from not wishing strangers (or even friends) to be party to what I believe is the most lovely and intimate of acts, I imagine few would have relished the sight of my hungry infant slurping down its elevenses.
Unfortunately, thanks to the increasingly militant voice of the “breastapo”, criticising a woman who breast-feeds in public is tantamount to treason.
After I suggested on a BBC radio programme this week that mothers should be circumspect about where they nurse their babies, the response was little short of nuclear, with opprobrium piled on me by the vocal pro-breast-feeding lobby.
But I was struck by how many messages I received online and in conversation from woman who felt the same way as me. They told me I had articulated the views they felt too afraid to express themselves. That’s right, too afraid.
As one said, after finding herself next to a woman at a bus stop feeding her child: “I felt violated since she had no thoughts for my feelings, but you just can’t say that nowadays, can you?”
There has been a rash of stories about women who say they’ve been victimised for breast-feeding in public. One was ticked off for doing so at a naval museum, another in a hospital waiting room.
Last week, 27-year-old Emily Slough was photographed feeding her eight-month-old daughter on the steps of a Staffordshire pub while eating a sandwich.
She was unaware of the photographer who later posted the picture on Facebook with the charming inscription: “I know the sun is out ’n’ all that, but there’s no need to let your kid feast on your nipple in town!!! Tramp.”
To label Emily a tramp was a vile insult. But when I saw the picture, there was a part of me, while not condoning the language or actions of the photographer, that could see why her behaviour may have triggered an adverse reaction.
For rather than looking for somewhere low-key to feed her daughter, Emily chose to park herself in the middle of a busy town centre, shopping bags sprawled around her feet.
I wouldn’t do that with just a sandwich in my hand, never mind with a little one to attend to. Surely where we choose to breast-feed requires more graciousness than that?
Of course, there’s nothing worse than feeling under pressure to feed a howling, hungry baby, especially since its anguished cry can make your breasts leak like a faulty washer. I’ve been there myself - many times.
But I never felt the needs of my baby awarded me the right to breast-feed wherever I chose. If I was out shopping, I’d sprint back to the car, find a seat in the corner of a cafe or retreat to an out-of-the- way park bench. Yet over and over again I’ve had no choice but to been confronted by earth mothers on the train, in restaurants, in the middle of busy shopping centres or at picnic sites breast-feeding in full view, without any attempt to be discreet.
It goes without saying that breast-feeding - for those who can and want to do it - is a wonderful thing.
Indeed, 81 percent of women now start their babies on breast milk compared with just 66 percent in the mid-Nineties.
It’s good for the baby’s health, as well as easier for mom than having to sterilise bottles and buy formula.
Oh yes, and it’s also natural. And that’s the killer point. To all too many breast-feeding mothers, this word “natural” nourishes the belief that they have a licence to do it anywhere. Regardless of who is watching.
What they are forgetting is that breasts are, by their nature, sexual. Why else do women crowbar their bosoms into clingy dresses and skimpy bikinis? They want the world to see that they are attractive.
But things change when you’re breast-feeding. During this time, breasts are not intended to flaunt your sexual availability to the world, but to meet the needs of one little person - your baby.
That’s why so many women feel unsettled when we see a mother treating breast-feeding like a spectator sport.
The combative attitude of the breast-feeding lobby is part of the problem. Emily Slough took, to my mind, an inflammatory course of action when she retaliated to the nasty Facebook posting by organising a breast-feeding demonstration around the Rugeley pub where she had been photographed.
The site of a phalanx of women with boobs visible at 50 paces and babies latched on turned my stomach.
Such an aggressive exploitation of a tender maternal act was, to me, the ultimate betrayal of what breast-feeding is all about. It should be an intimate, bonding experience, not a show to prove a political point.
Certainly, breast-feeding was a private and special time for me and my babies. I especially enjoyed it with my daughter, Sophie, now nine.
She was the youngest by six years and, uninterrupted by demanding toddlers as I had been with my other children, I could relax, sit quietly and enjoy the experience, knowing it was what we both wanted.
I used to love feeling utterly justified in plonking myself in front of some slushy afternoon movie and just letting her take her time.
No one is suggesting women shouldn’t be allowed to breast-feed their children.
In fact, the 2010 Equality Act states it is unlawful for moms to be discriminated against or treated unfavourably because they are breast-feeding.
But perhaps the politicians behind this statute should have insisted facilities were made available in shopping centres, supermarkets and department stores to enable mothers to feed in private.
Instead, the rest of us are made to feel like criminals for wanting to look away. - Daily Mail