When Breast Equals Blush

By Gretchen

I never thought I’d be self-conscious about breastfeeding in the privacy of my own home.

There are no eye-rolling strangers. We don’t have tightly-spaced vinyl upholstered booths or utilitarian park benches where I am expected to wrangle baby and blanket. At home, I have comfy sitting spots and am surrounded by people who love me and our very-newborn baby, Teddy.

He is our eighth baby. I am nursing for the eighth time. Our older kids have grown up watching their younger siblings fed by me and my milk. They asked cute questions and made insightful observations about the process. Will that spaghetti turn into milk? Does it hurt? It’s lucky we are mammals! As toddlers and preschoolers, they often imitated me by nursing their dollies and stuffed animals—even the boys.

To me, it was a no-brainer that every baby carried across our threshold would be nourished via breast milk. It works for our family.

When we brought Teddy home, I was surprised and disturbed by a creeping sense of unease I feel when his feeding times rolled around. I find myself embarrassed about nursing him in front of my older boys, ages 11.5 and 10. They are firmly entrenched in the tween years. They are tall, big-footed, and they are interested in girls. They are no longer little preschoolers and haven’t been for awhile.

It’s not like I have ever been flippant or a show-off about breastfeeding. I consider myself a modest person, but I never felt the need to cover so much skin under my own roof as I do now. I must wait until the boys are out of the room or otherwise completely engaged in some other activity before I can feed their littlest brother.

I got tired of tiptoeing around them, so I decided to ask them what they thought about breastfeeding. Keep in mind they were both breastfed. They witnessed many younger siblings breastfeeding.

They both said it was weird and very embarrassing. One said it was gross and asked why I couldn’t put the milk into a cup for the baby to drink. I told him the baby was too young for that. He said breasts are private body parts, right? They blushed and stammered and one ran out of the room.

I was a little in shock. It stung.

I assumed, after all these years, they would think of breastfeeding as simply a good way human babies get nutrition. Because of my example and because they’ve seen my husband, their dad, support me 100%, they’d be free of all the squeamishness so many in our society seem to have when it comes to breastfeeding.

I have always been rather smugly self-congratulatory about raising sons who would someday support the mothers of their children if they want to breastfeed. I realize they have the right to form their own opinions regarding breastfeeding, but I always fancied my example would carry an unshakeable impression of normalcy.

Apparently, every time their little brother is cradled to my chest? I am being weird and gross and embarrassing.

I realize my boys will mature over time. They are young and at the age where sour patch candies are delicious, Sonic X is highbrow entertainment, and staying up late means 10pm. Their opinions will probably change when they are fathers many, many years down the road. Many. But they may not. It’s beyond my control.

For now, I must strike a fine balance meeting the needs of all my kids. Our newborn’s need to be nourished is of ultimate importance, but so are the feelings and sensibilities of my growing, maturing sons. I am finding a way to demonstrate to them that I take their concerns seriously without sending the message I am doing anything wrong or disgusting. It isn’t easy.

I am being a mammal and making milk out of spaghetti.

Some things never change.

19 Responses to When Breast Equals Blush
  1. Stephanie
    September 5, 2010 | 8:49 am

    OH, tears welled up in my eyes reading this. I can imagine your reaction. I am wondering how my boys will feel (they are not far from that age!) Although I’ll probably be done nursing by then, but who knows. They are used to seeing me nurse babies and then toddlers, so I wonder… I am now looking forward to interviewing them on this in a couple years.

    And I’m glad you brought it up, because honestly, I would have been riding on the ‘assumption’ that they would be totally cool with breastfeeding for the rest of their lives because of how they’ve been brought up. But it’s so important to check in and find out how they really feel every now and then. Thank you.


  2. Old School/New School Mom
    September 5, 2010 | 8:55 am

    This was a fascinating article. I am pregnant with my second baby now, and I’m curious as to what my son (who’s 2 and will be almost 3 when mystery baby arrvies) will think about nursing.

    I can absolutely understand how it would feel awkward to breast feed in the prescence of tweens.

    I agree with Steph, it was really cool of you to check in with your kids and find out how they were feeling about the topic.

  3. melissa aka equidae
    September 5, 2010 | 11:03 am

    Tweens can be extremely difficult I suppose due to their imbalance…..I am expecting number 2 my son is 18 months and wiull be 2 when the baby is 2. He has never commented on my growing tummy so havent told him anything and he still breastfeeds himself to sleep so yeah I have a lot of days where I wonder what will happen come January…

  4. Emma
    September 5, 2010 | 11:28 am

    Thanks for writing this, although I only have the 1 baby I sometimes wonder how my friends older children feel about all of us breastfeeding even though their mom breastfed them and still nurses their little sister.

  5. Jill
    September 5, 2010 | 11:51 am

    I actually was faced with a situation like this the other day. We were in the local Wal-Mart and we passed a woman nursing her son on a bench in the dairy section (fully covered with a blanket). Maddie who is now 8 was a bit turned off. She even went as far saying she could go to the bathroom to do it. What?! It wasn’t that long ago that I nursed her brother and then before that her sister. I nursed 16 mos and the other 23 months. So it wasn’t like she hadn’t seen it done time after time after time. Amazing how quick they forget and society takes over.

  6. The Casual Perfectionist
    September 5, 2010 | 12:09 pm

    What a fantastic post, Gretchen!

  7. amy
    September 5, 2010 | 4:58 pm

    I remember nursing my oldest in front of my twelve year old cousin, he had a younger sister who was three and had been breast fed, and he had been totally comfortable with it. It made him so uncomfortable and then I felt embarrassed for both of us. I feel like hormones are just raging in kids starting at that age but they lack the maturity to understand how to deal with them, even if they have the tools.

  8. Jen
    September 5, 2010 | 5:12 pm

    This post was very interesting to me. I’m currently nursing and have 4 and 6 yo boys. I hope to continue having more children, and know the older boys will continue to get older. This gave me a lot to think about. Thanks for writing this!

  9. GretchenJoanna
    September 5, 2010 | 5:50 pm

    I had an 11-12 yr-old boy when I was nursing my last baby, and would never have thought to ask him how he felt about it, but my kids are pretty matter-of-fact…It seems to me that your sons’ reactions are about as important or logical as those of younger boys who think girls are disgusting, a feeling that wouldn’t seem to jive with their real love for their mothers or sisters or appreciation for their parents being married. Also, wouldn’t your asking them how they feel sort of imply that there was something remarkable about the phenomenon? In any case, that is an age where young people are easily embarrassed. Good for you, just going on through it doing the right thing.

  10. Megan at SortaCrunchy
    September 6, 2010 | 3:04 pm

    Such a powerful and courageous article, Gretchen. I’m like you – we’ve always emphasized the role mama milk plays in nurturing little ones. I think I would be very hurt if one day one of my children decided it was gross. I hope you’ll share more (as you feel comfortable) about how you continue this conversation with your sons. It sounds like a great opportunity for teaching, yet how to go about that? I’m clueless.

    Again, many thanks for being real.

  11. Jenny
    September 6, 2010 | 3:11 pm

    I think they are just being boys. I mean boys at that age think parents hugging them are embarrassing and gross. I have a male cousin who is 24, breastfed ‘tll 2, and saw his younger brother and cousins breastfed. He thinks breastfeeding is awesome, and even encouraged a teen mom friend of his to breastfeed. He sees it as totally normal.
    I can understand the feelings you may be feeling from their confessions, but if you feel embarrassed about it (or show it) then it will only solidify in their mind that the way they feel is right. Kids are very much in a learning stage at 10 and 11 and are developing ideas about themselves and the world around them. Encouraging them in the right direction about natural functions is a must. Make it clear that there is nothing wrong or embarrassing about breastfeeding.
    For instance, they may feel that they are ugly and unattractive (or will feel that way soon), of course you would encourage them that they are handsome and attractive, not say, “well they have a right to make their own minds up about things.”
    Kids will follow parents’ steps and think along the same lines in most areas.

  12. Carrie
    September 6, 2010 | 3:39 pm

    Wow, this was so interesting to me! I am nursing my daughter in front of my son, but he is only two, and just knows that my ‘chest’ makes milk for Natalie. Whenever she cries, he says, “Does she need nursies?” 🙂 That must be so difficult to try to take their feelings into account while still meeting your littlest’s needs! Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  13. nicole
    September 6, 2010 | 5:45 pm

    I was just thinking about this the other day. I think it is great that you asked and great that your boys felt comfortable enough to tell you exactly how they feel. My guess is that this is more about the age they are than a lasting issue. As others have said, this is an awkward age in general. I’m sure it is difficult to balance everyone’s needs, but you will find a way.

  14. Days_Fly_By
    September 6, 2010 | 10:36 pm

    Wow that is really sad! My 16 year old daughter and 10 year old son are pretty militant little lactavists. In fact for World Breastfeeding Week my daughter went to Twibbon and got the Internation Breastfeeding Symbol put on her Facebook profile picture, and last I checked she’d left it there. But I have always, always kept the dialogue flowing even when I wasn’t actively nursing. They both know about the WHO code, how formula companies violate it, why it’s wrong, why human babies are supposed to drink human milk, they know all the fascinating facts about breastmilk and human growth, development and survival. We boycott Nestle so even grocery shopping is making a statement about what is important and right – whether I’m currently nursing anyone or not. She weaned herself at 2.5, he at 3.5, and they both watched their younger brothers nurse, one until 2.5 and the other is still nursing.

    I guess I wonder what, by having ‘the talk’ about their comfort with your nursing and subsequently waiting until they leave the room or covering up to feed your baby, your actions are teaching? It just seems like underscoring for them that breastfeeding is something ‘eek’ and ‘private’. You won’t scar them by nursing out loud and proud, you’ll normalize it. They’ll get so used to it they won’t even think about it in six months. And at the same time, get vocal about WHY you breastfeed, so they know there’s a method to your “madness”. You’ll be doing this country and your future grandchildren an enormous favor. 🙂

  15. Hannah
    September 7, 2010 | 3:40 am

    I have six kids, mostly boys, aged 6-20. None of the teenagers had a problem with it. I remember holding a conversation with my oldest who was about 16 while nursing. I was somewhat exposed, too, and he didn’t seem to notice at all. He had grown up with it. But every kid is different, and they are affected by the surrounding culture as well as the home.
    Many teens have just as hard a time dealing with the fact that their mothers are pregnant–it’s a similar issue.

  16. kristindoggirl
    September 7, 2010 | 11:59 am

    I had a similar experience, I have two much older teenage sons (now 18 and 15)and then was bitten by the baby bug again and had two more sons who are both still nursing at 2 and 8 months. My two older sons were absolutely mortified at first and still get uptight from time to time. I think it’s natural for boys to separate from their mothers during the teen years and that shyness is just part of the process.

  17. Jacqueline
    September 10, 2010 | 2:30 pm

    I guess I am lucky my 12 year old son doesn’t see anything wrong with me nursing his little sister. He has even stood up for my right to nurse. He told me “I love Issy more than anything and think she needs the best food and they are just boobs men have them too they are just smaller.” I guess the only difference is i have not only raised him to see nursing as normal but he also doesn’t see breast as a private part or sexual part.

  18. Kristen
    September 14, 2010 | 3:17 pm

    My oldest son is 3, the baby is 3 months and my step son is 17 now. I always covered up in front of my step son with child #1, and I continued to do so with #2, he never commented or asked questions, so I guess I dont know his feeling on the subject.
    My 3 yr old was very interested in why baby was attached to Mom’s chest so often. But as 3 yr olds are, he accepted the logic that baby eats from Momma now, and cannot have big boy food until he is a big boy. So we dont have to worry about sharing inappropriate foods.
    Great post!

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