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On Brelfies… The Classical Way

I really don’t know what all the fuss about breastfeeding is.

I mean all the fuss made by people who actually don’t breastfeed. Like people averting their eyes in the most obvious way and/or making derogatory comments when they chance upon a mother feeding her baby outside of the four walls of her home. Like people getting up in arms when a newspaper publishes a story with a breastfeeding angle (most often a situation involving the people in the preceding sentence). And like companies which take down photos of breastfeeding mothers off social media as, allegedly, they deem them on par with pornography.

I wonder how all of the above categories would react if they come across this.

An icon of a nursing Virgin Mary, Aladza Monastery, Varna, Bulgaria

Or this.

A close-up of a balcony with a brestfeeding bas-relief, Venice, Italy

I am sure they will have a fit, will foam around the mouth, may be ‘vomit a bit in their mouths’ (as some commenters on the websites of British tabloids have so eloquently described their deep running emotions with regards to breastfeeding) and then lobbied to have said pieces of art removed and banished somewhere contained and unsanitary. Just like when they so arduously argue that mothers should breastfeed in public toilets.

I also wonder what they would tell the breastfeeding Madonna or Mother Nature figures above?

Do you think they would also throw it in her face that she is a narcissist trying to get everybody’s attention by feeding her infant(s) in public and letting herself be pictured doing it? Which is a common abuse often directed at contemporary mothers in Britain. It is either expressed verbally face to face, through gestures and scowling faces or via deeply hurting comments easily left online.

How exactly did we come to this? From having openly displayed images of the Mother clearly depicting her in this most natural and loving act to feeling guilty, uncomfortable and even outright scared when we need to feed a hungry baby when out and about in our oh so modern society?

I often ponder this question, especially considering how nervous and, on occasion, even terrified I was when, as a new mother, I had to go to appointments and for walks with my newborn. It required organisational skills and military precision to be out and back within her windows of sleep. And even this didn’t always work out, as when you breastfeed on demand and your baby is going through a growing spurt, they need you to be at their disposal 24/7 and then some.

As for social events, forget it! For the first few months after my little daughter’s birth I didn’t do anything social, so terrified I was of the potential glances and judgement of strangers. I know it is easy to say that you shouldn’t pay attention to the aggressive stance of a small section of society on breastfeeding and I admire mothers who carry on breastfeeding their babies in public regardless.

Faced though with a constant stream of products especially designed to conceal public breastfeeding, with unclear mass media messages (often published to provoke extreme stance, rather than to  inform and support) and with a strong choir of voices aiming to silence anyone who ever dares to encourage women to breastfeed, I actually found it very difficult to overcome this artificially imposed wall and actually attempt to breastfeed in public (suitably kitted in the afore mentioned products) when I really, really couldn’t go back home.

Just as an example, just a month ago renowned British chef Jamie Oliver spoke up in support of breastfeeding and, immediately, he attracted a barrage of abuse mainly, believe it or not, from mothers. Ladies who for one or another reason had not been able to breastfeed took offence to his words and called them ‘mainsplaining’. Respected British newspapers even went as far as to publish opinion pieces by female writers disparaging Mr. Oliver’s simply stated stance and basically saying ‘He has never breastfed. What does he know?’.

All this storm of indignation did achieve was to scare off in the process any other man who may have wanted to express his support for breastfeeding mothers with better chosen words or not.

Well, I have and for a long time, so let me give you some details. It is not easy! It is not a gateway to a mothering nirvana. It is nothing like beautifully latching your baby on and then relaxing for 15 minutes, book in hand, whilst the hormone of happiness does a little dance in your mushy mummy brain.

Even if you can produce the necessary quantities of milk, even if your baby latches on without a struggle, breastfeeding can be very hard and stressful and can take huge amounts of time, especially during said growing spurts. It can require you to sit on the sofa for hours on end and then an hour later to do it all over again because your baby is growing and needs the extra nourishment. It is exhausting, it can be mind-numbing and sometimes it terribly hurts.

And, then, a few months down the line, when your baby starts discovering how to move their body, they don’t just sit still. They twist and turn, place themselves in the most awkward positions, kick with their little feet, flail their arms around and pull and tug on your hair. And even though it hurts, and even though you may be shattered and sleep deprived, and even though you may have a million things to do, you sit and wait for them to finish, because this is the best thing for them.

So, during such an emotional time not to have the tacit support of society, to feel like you will be transgressing some really serious moral and societal boundaries by feeding your baby in public, to fear the wrath (no matter how passively aggressively expressed) of a random member of the general public or even to feel like you have to make a stance out of breastfeeding in public in order to be taken seriously, is very distressing and rather demeaning. Not to mention the artificially ingrained division of them against us, meaning ‘bottlefeeders against breastfeeders’ or vice-versa.

Since we moved to Vicenza in the North of Italy a year and a half ago, I have found the local attitudes to breastfeeding really reassuring. All the women I have seen breastfeeding in public don’t use any blankets, covers or other such product specifically designed to conceal the act of breastfeeding lest it offends a random passer.

They breastfeed discreetly, yet openly, sitting in cafes and restaurants or simply walking around. Nursing tops, unlike the ones sold in the UK, have slashes right underneath the breasts, so it seems very easy to give the baby access to the nipple (Did you blush inside reading this? You shouldn’t!) without revealing anything at all. And I have seen Italian ladies nursing in the presence of their whole families whilst out and about during the day and the evening.

I don’t know if this natural approach to breastfeeding is because Italians follow the example of the Nursing Madonnas and Mother Nature’s which are easy to come by here – as bas-relieves carved on the facades of buildings, as works of art held by museums, as frescoes painted on the external walls of houses – or just because their society in general doesn’t seem to make a fuss about something so simple.

Nursing Madonna, bas-relief, Pasticceria Aliani, Corso Fogazzaro, Vicenza

Even though I am now past my breastfeeding days, I internally salute every matter-of-fact nursing mother I come across here in Italy and deep down I wish I possessed a bit of her poise when I had to do it in England.

Thank you so much for reading! This wasn’t an easy topic for me to broach and write about. I had had it at the back of my mind for several months now, but for a long time I felt that I didn’t want to put people off by writing about such a topic. And then one day, after reading something a friend had posted on Facebook, I realised this was such a wrong approach, that people who wanted to be put off breastfeeding, will be put off no matter what I write or say. And even if one new mother gains the courage to breastfeed in public (instead of locking herself in the house like I did) based on the images of the beautiful classical works of art above, then this blog post would have served its purpose.

If you want to read more about the pictorial depictions of breastfeeding Madonnas, just do a search for ‘Nursing Madonnas’, Madonnas del Latte’ or ‘Madonnas Lactans’. There is a lot of information online and the most interesting thing for me was that they were depicted in both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox iconography traditions. Plus, there are lots of classical and modern artists who have portrayed breastfeeding mothers like Michelangelo and El Greco.

Let me know what you think and have a great day (breastfeeding or not)!

Balcony with a brestfeeding bas-relief, Venice, Italy

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