That won’t surprise anyone who knows me. After all, I get bored easily. But I’m bored of something specific right now – and that’s tabloid articles about breastfeeding. The latest effort comes – unsurprisingly – from the Daily Mail, about a mother who was asked to move tables in a restaurant while she was breastfeeding because a party of schoolkids were coming in. The reactions were fairly predictable – outrage on breastfeeding groups, bile on the DM website – but everyone seemed a little lacklustre. Even the fiercest boob-haters on the DM were expressing boredom more than venom. I always fear for my soul when I start agreeing with Daily Mail readers but “Oh no, not another one” was the first thought in my head as well as theirs. For slightly different reasons, I imagine.
This did seem like a bit of a non-story. In the article, there’s no hint that the staff were rude or aggressive. Their crime was simply to offer her a table in the corner, near the toilets. Not in the toilets, just to the side, away from the 130 schoolchildren about to rampage through. Let’s break this down for a second.
Anyone here have a schoolchild? Do they generally carry about with them an air of serenity? No? How do you think 130 of them would be when they’re all overexcited cause they’re out on a school trip? Peaceful and calming? At the risk of sounding sexist, whenever I’ve seen a schoolgirl and a baby in the same room, one of them has wanted to carry the other one off and play with all its teeny tiny toesies. You can work out which one’s which. None of it sounds conducive to a peaceful feed and if it had been me, a quiet corner to feed in would have been welcome.
I guess that’s why I’m bored of breastfeeding stories in the news. They whip non-stories into hysteria and rally up both sides of the breastfeeding “debate” while the Web Manager sits back and happily counts the clicks and the ad money. In the crudest possible terms – and this really is quite crude for me – tits mean hits for a tabloid and it doesn’t matter what format they come in, whether it’s page 3 or the hint of a nipple in a nursing top. It sells papers and sends website stats through the roof. I’m as guilty as anyone of clicking onto these “stories”.
And they really aren’t stories. Indulge me with a comparison for a minute. Imagine you were in a restaurant and your baby’s nappy needs changing. So, you go to the loos to be told by a member of staff “Sorry, we’re about to close these loos for cleaning – could you use the ones on the other side of the restaurant?”. It would be mildly inconvenient and at worst annoying but you know what it wouldn’t be? News. Why? Because nappy changing has slipped into the national consciousness as something so perfectly normal that no-one is interested in it. Some are disgusted by seeing it in public. Some are relieved they don’t have to do it themselves. But it doesn’t make headlines.
That’s why I don’t believe breastfeeding has a place in the news headlines. In the media – yes. Let’s see more breastfed babies in children’s books (a rare bit of kudos to “Topsy and Tim” on that one). Let’s see breastfeeding storylines in the soaps because aren’t they meant to mirror real life? You have no idea how much I’m smirking as I wrote that last bit, but point is there should be storylines about tongue tie and trouble latching on and all those unglamorous breastfeeding struggles. There’s a place for breastfeeding in the glossy magazines – a nice feeding shot in the latest “Harry and Jodie welcome little HRH Ferrari Charles Edward Gucci to the Royal Family, albeit illegitimately” photo shoot. Or a Grazia feature on fashionable nursing tops (Good luck with that one!) There should be babies feeding in the crowds at Wimbledon and at the Olympics and Ascot and all those places were babies do, presumably, get fed but it’s never shown on TV. There are so many places where breastfeeding could be presented in a positive and normal light, which these sensationalist stories and nurse-ins just don’t.
At its most extreme, media hysteria can lead to situations like the one blogged about on tobyandroo.com this week, which I was in the middle of debating when the DM article was posted. In that post, a store manager was being confronted by a breastfeeding mother who wanted to feed on the shop floor rather than the feeding room and was angry that there was no designated area in public. It’s divided breastfeeding advocates and is fodder for Daily Mail readers but at its heart this story isn’t about breastfeeding – it’s about one woman wanting to be an arse and using lactation as the tool to do that.
Of course it’s terrible that people are still getting asked to leave cafes for breastfeeding. But the genuine injustices are becoming lost in a sea of perceived offences. I remember an incident on Mumsnet where a cafe was reported to have abused a breastfeeding mother. It was named and shamed, with the local mothers organising a boycott until….the cafe owner appeared on the thread, flustered and confused. She was a breastfeeding mother herself, had been there at the time of the “incident” and knew nothing about it. It suddenly seemed that the story may not have been entirely truthful. Mumsnet HQ took it offline and recorded an open verdict, but there was almost certainly some damage done to that lady’s business. I’m a big supporter of small businesses, especially toddler-friendly cafes, and a social media outcry can destroy them in a matter of hours. On a local parenting board recently, another small cafe was denounced as being non child-friendly and I was pretty prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt but the anecdotes kept pouring in, from unrelated people who had all had bad experiences at the same place. Was it true? Yes, probably – I didn’t get the best vibe when I almost went there with Tammy and our assorted small children. But it just shows how quickly a group of customers can strike a cafe off their list of places to go. What the Daily Mail never reports back on is the state of a business after it’s run its expose.
Yes, if you’ve been treated badly for any reason, you should complain. I complained to a supermarket yesterday about a misleading price point and I’m confident that some vouchers or maybe some sandwiches will be falling through my letterbox soon. If you’re breastfeeding in a chain store or restaurant, and they upset you in some way, your first call should be to Head Office, not the Daily Mail. See if you can get invited in to re-educate their Store Managers on the Equality Act. If it’s a small business, go straight to the owner (you can find the details on Companies House). Any decent small business owner will be happy to make it up to you in some way and promise change for the future. Those that don’t are probably worthy of a boycott, but those would be the exceptions rather than the norm. Change is more likely to come from co-operation rather than media confrontation.
To put it simply, here’s what I believe:
1) Normalising breastfeeding should be the end goal.
2) Breastfeeding in the news does not normalise it – it sensationalises it
3) Getting the Daily Mail involved in any situation doesn’t tend to help. They supported Hitler – and look how things turned out for him.
Just to end by saying, there are positive stories out there – the Canadian barista who told off a customer for tutting at a breastfeeder and then gave a breastfeeder a free drink. It’s nice to hear these kind of stories, but they still put the fear into any breastfeeding mother that she might get tutted at. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to a point where that just didn’t happen? Rather, we seem to be headed towards a culture where waiters and shop assistants are scared to even approach a breastfeeding woman for fear of somehow breaking the law. I’d imagine that the Canadian mother was grateful for the free coffee but it wouldn’t surprise me if she’d snapped at him – “What are you doing offering me something with caffeine in? Don’t you know that’ll go straight through my milk and keep my baby up all night? And is that dairy in that? Don’t you know I’m lactose intolerant?” And then the Canadian version of the Daily Mail would swoop in with a headline about “Barista Attempts to Poison Breastfeeding Mother”…which would complement today’s headline (“Restaurant Suggests Better Table for Breastfeeding Mother”) quite nicely.
Let’s not go that way. It would be rubbish. Let’s instead sign up to a pledge of not being an arse. Not harassing breastfeeding mothers if you’re a manager. Not harassing managers if you’re a breastfeeding mother. It’s the kind of pledge that’s seen me through both retail management and breastfeeding without ever once having to perfect my “sadface” for the DM camera crews. Is it really so hard?