A Student Project, organized by Victoria Wright
For those performing mothering duties, the crush of unrelenting surveillance by the public, the media, as well as family members, is often laden with judgment. Comments regarding the way mothers best determine to feed their children are often opinionated and unhelpful. This is especially true for nursing mothers. Whether pumping, using a formula, or nursing in public or in private, these choices are up for commentary. During this project, I hope to explore aspects of motherhood focusing on how mothers decide to feed their children in their early years. I am aiming to create a year-long exhibit exploring four subcategories of breastfeeding: These four subcategories will include public vs private breastfeeding, pumping mothers, nursing toddlers, and the effects of breastfeeding on the mother’s body.
The first category, public vs private, has proven to be the topic that garners a large portion of the controversy in the breastfeeding world, along with undue judgment from the outside world. Public breastfeeding has been a topic of discussion for people from different backgrounds, ending in drastically varying opinions. There are many people who seem offended, disgusted, or even disturbed when mothers breastfeed their child within a public setting. Even though this has been a natural and necessary act throughout human history, it still seems to be a controversial exercise for many and continues to garner mixed reactions when performed in public settings. This has created a difficult environment for mothers to be able to nurse their children when needed in public. Even around family, many mothers feel the need to breastfeed their child in a private setting such as a separate room, or at a minimum will use a cover to ensure that the nursing is unseen. The judgments that ensue from either side of this argument create more work and more unnecessary stress for both the mother and their child. Breastfeeding is a necessary act that ensures the health of the mother and nourishment of the child. Complicating this process can even be perceived as stressful and even cruel.
The second category, pumping mothers, presents another level of complexity and judgment. Many mothers in America are working mothers. Some of these mothers spend a great portion of their day away from their children. Therefore, they are unable to directly breastfeed and must rely on banking their milk. Even when distanced from their child, a mother must express her milk to keep up supply as well as avoid the undue health issues that may arise from not expressing their milk properly. This process takes a great deal of time, physical energy, as well as adds to additional stress within a normal workday. Mothers need to have a safe location where they can set up pumps, store milk, and have the needed privacy to concentrate. All of these factors assist in the ability to produce breast milk especially considering that for many women, producing milk while your child is not nearby has proven to be difficult. Even for workplaces that have pumping spaces, there still may not be support from the employer to allow a mother to continue pumping. This struggle for any working mothers can be very lonely and challenging. There are inherent difficulties balancing the two very different worlds of not only being a great employee but also a great mother. Pumping milk is another aspect of motherhood that often is overlooked by those who are not involved in the process or who have no experience with what it takes to provide for a child physically while making the adjustment to professional working life.
The third category- the age of the breastfed child- can be informed by historical and anthropological evidence. This has changed throughout history. The creation of a formula substitute to give infants in recent history, starting in the 1860s, has allowed for the decision of how to feed children to change. In contemporary America, where food is generally accessible, and formula can be obtained by many breastfeeding older children is not as much of a necessity as it may be elsewhere. Theoretically, in America today, the choice of when to wean can be left up to the mother (and her partner) to decide and when to wean can be viewed as a choice rather than an objective imperative. However, breastfeeding is not only about providing nourishment but is also about creating and maintaining bonding between a mother and child. For some mothers, the time spent breastfeeding may be the only true unobstructed time they have to connect with their child. Along with the physical/emotional connection breastfeeding creates, there are numerous benefits for both the mother and child for breastfeeding longer than the early infant stages.
The fourth category, the effect of breastfeeding on the mother’s body, is one that has not had as much spotlight on it. For many women, the effects of nursing start as soon as they become pregnant, then continue throughout the pregnancy into the breastfeeding stages. Since the impact of nursing is rarely seen by the public (as mothers breastfeed privately or cover up their bodies postpartum), many who do not understand the post-partum body do not see the effects that pregnancy and childbirth have on the body. Often, the mother’s body transforms radically. This can be a difficult adjustment. Being able to highlight this area of motherhood may bring on some deeper introspection or even sympathy from those who have not gone through this process regarding everything a mother’s body has to endure.
This year-long project will delve into the world of nursing mothers. Each of the four categories discussed will use art, research, and my personal experience as a mother to show the often-hidden side of breastfeeding mothers. The exhibit will also help showcase how mothers might manage judgments and assessments from others while continuing to find a way to care for their children. By using the visual arts to interrogate these topics, it is my hope to aid viewers to comprehend aspects of a world they may have never been a part of. The exhibit aims to create an environment that will help other nursing mothers see they are not alone in the struggles they have experienced on their own nursing journeys. By displaying this exhibit online at MoM, I want to shed light on the complexities, joys, questions, and also the comments mothers face while feeding their offspring as they adjust to their own changing bodies in the world.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Opinions About Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding. CDC. Nov 15, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/healthstyles_survey/index.htm
Christnacht, Cheridan & Briana Sullivan. About Two-Thirds of the 23.5 Million Working Women with Children Under 18 Worked Full-Time in 2018. The Choices Working Mothers Make. United States Census Bureau. May 8, 2020. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/05/the-choices-working-mothers-make.html
Cleveland Clinic. Benefits of Breastfeeding. Cleveland Clinic. October 3, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/15274-benefits-of-breastfeeding
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Nguyen, Trang. Public Breastfeeding legal but stigmatized. National Consumers League. August 25, 2017. https://nclnet.org/public_breastfeeding/g
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U.S. Department of Labor. Nursing Mothers Workplace Protections: Break Time for Nursing Mothers. Women’s Bureau. https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/WB/media/508_nursing-mothers_05052022.pdf
Exhibit Coming; May 2023