Breast-feeding in public is ok

by Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 27 Jul 2016

My youngest son’s birthday falls five years and nine days after my eldest, and I regularly lie about this and claim to have had four boys in five years. They were wonderful years and, after the pain of an early miscarriage, we knew we were extraordinarily blessed with the joy of this noisy, argumentative, boisterous, adored houseful of energy.

They were also very hard years, in some ways the toughest of my life.  I remember going to Tesco with two shopping trolleys – one for the boys and the other for the food. Nothing was easy, nothing was quick. Buying a pint of milk had more in common with a military expedition than you would think.  And much as I loved my kids, there were days when I would have paid good money not to have to read another chapter of Thomas the Tank Engine.  It wasn’t just that they struggled to have interesting conversations about current affairs with me; it was also that I suffered from post-natal depression, four times. And all this added up to the walls closing in. 

What saved me (as well as a wonderful GP and an even more wonderful husband) was getting out. I used to take the boys everywhere – to the park, to shopping centres, to museums, to restaurants. I didn’t mind difficult; I did mind isolation. I remember sitting in Brent Cross, breast-feeding the baby while the toddler slept and the older two played with the demonstration train-set in the Early Learning Centre.  And I hung on to my own life by my finger-tips. I went to parties, school governing body meetings and even memorial services with a baby in a sling.  And where necessary, I fed them. 

The issue about MPs breast-feeding is linked, for me, to the recent outcry over Victoria Beckham kissing her daughter on the lips. We need to protect women and children and anyone in vulnerable circumstances from sexual predators. But kissing our daughters on the lips is ok just as breast-feeding in public is ok.

It’s not for everyone and no one should feel compelled to breast feed where they are uncomfortable. However, it’s a natural process which frankly exposes very little to the naked eye, even to the prurient.  It’s about love and nurture and the best possible future health for the next generation.  We do ourselves no favours, as a society, if we see it as something wrong, or obscene, or embarrassing, or inappropriate.

And yes, it’s also about a better way to be a mother and have a stake in the workplace. This week, Kirsty Blackman MP, called for a more family friendly approach to work at Westminster after she received a caution for taking her two children to a select committee meeting last week.     

We need more women to be free to make the choice to be mothers and still make their contribution to the world. I have worked for fabulous men – my current chair, David Isaac, is one – but women can also be fabulous leaders and if we wall them up while their babies are young, we limit their choices in terms of their freedom and in terms of their children’s nutrition.  And we limit our choices in terms of having the best leaders. Women make up half the population but there are just 192 women MPs out of 650. We want a better world and a better world means more choice and more opportunity for everyone. 

There’s so much in this world that’s so difficult to fix, from post-natal depression through the economy to suicide bombers. Letting women breast-feed where they work is just so easy. Let’s do it. Let Parliament really lead.