Nursing & Knitting

The uproar over Time Magazine‘s latest cover – the one showing a nearly 4 years old boy nursing (admittedly unusual for the U.S.)- seems strange to me, primarily because nursing is natural, good for the child’s short-term and long-term health, and an intimately personal decision.

Further, there are innumerable “great works of art” hanging in museums all over the world showing women (including the Madonna, like the picture to the left) nursing children and, sometimes, adults.

Perhaps it’s just the age of the boy. Yet I remember my mother talking about various “country” cousins who nursed until they were about 4 years old. The “standard” age of weaning undoubtedly varies greatly by country, generation, socioeconomic status, and family preference.

Listening to the hullabaloo reminded me that many of us who gave birth in the ’70s had to fight to have drug-free childbirth, to have our partners with us during labor and delivery, and to nurse our babies outside the privacy of our homes.

  • The hospital where I delivered almost 33 years ago had only just stopped its practice of strapping the ankles and wrists of women delivering.
  • One generation earlier women were routinely anesthetized; that was my mother’s experience delivering in the 1950s U.S.
  • The generation or two before my mother, women in labor and delivery wore “modesty pants.” I’ve only seen pictures of them; “pants” is a bit of a misnomer as they are not secured around the waist or hips. They looked a bit like a sweater: the woman’s legs went in the arms, and what would be the span across the back of a sweater covered her genitalia. The baby would come out a large slit in the modesty pants just big enough for the baby but not so big the woman would be “exposed” to the hospital personnel, including the doctor and nurses. (No, I kid you not. Academics who do historical research stumble across the most unusual forgotten bits of history!)

I digress. When I was pregnant, I knit a short poncho so I could nurse in public but privately and without worrying about holding up the covering. It didn’t always work.

One day as I waited for the bus, my 8 month old baby in my arms, she started to fuss and tug at my shirt. As we boarded, I hoped she could wait until we got home. Nope. My attempts to distract her were futile, and so before she worked herself up to ear-splitting wails, I put her under the little knit poncho. She quieted down instantly as she started to nurse.

The bus was crowded but I had a window seat; my right arm supported her head and shoulders. On my right sat a young man; I could tell he was military. (There was a large naval base close by.) After about four minutes of quietly and happily nursing, my daughter decided she was done. As I looked out the window engrossed in watching the sailboats, with a quick jerk of her right hand she pushed the poncho out of her way and simultaneously, with her left, shoved my breast away from her mouth (pointing it past her head). I was exposed.

The milk, of course, kept on a’coming – spraying all over the bare left arm of the man next to me. Feeling the spurt of warm liquid on his arm, he looked down and – well, saw everything. Holding his arm out as if acid were burning into it, he started loudly moaning “No, no, no, no.” I quickly pulled out a cloth diaper and started patting his arm, trying to calm him down by murmuring, “Don’t worry. It’s just a bit of breast milk.”

By that point he was literally gagging. He jumped off his seat at the next stop and quickly ran out the door. Probably scarred him for life, poor guy. Despite my intentions to the contrary, I weaned my daughter before she was a year old.

Of course, 26 years later when my daughter announced she was pregnant, I immediately started knitting her a lovely “nursing shawl.” She was puzzled by it until I explained, and then she showed me the very nice shirts, blouses, covers, etc. designed for nursing mothers. (She used the shawl simply to keep warm, not modestly covered.)


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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28 Responses to Nursing & Knitting

  1. mz jenny lee says:

    Indeed! Have you seen the documentary The Business of Being Born? It discusses what you mentioned in-depth and it’s pretty fascinating.


  2. mz jenny lee says:

    Very good insight on the double standard on “breast exposure.” This is so true!


  3. Your grandmother must have been very brave – wow, what a story! I imagine it was hard weaning at 6 months b/c you two would have had such a bond! Isn’t it strange that rural Chileans aren’t mortified by mothers breast feeding while so many people are … well, the latter people could take a lesson from the Chileans!


  4. My grandmother had my first uncle when the UK was at war. It was during a bomb raid. She was in a bomb shelter in Birmingham, young and with no idea what was happening to her. she said she didn’t even know where the baby was going to come out, no one had explained it to her. Things sure have changed.

    My first daughter was born in a birthing pool in the UK, and my second in a very sterile hospital here in Chile, (at least I insisted on sitting up), and my mom and husband were with me for both. I breastfed everywhere and would never let anyone make me feel uncomfortable, (and rarely covered myself).

    Unfortunately I only breastfed my second daughter for 6 months because she started biting with teeth. She was drawing blood and I couldn’t seem to make her stop, (and the pain!!). It broke my heart, it was really hard.

    I live in a rural part of Chile and mothers breastfeed openly, (at least in the company of other women), at school meetings and social activities. It’s nice to see women breastfeeding in a relaxed and casual way.


  5. What a nightmare. Thanks for sharing your story. Yes, thankfully things have changed for us, but only because of the activism of women in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember telling the young nurse who pulled out these metal things with straps, “Don’t even THINK about it.” As she was a tiny little thing alone in the room with me (I’m close to 6′), I think I made her a little nervous. No tie for me. I said no to the suppository too. I don’t think they thought I was the most cooperative of patients. 🙂


  6. Thankfully that some things have gotten a lot better for mothers. 🙂


  7. I can’t speak for Ms. Taylor, of course. I think it is important to know that MANY men support their partners in breastfeeding. Breastmilk is certainly good for babies, helping them develop their own immunities etc. It creates an amazing bond between mother and child. Many people who have not nursed do not realize babies don’t chomp the breast, though sometimes when they’re teething they may nip a bit. My daughter said when her baby did that, she exclaimed “ow” and drew back. He never did it again!


  8. Mandy says:

    I don’t understand what P. Taylor is trying to say – that a man must be forcing the woman to nurse her older child? That makes no sense. I was a single mom when nursing my son and I breastfed till he self-weaned at 2. There was no man around to “force” me to nurse him. I wanted to. My daughter is 13 months old, has 5 teeth, and is still nursing. Why are teeth always brought up as an indicator of the necessity of weaning? You can’t feel the teeth when they’re nursing. And many babies get teeth at a few months old, certainly too young to be weaned.

    It’s absolutely ridiculous that people make such a big deal out of breastfeeding – especially when they turn it into something quasi-sexual at some arbitrary age. Saying the mother must be doing it for herself or getting some kick out of it or whatever. Nursing a toddler is no more sexual than nursing a newborn and I take offense at anyone that says I’m getting some kind of thrill out of it. You’re basically calling me a child molester!


  9. Sindy says:

    I had my son in 1973, I found La Leche League and the saved my sanity. It seemed that everyone thought I was nuts to breastfeed. Had my daughter in 1983 and things were easier. Then my last child in 1998 and got tons of support and was even issued an electric breast-pump as she has Down Syndrome and had a hard time latching on. HUGE difference between the first child and the last….


  10. Deborah says:

    34 1/2 years ago I gave birth to my daughter. I was tied down flat on my back and was only released when I agreed to an epidural, because the anesthesiologist required access to my back. The pain was reduced by more than half once I was allowed to roll onto my side and I’m pretty sure I didn’t need drugs by that point, but I wasn’t about to say so and risk get tied up again. My husband wasn’t allowed in the delivery room, either, and most of the time he wasn’t allowed in my room while I was in labor. Women who hear my tale are stunned to learn that I was treated so poorly. Thank God things have changed.


  11. I agree … it so strange that people have such visceral reactions to the image of a woman using her breast to suckle her child! And yes, the sexualization and sensationalization of women has bombarded the public until few people even blink at magazine covers of models wearing (unbelievably) revealing attire.


  12. Louisa says:

    this photo shocked me – and I BF my two girls for three years each, they certainly had teeth and could stand up! I think this is a shocking image however because it is on the front of a magazine, where women are automatically portrayed as sex objects (even if it is through the role of power/accomplishment) so even before we start, the mother image has been sexualised and sensationalised – the madonna icons come in such a different context, one of reverence and grace…….
    I breastfed everywhere, I too had a shawl, it didn’t bother me, but I notice now in IKEA in Switzerland there is a special screen that nursing mothers can go behind to tend to their babies, which I think is great. Now I see other mothers BFing in public and I feel quite uncomfortable about it, I think there should be more opportunities for privacy, why should women have to ‘bare all’ in a society when the breast has become such a sexualised ‘object’ ? but as necessity demands that we must go ahead and tend to our babies in public – shawls and wraps are just perfect,
    happy knitting,


  13. I never thought of it that way! It’s interesting how people can look at the same picture/topic and see it from so many different angles! Thanks for reading my blog and posting your comment!


  14. P. Taylor says:

    I really did not pay attention to it on the News but when I saw it at your blog it is disgusting! What woman in her right mind would allow a child with teeth to suck on her breast. It had to be a “man.” I don’t understand why “man” think that they have so much control over the “woman.” Great read and I’m surprise no one else touched on the subject of male supremcy.


  15. I can only imagine! When I was giving birth I had to insist on a big notice in my chart indicating I wanted no drugs. !


  16. Thanks for reading my blog … I had no idea about the extent of the discussion over the mag cover until my daughter told me about it.


  17. P. Taylor says:

    Hi Karen: I’m not a mother. My first impression of the magazine cover is “times must be hard” mother has to breast feed older child. Good article.


  18. Julia says:

    My mother had her first child in a Soviet hospital in the early seventies, and then me in a Swedish hospital in 1982. She says it was like night and day.


  19. Well said! I agree wholeheartedly. And your friend’s comment is right on target … where’s the hue and cry about breasts displayed on the covers of all the magazines at the grocery checkout?!


  20. Once when I was having a facial, the young femal esthetician commented, “Those feminists made it so hard for us. Now our husbands expect us to have a job too.” Of course I just HAD to enter into a discussion on this topic with her. 🙂 What she complaining about was that her husband both expected her to work AND take care of all the stereotypically “female” jobs at home and, to her, that was because of pesky, meddling feminists of my generation. I asked her why, as they both worked full time, didn’t they evenly share all domestic duties. She really had no answer for that.


  21. Yes, it makes a funny story … and thankfully 32 years later I can laugh. 🙂


  22. Maybe the tying of the women down had something to do with the women “needing” sedatives/painkillers. 🙂

    It’s amazing to me how we want to medicalize and control something so natural. 😦


  23. When I heard about the bruhaha over the Time mag cover, all I could think was, “Why all the fuss?!” My daughter (and OB social worker) told me that it is most difficult to wean a child if you nurse for two years. At that point, the mother will probably have to nurse for even longer. (I barely made it to a year. 🙂 )


  24. I don’t have any children, but the drama over anything related to reproduction in this country always amazes me. As an aside, I am instinctively violently opposed to being restrained. If anyone tried to tie me down during childbirth, they’d probably lose a tooth. It wouldn’t (necessarily) even be intentional. What a horrifying thought.


  25. ethgran says:

    I too had a negative experience nursing in public – 1978 was the year. It was blistering hot in August on the Western Shore of Maryland and we were moving all our junk in a non air conditioned van to our new home across the Chesapeake. We stopped at a fast food place and I discretely nursed my one month old son (covered him and me with a blanket) in an unoccupied corner of the joint. Oh, the looks I got – thankfully no one made a remark – but did they want me to sit in the hot van to give my child some sustenance? I wish I had thought of using the poncho I had knit – though it was wooly. I could have made a light weight one for myself, but I never thought I would need to nurse in public. So glad things are changing a bit but not enough considering the fervor caused by the Time cover. My son spent a year and half in Madagascar where it is just part of everyday life, and when he came home to go to college he remarked at how provocative the young women on campus dressed. One thing that gripes me is how the women’s movement worked so hard to give women more freedom and respect just to have the next generations go out of their way to set themselves up as sex symbols. I got more leering looks and remarks from men once I hit my mid 30’s than ever before. I have always dressed modestly too! Grrrrrr


  26. Tracey says:

    I’m sure I benefited from you moms fighting to have your husbands in the delivery room, and finding ways to nurse publicly. My kids are still very young. I nursed my daughter for about 14 months, and my son for 11. I used the kind of clothing that your daughter told you about. I never had any problems nursing in public. I have no problem with women who choose to nurse their children up to age 4, or whenever. It’s up to them. That’s a personal decision. I don’t think any of us should judge, or speculate that the mother has some unmet need. As you say, it varies widely by geography and economics. Mothers, regardless of their choices, should know that other mothers support them. Because being a mom is hard enough. And just because my choices may be different to someone else’s doesn’t make them any better or worse. They only make them mine.

    Another friend of mine pointed out that the article reveals a gaping flaw in our common thinking. Breasts are fine when they’re sexualized. They’re everywhere: music videos, magazines, tv and movies. But use them for what they’re meant to be used for: milk, and suddenly they’re disgusting. And sadly, it’s not only men who feel that way. Women are bashing their own kind.


  27. minaandme says:

    Many of the ladies I know who have babies right now seem to just be using blankets to cover up. Despite efforts to be discreet, I’m pretty sure every woman who has ever nursed has at least one exposure story! Awful at the moment, but truly amusing stories when all is said and done 🙂


  28. Karen to Karen the world has certainly changed since our 30 somethings were young and since mine is adopted I skipped the breast feeding part. I must say however nursing a child that can get his own glass of milk indicates that the mother has some unmet need. Nursing passes immunity from mom to baby not mom to pre-teen. Whats the cut off puberty? Ok I get carried away. Anyway like anything else if you ignore the issue eventually we’ll be on to something else.


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