Posted by: Diana Cassar-Uhl, MPH, IBCLC | May 31, 2012

I breastfed in uniform


I didn’t think I was going to jump into this conversation, because I sometimes feel like my 17-year military career has been atypical enough that I shouldn’t bother telling people I’ve served.  I used to be in the Army.  I spent my entire career as a clarinet player (among other things, but that was my main job) in a Special Band.  I won my job as I was finishing my undergraduate degree in clarinet performance, and it was a great gig.

My official photo in 2000, before marriage or children (closely cropped because I’m not savvy enough to edit the text in the top left).

The media hubbub about the photo of the two Air Force mothers breastfeeding their babies … you know what I’m talking about.  One’s nursing twin girls and the other’s got a toddler across her lap.  It’s a gorgeous photo, but, like the now-infamous TIME cover that not-so-accurately portrayed a breastfeeding 3-year old, it isn’t really a good illustration of what “breastfeeding in uniform” actually looks like.  A lovely image of the mothers who were part of a photo shoot, sure, but not what we should be basing our judgements on about the behavior in general!  My friend Robin Roche-Paull, author of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, shared it with her community of followers, and over the Memorial Day weekend, it went viral.

Of course, it was a conversation-starter, and that meant people publicly proclaimed the aspects of that photo that made them uncomfortable.  I confess, my very initial reaction upon seeing it was a slightly uncomfortable “whoa,” which I’ll explain in a minute.

I breastfed my children for more than half of my Army career – many of my own stories are represented on this blog.  Yet, for all those years breastfeeding, I have NO pictures of me doing it in uniform.  Not a single one.  In fact, I don’t have any photos of me in uniform with my children.

At the Mormon Tabernacle — my 7-month old baby was in her daddy’s arms just offstage.

I breastfed in every uniform I ever had to wear.  Untucking the t-shirt from the shorts on the APFU, unbuttoning the bottom of the weskit shirt in Class B’s, unzipping my high-collar concert coat (under which was a a cami or tee) to soothe a fussy baby on the hallway floor of a high school during a long concert’s intermission.  ACU’s were harder to get back together than other uniforms after breastfeeding or pumping, but I did what I had to do.

The Sierra uniform was the worst – that was my summer concert uniform.  My babies loved to grab at the ribbons and insignia while they breastfed, sometimes hard enough to dislodge a “dammit” backing, forcing me to scramble to either find a spare or maybe a folded up piece of cardboard so my ribbon would sit straight during the concert and not stab me.  It was easy enough to leave the stiff white shirt tucked into the who-thought-this-fabric-was-good-for-a-summer-short-skirt and unbutton a few of the bottom buttons to breastfeed discreetly, but in 94-degree heat, feeling like my pantyhose were melting onto my legs and desperately hoping my 6-month old fussy baby would settle enough to nurse before I had to take the stage, I was more worried about the position of my legs so I wasn’t flashing my underwear at the people setting up their lawn chairs and blankets for the concert that was going to start in … how many minutes do I have?  Come ON, baby, this is your last chance and there’s nowhere for you and your caregiver to go to escape this heat, unless you want to go to the car and turn on the air conditioner?  Who has the car keys?  (My husband is still in the unit I’m leaving.  This was all a family endeavor.)  He has the keys?  He’s already on stage?  Aaagh …

Sharing a solo feature — our two (at the time) children listened from the audience.

And it dawns on me, why I have no photos of me in uniform with my children.  I was already juggling so much– making sure our caregiver went to the bathroom before the concert started, were there enough diapers and snacks in the bag?  Are the people seated near my three young children planning to smoke during the concert?  Will our NCOIC try again to tell us we “shouldn’t” have our children at our concerts (but the ill-behaved brats that are running, yelling, and playing with a beach ball over there, next to the stage are of no concern)?  Will the fireworks make my babies cry?  Will the music be too loud?  Will their happy dancing irritate the concertgoers around them?

And, oh yeah.  I’m about to take the stage now and perform an eclectic program of challenging music with the highest level of musicianship my years of study have prepared me for, while smiling and looking the part of the military ambassador to our public that I am.  Was.

“So don’t bring your kids with you,” people would say (behind my back, rarely to my face).  Maybe that’s possible for some, but a 2-hour concert often meant a 9-hour workday, usually on a weekend or holiday, and my babies didn’t take bottles.  Could I have “forced them to” like some people suggested, leaving a caregiver stuck in my house with a screaming, inconsolable baby when the alternative is to enjoy a concert with a satisfied, happy baby who sees his mother right there on stage?

Sometimes, they would fall asleep before the concert ended.

I don’t want photos of myself breastfeeding in uniform.  I don’t want to remember planning my pregnancies around our busy seasons so that long, unavoidable separations would happen when my babies could handle them better.  I don’t want a scrapbook page of pumping at first aid stations (or being turned away from them and forced to find a less suitable place); of finding dead bugs belly-up in a Montana hotel with 2 children and an au pair in tow; of appointments with the Staff Judge Advocate to have my rights explained to me because someone in my chain of command wanted to call our overnight trips “deployments” when they were actually “temporary duty” (TDY) and governed by a different set of expectations; of the ignoramus outside my locker room door asking how long I’m going to be pumping on our 20-minute break because he had to ask me a question (that was just as easily asked when rehearsal ended or before it started).

I know how fortunate I am that I never had to separate from my children for weeks or months at a time; that I never had to go into harm’s way; that what I went through to provide my milk to my babies was mundane compared to what so many mothers surmount; that my children had some really positive experiences because their parents were professional musicians and professional Soldiers.  (How many 4-year olds do you know that snap to their feet and put their hand over their hearts when the National Anthem starts?  Do they know the words?)

My two older children, left and right, with their best friend (and daughter of their caregiver for the evening, center) — having fun before the concert started!

I did have to work in a male-dominated environment, complete with the jokes and childish behavior that accompanies breastfeeding and pumping at work (until they started getting married and having babies who needed help breastfeeding).  Motherhood – heck, parenthood – is seen as a liability, not only where I worked, but throughout our culture.  Breastfeeding is seen as a choice a military mother makes – but if she makes it, she’s perceived as not putting the mission first (whether or not that’s actually true), and in a culture that values the mission above all else, even the most outstanding contributor will find herself cast out.

I want to forget all of it.

My “whoa” reaction to the photo-gone-viral:  the women are outside in utility uniforms with no headgear.  If discretion was desired, the mom of twins could have adjusted her uniform to provide it.  If (heaven forbid) this photo is to drive policy, it can hurt the future for women in uniform, and I say again – this is NOT how breastfeeding in uniform really looks — at least it didn’t for me or the breastfeeding Soldiers I worked with.

When we expect/direct a sector of our population to “cover up” or somehow hide that they nurture their babies in accordance with the biological norm, we are not making a statement about that sector of the population — we’re making a statement about the biologically normal behavior.  Teachers are professionals, too. Should they not breastfeed in their teaching clothes? What about chefs? Or dentists? Is it OK for a discount store employee to nurse her visiting baby in her smock? What about a nurse in her scrubs, picking up her baby from daycare after a 12-hour shift?  Are they disgracing their respective professions?  Perhaps the public’s “whoa” reaction relates to this question:  are we still, as a culture, trying to deny that femininity — BEING FEMALE — exists in and augments our military?  Does seeing a breastfeeding mother in a uniform rouse something in you that you can’t reconcile with your ingrained beliefs?

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Responses

  1. Powerful article, Diana. I think you really did touch on what is at the essence of the whole breastfeeding “discomfort” felt by observers, but it may not be that they are uncomfortable with femininity. It’s ANIMAL instinct to nurse our babies. To nurse means you are embracing your animal side, and that, in many ways, is much more “icky” than just being a girl. You are somehow denying that you are a lofty human, above animal behaviors.

  2. Oh, Diana, I love you. I loved the photos that Robyn put out there. I think it is wonderful that we are having this conversation. I know the photos made some people uncomfortable and I think you have identified some of the reasons. I have very few photos of myself breastfeeding, none of me breastfeeding my toddlers. I think it is because when my children were babies and toddlers, I was using film, not a digital camera. And, like my mother, I was usually the one behind the camera. I wonder how much more of their lives would be documented in this digital age. I agree, though, that there seems to be something incongruous (to some people) about the mothers breastfeeding in uniform. Yet, it was the May 11,1998 cover of the New Yorker that had the iconic sketch of the mother breastfeeding her little one while wearing her hard hat, sitting on the girder of the building in construction. Have we gone backwards since then? It is hard to say.

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/covers/1998

  3. Very well-stated, Diana. I think the lack of a hat bothers me more than the other aspects of that picture, too. Being a clarinetist, as well, a lot of what you wrote about resonated with me, too. Thank you for sharing.

  4. That was beautifully written! You put into words everything I was thinking and I thank you for that.

  5. As always you rock Diana! You said, very clearly, what I’ve been trying to articulate about this whole issue. And I agree about the covers (hats), I noticed that long before it dawned on me that they were breastfeeding!!

    I hope, as do you, that this will not end up being detrimental to women breastfeeding in the military. I hope that the DoD will see that it makes economic and health sense to support our mothers in the military that are breastfeeding by creating a fair policy that allows for breastfeeding in uniform when necessary and provides guidelines in the black and white for all the branches to follow.

    Thank you again for talking about this, and for your 17 years of service to our country!

  6. First of all, love your site. :) But I do want to comment on the no cover thing. I was also in the military but was not a mother at that time. Now that I am a mom and am out of the Army, I’ve wondered how it would work with breastfeeding… I never saw any of my fellow soldiers doing it. The picture of the two women in uniform was taken under a canopy (so technically no cover required) and was approved (but not endorsed) by the Air Force. It was for a Mom2Mom Breastfeeding Support Group at Fairchild AFB in Washington for Breastfeeding awareness month. Here’s a link to the photographer’s site. http://www.brynjaphotography.com/ Thank you for all your stories! <3

    • Hi Margie, thanks for reading my blog and thanks for your service. :)

      Interesting! I didn’t know about the canopy part of the story (but it still looks odd to me that they’re outdoors without cover) but I did know that the photo shoot had been approved. For all the headaches it caused for many, people definitely got to talking about the topic!

      • But, yes, I do agree it appears there isn’t much regard for a ‘correct’ uniform in the picture… :) (shrugs)

  7. Beautifully written Diana. And a huge THANK YOU for the road you paved for all of us nursing mammas in the unit. I don’t know if I could have done it without the support you have cultured!

  8. You totally inspired me with this post, and I can relate so much to the juggling you did. I do not serve, however my work is similar in a lot of ways. I don’t work 9-5, I travel and teach at seminars and public speak on stage. And when I travel my kids come along. My 3 yr old knows airports like the back of her hand. I juggle events, stage, rehearsals all with kids, and a caregiver standing by or stuck in the hotel room with them. I am about to embark on this years show season, with a 4 month old exclusively breastfed baby who refuses a bottle. And to top off my drama, convention centers will not allow my kids to come in, so there’s no sneaking backstage to nurse.

    I am more stressed about child care and feeding arrangements that I haven’t even started to plan for what I am going to say, teach and do when I’m standing infront of a thousand people.

    I honestly haven’t met anyone who talks about this kind of struggle. I have to “force” my baby on a bottle for 2 or 3 days while I work, and then 2 weeks we don’t need to worry, and then we travel again and there’s 2-3 days I cannot nurse. And I cannot pump and supply… How do you store a 3 day breastmilk supply for a 6-7 hour traveling day when security won’t allow you to travel with that much liquid, no fridges around and get to the hotel without having to throw it out because it’s gone bad?? So now I have to supplement formula too.

    No grandparents to help (they are all abroad) no family period. And people look at me like I’m crazy bringing my kids to work with me. I’m not crazy!! I’m just juggling my responsibilities in the hopes that my choices pay off….

    Anyways! Thanks for making me not feel so alone!!

    • Hi Amy! Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. I got exhausted just reading about your juggling act, and I remember it all too well. In reading your comment, I wonder whether your sponsor, the person or entity that engages your services, could negotiate with the convention centers so that you could have a green room onsite for your children and caregiver to be backstage? Or if this is something you could add into your contracts? Also, if you research the TSA rules, you are allowed to travel with a certain amount of breastmilk carried on, with or without your baby — no need to dump that precious commodity! Be sure to print out the rules and have them easy to reach in case a misinformed TSA employee gets it wrong in your travels. As well, you can request a refrigerator at hotels for a medical necessity (and it will be free to you for this reason), and if you travel with your breastmilk frozen ahead of time, it will likely still be slushy when you arrive at your destination … it’s also totally fine for pumped milk to be at room temperature for awhile, then re-refrigerated, so you might not have to throw away as much as you think if you’d rather not supplement with as much formula.

      I can relate well to the lack fo family support. Being in the military, we felt so isolated and even though I’m out now, we still feel like we’re not part of a community. I hope that, despite the challenges, your work is fulfilling to you and there are positive aspects to having your children with you — I know my kids had some really terrific experiences as a result of the hectic lives we had to lead when they were little. Thank you for sharing your experience and I hope maybe something here makes things a little easier for you during this show season. Good luck!


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