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.
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.
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 …
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?
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?)
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?