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Baby Love 

Is it cool to breast-feed in public? Only if you have a kid.

Wednesday, Nov 23 2005
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Dear Social Grace,

I have a question about breast-feeding in public. As a new aunt, I have tried to convince my sister that she is shocking people by breast-feeding her daughter in public places. I'm talking about restaurants and department stores, and I think her behavior is rather rude. It certainly gets us stared at. She says I'm a prude. She says that it's totally natural, and there's nothing for her to be ashamed of. Is there a firm etiquette rule on this?

Thank you for settling a debate.
Via the Internet

Dear Prudish Madam,

First let me say this, for the benefit of the public: If you find that the sight of a breast-feeding mother unduly upsets you, then shift your gaze. That's the only "firm" rule now on the Social Grace books about this matter. Women have recently fought for and won the legal right to breast-feed in public places, and such behavior cannot (by any stretch of the imagination) be termed indecent or shocking. I just saw a woman in a restaurant brushing her hair over her salad: Now that is indecent and shocking.

But this topic does bring up a tangential issue, which I -- an admitted man, a known prude, and no one's parent -- shall cautiously put forth: The criterion "totally natural" does not necessarily make a behavior appropriate in public places. There are many "natural" (as well as perfectly lovely and even biologically necessary) things, often involving bare skin and bodily functions, that we do only in private because they might startle or disturb people. (Social mores do change over time, but courteous and thoughtful types ought to consider not only the times they wish they lived in, but also the times they do live in.)

I should probably note that just because a behavior is private doesn't mean that it's shameful. We live in a complex society, and a few of our widely held social traditions and taboos don't make rational sense.

Then again, people are famously irrational.

In this particular case, the long-standing (and slowly disappearing) taboo is rather silly. But it does exist, so a mother would be wise to keep it in mind. If your sister had asked for my advice, I might have suggested that she seek out as much privacy as possible if she must breast-feed in a restaurant. But it seems that she has already made up her mind on the matter, and I'm not the sort of person who interferes, unasked, in others' baby-rearing efforts.

Dear Social Grace,

When my son was born, a few months ago, an old friend who lives overseas sent her favorite baby-raising book from Amazon.com as a gift. I believe my thank-you note said, "I look forward to reading it." But my husband and I didn't want to keep a library of baby books on hand, so we exchanged it for something else. Now my friend keeps asking about it, and I don't know what to say. It seems my options are: a) tell her the truth, which seems unnecessary and mean, b) tell her a lie -- that we love it -- which seems to invite danger, or c) tell her something in between -- that it seems like a fine book but we don't use baby books much (I read a chapter in a bookstore just to be sure it isn't fabulous). Do you think my best course of action is one of these, or something else?

Thank you,
Via the Internet

Dear Maternal Madam,

I think your third option is the best one, with just a bit of finessing. I agree that the outright truth would seem ungrateful: To spurn a gift -- no matter how "wrong" it might be -- can seem to spurn the fond feelings that the present represents. And I agree that an enthusiastic "We loved it!" might be followed by something like "Oh, which part did you love the most?," leading you to a conversational dead end.

You already know enough about the book to compliment it -- and, by extension, its giver. What about something such as: "It was such a thoughtful gift. I know how much that book meant to you, and you do such a wonderful job with darling Ashton and little Oprah." Having read a chapter, you could perhaps even muster a question or two, and join in a brief conversation: "What did you think of the 'No Such Thing as Spoiled' chapter?" or "How have you implemented the 'Never Say No' principle?"

One hopes that you will then be able to change the subject -- to babies in general, a specific child, or your own childhood, for instance. But sometimes friends and relations seem perversely determined to force us into bad manners. An overly persistent "But what did you really think of my gift?" is a perfect example. (The lesson here is not to push in situations like this.) If you are pressed further, you're going to have to be a bit more frank. For instance: "Well, you know how it is when you're a new parent -- you get more good advice than you can possibly use! But, of course, every family is different. We're trying to pick what suits us from all the wonderful books we've received."

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