Decorum, Respect, and Starbucks

The issue of nursing mothers in public raises its cute little head “as regular as the possums whelp in May,” as my colorful and annoying Aunt Millicent used to say before she was committed. Now it is Starbuck’s turn, as the ubiquitous coffee giant has inflamed nursing mothers everywhere by asking one especially proud mom to “cover up.” So now editorial pages and feminists and psychologists and professional curmudgeons are all dusting off their passionate commentary from the last outbreak, lightly edited with all the original nonsense intact.

The new wrinkle in this particular version of the controversy was the mother’s argument that the fact that she was using a part of her body “n the manner in which it was intended to be used” should guarantee her right to public display. This dubious line of reasoning is likely to take hold of the public imagination, meeting as it does the bumper sticker requirement that it sounds good as long as nobody takes a nanosecond to think about it. The fact is, there are parts of my body that even I don’t care to see engaged in their “intended function”; heaven forbid that a stranger be forced to bear witness.

This is an ethical issue, plain and simple, and it is the same ethical issue that encompasses groping one’s girlfriend in public, flossing one’s teeth in public, plucking one’s eyebrows in public, de-linting one’s navel in public, and even playing Yanni or Zamphir at mega-decibel levels on the street. It is irrelevant that the action of nursing one’s child is necessary, natural, or part of the Circle of Life, Simba. It makes some people uncomfortable, it is widely regarded as an intensely private act that others do not want to witness, and neither of these views is either unknown or surprising to any nursing mother in America. Don’t tell us that public nursing is completely accepted in France or the pages of National GeographicÂ…you’re not in either of those places, although I haven’t received my August NG yet, now that I think about it. This is a simple matter of respect for the sensibilities of others in public areas. When people go to places like Starbucks, they go to relax (and, ironically, get so full of caffeine that they can’t relax, but that is a different story), have some nice conversation, and enjoy themselves. That objective deserves to be respected by everyone, including nursing mothers. They don’t have to avoid Starbucks, or even necessarily retreat to the restroom. All they have to do is, well, cover up.

Now, it is true that there is a legitimate and ethical reason not to cover up. That is when the individual wants to change the social norm, to force others to accept previously unmannerly behavior by making it unavoidable. Some people are offended by inter-racial couples. Tough: our society has decided that such an attitude undermines its values, and we will not respect it. Some people are offended by gay couples in public; again, too bad. That isn’t an attitude that the nation will support any more. And some people are offended by drunks in public, andÂ…oops, I guess we still aren’t fighting that one very hard.

If the battles of opinion-mongers actually produce a verdict that societal norms have shifted and become more, well, French, (excuse the involuntary shudder), then Starbucks might have to get with the new program. Until then, if “then” ever comes, the verdict that nursing mothers are expected to exercise some restraint and modesty is the prevailing one, and one that we should accord respect and legitimacy. If a mother isn’t intentionally behaving as a beacon of social change, but merely disregarding the sensibilities of others for her own convenience, then she is acting unethically.

So cover up, Mom.

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