You’ve got to admire a mayor who’s willing to step outside his comfort zone.

“You grew up Catholic — and I grew up Catholic,” noted Portland Mayor Michael Brennan in an interview this week. “And everything that we grew up with said, ‘Be uncomfortable with this.’“

Yet there Brennan stood Wednesday in busy Bell Buoy Park on Commercial Street, surrounded by women in various stages of openly nursing their babies.

Hizzoner’s message: Portland is a breast-feeding-friendly town. Deal with it.

“Despite the fact that people might feel uncomfortable about it,” Brennan said, “it’s something that we need to talk about — and get past.”

Alrighty then. Let’s discuss.

Now I’m the first to applaud “Whenever, Wherever, We All Benefit,” a joint effort by the city’s Public Health Division, Healthy Maine Partnerships Maine and the Opportunity Alliance to make it easier for lactating mothers to nurture their little ones in the public square.

But let’s be honest here. When it comes to actually happening upon a young lady with child attached, some people (read: most if not all men) find themselves trapped in a no-win situation.

Look away (or flee outright) and you’ve given the poor woman the impression, intentionally or not, that she’s doing something socially unacceptable.

Stare in awe at Mother Nature taking its course, on the other hand, and you’re a pervert.

Stammer on about the weather or the Red Sox? Dude, you are so overcompensating.

Bottom line, we men need some guidance with all of this. If breast-feeding is indeed the newest cause celebre in Maine’s most progressive city, a sizable number of our enlightened citizenry (read again: most if not all men) need to better understand what is acceptable, what isn’t and, most important, why this is such a big deal in the first place.

Let’s start with that last one.

Zoe Miller of Healthy Maine Partnerships, who co-founded “Whenever, Wherever” not just for Portland but for all of southern Maine, sees two factors at work.

The first is generational: Back during the baby boom in the 1950s, the overwhelming message conveyed to mothers by their all-knowing doctors was that baby formula was good and breast-feeding was backward, archaic and maybe even a little self-indulgent.

“Formula became the norm,” said Miller, who’s now breast-feeding the second of her two sons.

Since then, the pendulum has swung decidedly back to breast milk. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Pediatrics, the United States would save $13 billion in medical and other costs if all new mothers breast-fed exclusively for six months.

Thus, Miller said, it’s high time we all accept the reality that breast-feeding produces stronger, healthier kids. Encouraging it — the “Whenever, Wherever” campaign includes window decals for businesses to pronounce themselves friends of breast-feeding — benefits the entire community.

“Mothers are already getting that message,” Miller said. “But what’s not happening enough is the rest of society — the general public, the dads, the grandmas — aren’t hearing about why it’s of value.”

Nor do they understand why, if a mother wants to nurse her child or express her milk, she shouldn’t have to slink out to her car, the nearest restroom or some other hiding place to do it.

“The bottom line is that people aren’t used to seeing it,” Miller said. “And with anything that is not common, people tend to have greater discomfort with it.”

Which brings is to the second hurdle that “Whenever, Wherever” seeks to overcome — what Miller calls the “sexualization” of the female breast.

Miller said a cartoon that’s gone viral on the Internet says it all.

It shows a woman discreetly nursing her child on a bench in a shopping mall. Directly behind them is a Victoria’s Secret store, the front of which depicts a well-endowed model whose skimpy bra is clearly no match for her larger-than-life mammaries.

Enter a security guard and an apoplectic mall manager, who exhorts the poor mother, “Nursing?! This is a shopping mall! We can’t allow women to brazenly display their breasts!!”

So there we have it, gentlemen. Breast-feeding is good. And a woman’s breast, despite what Victoria’s Secret would have us believe, is not all about sex.

Now back to the truly difficult part.

Assuming that public breast-feeding is indeed an idea whose time has come — on Saturday, thousands of nursing women and their kids will convene in venues around the country, including the Greenlight Studio in Portland, for “The Big Latch On” — what exactly are the rules of etiquette?

How do we men follow Mayor Brennan’s lead and, when confronted with a mother and child in quiet communion, “get past” our awkwardness and accept it for the blissful moment that it is?

Simple, advises Miller.

“I think it’s about treating the mom the way you would if she wasn’t nursing,” she said.

In other words, make (and maintain) eye contact.

Smile a lot.

Pretend the baby is drinking out of a formula bottle if it makes you more comfortable.

(Or, if all else fails, think back to those African villages in National Geographic where women walked around with fully exposed breasts all the time and nobody batted an eye.)

The point is that a woman and her child should be able to breast-feed pretty much anywhere and anytime they want — although I remain more than a little creeped out by that mother who gave her husky 3-year-old son an areola-full a couple of months ago on the cover of Time magazine.

So I’m 100 percent behind the mayor on this one.

The next time I stumble across a mother breast-feeding her child in downtown Portland, I’m going to do everything I possibly can to stand tall, look her in the eye and make her feel perfectly at home.

I just hope she likes the Red Sox.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected] 

 


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