Q&A: "Are you breastfeeding?"

Joe writes:

"Give me a break!  Recently I was criticized for asking a neighbor at a party if she was breastfeeding.  The criticizer said, “Your wife can ask that question but you as a man cannot.”.  I say that’s a lot of BS.  In an age where businesses provide for mothers to breastfeed and the topic is not as personal as, “Have you started making love with your husband since your baby was born?”, it seems to me that we’re making too much over the natural act of breastfeeding.  When is it OK for my wife to ask and not me?  Is there a similar question that would be OK for me to ask a male neighbor but inappropriate for my wife to ask?  I’d be interested in your answer and a reference to a “well-known” etiquette book where such a question is covered.  Thank you."

I really doubt that any etiquette book will ever cover asking about breastfeeding. The purpose of etiquette is to establish rules so things can become not-personal that otherwise could hurt people's feelings (for example, who gets introduced to whom first, who sits next to whom at a dinner party, etc.). When it comes to something that has to do with other people's bodies in such an intimate manner, I think it'll be nearly impossible to come to some kind of hard and fast rule about what's acceptable and what's not.

It seems to me that there are three major ways a person could think about asking "Are you breastfeeding?" All of them are valid, which is the problem.

Camp 1: It's a natural thing, part of having a baby, so it's not a truly "personal" question. No one should feel bad about asking, male or female, and no one should feel insulted by being asked.

Camp 2: It's a totally personal decision and is about both a womans body and her autonomy, so no one should ask. It's none of anyone else's business, and being asked is demeaning and offensive.

Camp 3: It depends on why the person is asking. Satisfying idle curiosity or proselytizing are not valid reasons for asking if someone else is breastfeeding, but commiseration or exchange of information are. Thus, unless you have a follow-up ready (such as, "Because I feel like my supply drops at the beginning of each menstrual period and I was wondering if you have the same problem") you really shouldn't ask. But if someone asks you shouldn't feel uncomfortable.

Basically, unless you have a real reason for asking, you're inviting trouble by asking someone you're not super-best friends with. It doesn't matter if you think its not personal, because if the questionee does, they're going to be offended. (And so many women are the victims of judgment and criticism from so many angles that they just don't want one more person asking them something that opens them up to attack.)

The alternative is to figure out what you really want to know (assuming you're not just curious, in which case you can just MYOB) and ask that in a different way. If you want to share a nursing story, just share it. If you have a question, put forth the question and say, "I don't know if you're nursing or have had this problem, but we're looking for other opinions." If you just want to say, "I'm so glad my wife is breastfeeding," then go ahead and say that!

Readers, what do you think?