Is It OK That My Wife Posts Photos of Her Breastfeeding Our Son?

I’m proud of my wife and her breastfeeding of my son — I am so glad that they have been able to experience the bonding and health benefits that come with breastfeeding. My concern arises from the fact that my wife has posted photos online of her breastfeeding. These are not photos where everything happens to be conveniently covered up. You can see it all. I understand that my wife’s Instagram accounts are “private,” in that only connections/followers can see posts. These people range from family members, close friends of hers, close friends of mine, acquaintances and business contacts. I have asked her about the photos, and in particular what the thought process was behind posting them. She said that breastfeeding is something she is proud of and wants to share with her contacts.

I can’t claim that I understand the psychology behind posting such things on social media. To me it seems rather show-offy. But it’s part of our culture now, and I don’t need to understand it. I support efforts to normalize breastfeeding in society, but this feels like a step too far. That my friends and family are able to see such explicit photos of my wife makes me uncomfortable. But that alone would not be enough for me to push the issue. My major concern, which I raised with my wife, is that one day our son will be going to school, and school kids can be mean. Is it fair for those photos to live on accounts where parents of other children at the school, connected to my wife, could see the photos? Could this expose our son to unnecessary bullying? My wife’s response is, “Let’s discuss it with our son when he is old enough, and we can make a choice then.” My gut tells me that it would be more appropriate to remove the photos now, and when our son is old enough to discuss the matter with us, they can be posted with his consent at that time. What do you think? Name Withheld

My attitudes on this issue may be shaped by my childhood in Ghana, where mothers felt free to breastfeed their kids anywhere. (Once, when I introduced myself to a distinguished Ghanaian scientist, she remarked that she hadn’t seen me since she and my mother sat at the back of a meeting, nursing their infants together.) Photographs of me at my mother’s breast wouldn’t have embarrassed me or anyone else in my family. Obviously, people who come from places where breastfeeding is regarded as a private act might react differently to such a picture. But I don’t find it baffling that your wife is happy to share the experience with her circle on Instagram, even in a society that remains prudish about the practice.

Suspicious-minded readers may wonder whether you’re displacing your personal unease with these images onto your son. It is certainly true that images can easily circulate on the web beyond their intended audiences. And once they have escaped, they can’t be recalled. Take a portrait off a living-room wall and it’s gone from view; by contrast, there is a kind of irreversibility about posting an image online. You could wonder whether it should be done without the consent of both parties.

Yet we make decisions all the time that will affect our children’s futures without being able to seek their consent. We are fiduciaries for them, charged with managing their interests as best we’re able until they can take over full responsibility for their own lives. In this case, the two main fiduciaries disagree about the risks. A couple of things might explain this.

One is that you may have different estimations of the likelihood that, in the years ahead, these pictures will draw the interest of your son’s schoolmates. It isn’t as if there is any shortage of such images, from Renaissance paintings that, yes, “show it all” to photographs posted on venues like Facebook and Instagram. My hunch — and certainly my hope — is that by the time your son is learning long division, fussing over images like these should mainly be a thing of the past: #FreeTheNipple seems to be gaining ground.

Another disagreement could be about what level of risk you are willing to countenance over such questions. It’s possible that an image of your son suckling at his mother’s breast could be used to bully him. But so could an image of his mother playing volleyball at the beach, or a staining smear of chocolate syrup applied to the seat of his trousers — and a thousand other things. The library of facts and fictions that an imaginative bully can exploit is, alas, vast. What makes you think that these images will rise to the level of other potential sources of mortification?

Your wife knows where you stand on Instagram culture in general and on sharing images of nursing in particular. Your perspective hasn’t swayed her. It’s time to let this go and respect her decisions here.

I live in a large cooperative apartment in New York City. During work hours, I have seen a porter entering a neighbor’s apartment in the morning several times over the past month. I believe they are “fooling around” while he is supposed to be working. Is it ethical to report this to the building superintendent or management? Name Withheld

Even if your speculations are correct, I can’t see that a porter has a professional duty to avoid an intimate relationship with a resident, so long as it doesn’t lead the porter to fail to give other residents their due. (You don’t say that any rules have been violated; in some workplaces, the policy might be that employees in similar situations should inform their supervisor.) The real issue is whether he is doing his job — whether he’s unavailable for longer periods than would be warranted by standard professional duties. If he isn’t getting his work done, you can certainly complain about that. But you might keep to yourself your theories about why.

Before my father died, he expressed his wish that my mother’s ashes be mixed with his own upon her death. After his death, my mother moved from New Jersey to a retirement complex near my family here in Portland, Ore., where she lived for another 10 years. She died six years ago and, being a deeply pragmatic person, didn’t care what happened to her ashes. They have been in our bedroom closet since she died.

The difficulty is that my father’s ashes are interred in his family’s plot in Staten Island, and I have no reason to travel there now. Do I have an obligation to inter her ashes with my father’s (if that is even allowed), and if not, adjacent to his in the family plot? Or may I ethically scatter them here in Oregon, a place where she spent a very happy 10 years? Name Withheld

We should consider the reasonable desires of our parents after they are gone. The fact that a parent would have been pleased if you performed an act counts as a reason for doing so, but it doesn’t necessarily clinch the deal. If you made no commitment to respect your father’s wish, this reason is what philosophers call a “defeasible” one. Other considerations can outweigh it. And your father’s wish was just that: a wish. It wasn’t informed by the facts about your mother’s later life. Nor did your mother make such a demand of you. So feel free to do something with her ashes that means something to you.

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button