When my first son was a baby, I breastfed in private. In the first few months of his life, we saw the insides of more dressing rooms and restrooms than I care to count. When we were at parties or social gatherings, the tiniest whimper sent me fleeing from the bean dip to a back bedroom, where I’d usually perch uncomfortably on a pile of coats in the dark while he ate, listening to others having fun through the closed door.
By the time I got back to the party, the bean dip was always gone.
I recalled the suffocating isolation — and personal hunger — of this experience when I read about the outcry over a Texas mom who was told to leave a public pool when she refused to “cover up” or stop nursing her 10-month-old baby after a pool manager asked her to. Apparently, this was such a flagrant security issue that the police were called (the police!) to come and have the woman removed.
The public nature of these environments implies that every time a mother is out, she is on display and being judged.
Aside from their pettiness and insensitivity, these authority figures so intent on instilling order are actually the ones crossing the line. In Texas — as in all 50 states! — breastfeeding mothers are explicitly protected by the law, and are allowed to breastfeed wherever they happen to be. Yes, even if that “somewhere” is within 5 feet of your deck chair. These laws were put in place because it’s a well-established public health reality that breastfeeding is beneficial for mothers and babies. Lawmakers understand that restricting breastfeeding while going about your everyday life isn’t always possible, and expecting that of nursing moms is detrimental to the goal of making it easier for them to breastfeed their babies longer.
This inversion of justice also underscores another warped aspect of our public expectations of breastfeeding mothers: that women are shamed for doing the exact thing — breastfeeding rather than using formula — their OB-GYN, midwife, pediatrician, family doctor, La Leche League leader, parenting book author and/or possibly their entire baby playgroup has told them is best for their baby, instructions they’d also be shamed for not following. And it magnifies an even more pervasive message that no matter what moms do, they can never quite get it right.
Feed your baby. But not that. Breastfeeding is good. But not here. When you’re a new mom trying to navigate the world, every opinion conflicts with another, and sitting right next to the person who’d be offended by the possibility of seeing a nipple in public is often another person who’d be even more offended watching that same baby drink formula from a bottle. It’s a can’t-win situation, and the biggest losers — hiding away in public restrooms and back bedrooms, hungry for bean dip and human companionship, and pretty sure they’re doing it wrong anyway — are mothers.
When the message comes from not just any authority figures but public safety officers throwing their weight around by taking issue with a mom who is breastfeeding, the embarrassment and uncertainty are compounded, and moms who otherwise might be able to brave the side-eye from a nosy lady at the pool also have to stand up for their rights to managers, security guards and police officers. It’s not only unfair to moms, it’s bad for babies.
These incidents most frequently take place when mom and baby are out enjoying themselves in a public place, like a zoo or a pool. (You know, a zoo, where people pay money to watch mother animals nurse their young? Or a pool, where people go for the express purpose of walking around mostly naked?) The public nature of these environments implies that every time a mother is out, she is on display and being judged.
When my second child was a month old, I had an epiphany. I had gone out to dinner with my brother and a bunch of his male friends. After weeks of an always-hungry newborn for company and daytime TV for entertainment, I was thrilled to be out. Isaac snoozed peacefully in his car seat and I hoped against hope that he might stay that way long enough to let me polish off my cheeseburger and fries.
As if on cue, the minute my meal was set in front of me, Isaac began to fuss.
So I headed for the bathroom, the refuge of banished nursing mothers. This one had no couch. No chair. Not even a bench. “Great,” I muttered, heading for the largest stall. Once inside, I passed over the questionable toilet seat (none of those handy sanitary covers, either), got Isaac attached, and leaned back against the wall. My arms ached, and the cold metal of the toilet-paper dispenser pressed into my lower back. A symphony of flushing toilets and various bathroom sounds accompanied my baby’s meal. I thought of my own food, growing soggy and cold on the table.
“Baby,” I addressed little Isaac, “This is stupid.”
We walked back to the table. “The baby is hungry,” I announced to six 20-something men. “I am going to feed him. Here.” I sat down, lifted my shirt, latched him on and dug into my burger. A few uncomfortable seconds later, the guys forgot all about us and returned to their conversation. I, however, was triumphant. I had been liberated!
After that, we breastfed everywhere and anywhere Isaac happened to get hungry. The lawn furniture department at Target. Benches in the middle of the mall, at museums, at the zoo. And once, at my table in a Hooters restaurant, where a woman sent me dirty looks as I discreetly nursed my baby — while her preteen sons ogled multiple sets of barely covered, pushed-up breasts.
It’s unfortunate to think that a confrontation with a power-hungry manager, security guard or cop might have the power to sap another mom’s fragile, fledgling confidence.
That was nearly 20 years ago. And while with time and the addition of three more babies (five kids total), I eventually became so accustomed to nursing in public that I forgot it had ever made me uncomfortable, every now and then I get walloped with the unpleasant reminder that for some people, breastfeeding in public is actually a Very Big Deal.
Well, it shouldn’t be. When I marched back out into the dining room of that burger joint to feed my baby and myself at the same time, I declared war on the idea that it was my job to make other people comfortable while I was concentrating on what was then my most important job: caring for my infant. That little declaration led to others and others, and materially changed the way I parented for the better. It’s unfortunate to think that a confrontation with a power-hungry manager, security guard or cop might have the power to sap another mom’s fragile, fledgling confidence.
All these years of “debate” later, the issue of breastfeeding in public needs to be put to rest. It’s what humans do: feed babies when they are hungry. If it offends you, you are perfectly welcome to look away or “cover up” your eyes. Or, go hide in the bathroom until they’re done.