I was waiting on my dinner at a restaurant, newly pregnant with my first child. Though I sat at the table preparing to nourish myself and, by default, my unborn baby, I wasn’t too familiar with the feeding of an infant outside the womb. After all, I’d only ever fed myself, my dogs, and my goldfish (and a few plants, but that never ended well).
I was ignorant to the issues moms face when feeding babies outside of their wombs. I knew nothing of a “formula versus breast milk” controversy. I knew nothing of the media-fueled “Mommy Wars.” I knew nothing of how women are harassed for feeding their babies however they choose to do so. I had a lot of assumptions, but you see, assumptions are like opinions, and you know what they say about those.
Basically, I knew nothing.
I knew nothing as I sat at the table, but “nothing” isn’t what I thought as I noticed a woman at our neighboring table pull an impressive breast out of her shirt, then smush it into the mouth of the tiny baby she’d been cradling in her lap. She made zero effort to do any of the things I thought qualified as being discreet — excusing herself from the table, giving a bottle, or at the very least wearing a cover.
I glanced furtively from the corner of my eye — I really didn’t think this was something I should be seeing in a public restaurant. It felt like I just walked in on her taking care of business in the establishment’s bathroom. It didn’t help that I suspected she was an escort based on her clothing (which I know isn’t fair because if we’re assigning roles based on attire alone then I’m sure I’d get mistaken for a bum regularly). I had judgments all over the place. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that I was pregnant and hypersensitive, the whole situation made me uncomfortable. How dare she make others feel this uncomfortable!
It. Was. Trashy. She was being inappropriate. Unlike me, of course. I rolled my eyes at her: “Like, WOW.”
When I breastfeed my baby, I won’t embarrass myself like that, I thought. Surely, I wouldn’t clamor for attention so transparently. And boy did she look all too proud to whip out her teat. I thought, Well that’s nice, breast is best they say, after all. But her baby hadn’t even cried, therefore it wasn’t even hungry! I wondered, what’s she nursing her baby for if the baby isn’t crying of hunger?
Is she trying to make a point or something? Why can’t she go in the bathroom? I mean…this is a restaurant!
Seeing her nurse her small baby at a nearby table in no way affected my meal. Though the sight weirded me out, it was grossly fascinating to watch. I had trouble ungluing my eyes, like passing a car wreck. There was something magnetic about this mother nursing her baby, about seeing the little face working hard on her breast yet somehow so relaxed. It was perhaps the most interesting and beautiful wreck I’d ever seen. But it was trashy, right? And self-serving? And lazy and rude?
We hear “breast is best” often, but unsolicited formula coupons are given to new mothers at the grocery checkout, baby dolls come equipped with toy bottles, nursing “in public” (really, it’s just plain nursing whether you’re surrounded by walls or crowds) is increasingly a hot topic, and many people automatically think that nursing a child of “a certain age” is creepy, weird, useless — or, most heart-breakingly — delinquent or sexually satisfying.
Women are pressured to be “good moms” and do what’s “best” — but just make sure no one sees it, okay?
I think about that moment in the restaurant now with regret and sadness. I realize if I myself had stubbornly ran away with these ignorant perceptions at one point, I can only imagine what others have thought of me in my more than two years of breastfeeding.
I heard from other moms who struggled deeply with breastfeeding in public, enduring humiliation and even harassment, or inadequacy nursing before the scrutiny of an audience — all issues they faced whether wearing a cover or not!
At nearly every La Leche League breastfeeding support meeting I’ve attended, there was always at least one mother nursing her baby under a blanket. This is the level of breastfeeding fear in our culture: new mothers are terrified to openly breastfeed in a breastfeeding meeting, the one place they should feel secure and supported. Sometimes the cover greatly interfered with the Leader’s ability to assess problems and help, if the mother refused to even briefly drop the cover. In one group sat in by a handful of cover lovers, the questions sounded like this:
“I can’t tell what the baby’s doing when I feed in public!”
“She always overheats under a cover! Where do I find a lighter one?”
“I can’t afford to not be able to nurse outside the home! What if someone harasses us?”
“It’s so hard to nurse in public with this thing, but I don’t want anyone to notice us… what do I do?”
The Leader said, “Well, you could just, you know, not use the cover.”
And the reaction was a wide-eyed, confused one (“What? No cover? So I just whip it out like some hippie?? I have dignity, you know…”). Oh, hon.
The truth is, covers tend to be more eye-catching than the sight of a mother nursing her baby without a loud-print sheath. Most women never have negative encounters while breastfeeding in public, and most never receive the kind of rude, disapproving look like I gave that woman in the restaurant when I was pregnant.
Covers can add an element of frustration and inconvenience to a nursing session just as much as they can help a mother feel secure. Sometimes, covering helps a young baby stay focused by subtracting over-stimulating distractions around the mother. That said, it’s impossible to cover up when nursing an older baby or a toddler. Imagine trying to blindly wrangle a caffeinated mini-octopus into staying still in a net while trying to find its mouth and feed it! It IS that hard to “just cover up.”
If covering is causing problems or preventing a mother from tending to her baby the way he or she deserves, maybe it’s time to consider the Leader’s advice. (For mothers whose nursing relationship is benefited by covering in public, stay tuned for my next post about how to cover up without a cover).
Now that I’ve settled into mothering confidence, I’m a bit sad that I hid my son under a cover in public when he was a young baby. I used it first to drape over his carrier when he slept to protect him from the “germs of the world,” and to disguise all my awkward early fumbling as I attempted to nurse him in that carrier. Soon I became adept at nursing him in it even while getting a coffee at Starbucks, checking out at the store, putting away groceries in the car. It didn’t take long for me to realize the threat of killer germs is mostly an illusion and he was perfectly safe without the cover’s added fabric armor.
I didn’t realize that even though my intent was to protect us, what the cover-up behavior was telling the world is that we had something to hide.
The “A-Ha!” moment of “just don’t use the cover” was a monumental one. No one in my everyday life could show me what it would look like, or how to prepare. I was self-conscious. Embarrassed. Hypersensitive and frazzled. I didn’t think I was brave or bold enough, or good enough at breastfeeding or mothering, to be qualified for a cover-free experience. But I realized that no one else’s perception would change if I continued to perpetuate the unquestioning acceptance of censored motherhood myself.
And so, we said bye-bye to the cover. Bye-bye to finding a corner that we didn’t care to sit in. Bye-bye to shifting away from others with a body language so closed-off and cold, it’s amazing that what we hid is one of the warmest acts of love.
It opened up a whole new, amazing world to just say, “Hey, this is some stupid bullshit!” I thought I was happy to feed my baby before… now I was over the moon! And better yet, MaiTai was elated that I gave up draping fabric over him at random feedings.
By the middle of MaiTai’s first year, we were pros at nursing sans cover around strangers because I didn’t care what they thought. Many women find themselves comfortable among family but shy around the unacquainted. I gave no second thought to what strangers thought of me and what my parenting style looked like to them. But with those people whose opinions matter to me, I couldn’t be sure if they might be squeamish or offended. I made an exception to cover in their presence. I was not embarrassed, but I was rather afraid that they might be. Why? Well, it was a silly thing really but at the time I panicked about it.
I discovered that my mom had never breastfed. I wondered, what if she didn’t breastfeed because she didn’t approve of it, or because she thought it was gross? Would she disapprove of me or think I’m gross? I probably should’ve spared myself the suspense and just… asked!
I recalled a memory of my father some twenty years ago, chuckling during a movie scene where characters poked fun at a mom breastfeeding a child of an apparently “overripe” age. I thought nothing of it at the time; in fact, I simply laughed right along and agreed that the mom character was a total creepo. After all, I was about the same age as that child and I wasn’t being breastfed. (Now, I AM that toddler-nursing “creepo”!).
So when it came time for me to breastfeed my own child, how could I be sure his laughter was only a reaction to comic relief rather than one of disgust? I couldn’t be sure. So in the specific company of some family, I covered up for what I assumed was their comfort.
Not for long though, because let’s not forget — I knew nothing! I didn’t know that they’d actually be awesomely supportive of our decision to breastfeed every day for the past two years and two months (worrying is truly a wasted emotion).
We don’t breastfeed in public as often as we used to, but it’s guaranteed to happen if we’re away from the house for more than three hours. I didn’t know it would be those who don’t ACTUALLY see me breastfeeding who would have the biggest problem with it. Here is what we look like nursing at the library these days. In this photo, I nurse him in my arms to keep him in one spot as opposed to MaiTai taking my breast with him down the aisle.
Do you think breastfeeding should always be private like this commenter does?
She wrote: “Breast feeding is something private. If you have to do it in public, at least have the decency to cover your breast.”
Technically, I AM covering my breast — with my child! But a traditional Hooter Hider? Nah, I’ll pass. Is this really the worst thing she sees on the Internet? I responded:
“A child eating is both private and public depending on the location. If you think of breastfeeding like a hug (which it is), it no longer seems so disturbing to happen anywhere needed. I have the decency to care for my child as needed; if it bothers you, you may have the decency to cover your eyes.”
The issue of privacy, to whatever degree a mother and her child feel comfortable with — whether that’s under a circus tent-sized cover or on a stage — should be left up to the mother and her child. We say “no, thank you” to covers, and every mother should feel like she has the beautiful freedom to say yes or no to whatever she’d like.
Nowadays, I hand out “Thank You for Breastfeeding!” cards to those mothers I catch breastfeeding in public rather than rolling my eyes from a neighboring dinner table like I did when I was pregnant. People do change…
Sometimes, all it takes is having a baby and being humbled with the great task of figuring out how to feed him.