When it comes to breastfeeding in public, we often hear horror stories of harassment and ridicule. Personally, I’ve only had ONE sour experience out of like, the gazillion times MaiTai has wanted to nurse outside the home.
Among those gazillion, I’ve also had at least a dozen enduringly positive stories, including those that featured a high five, compliments (“Now that’s a good mama!”), thumbs-up, perfect strangers striking friendly conversations, and more. I’ll tell you about those in another post — but first let’s expose the rotten apple in the bushel.
So, here’s the time some guy wanted to get “the last word” about my breastfeeding in a public area. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t get it!).
Blast to the past: September, 2013.
Ten whole months of breastfeeding flipped by like the chapters of an adventure novel, keeping me on my toes, upwelling instincts I never knew I had, haunting with an almost otherworldly spirit of love, a love that swelled my baby’s body with milk-drunkenness and left me spell-bound by our twisty-turny story that was yet to be continued.
Ten whole months is what we got before receiving our first (and only) unfavorable review of our breastfeeding … in public. I really believed this day would never come — this day when I’d meet the Elusive Breastfeeding Bully in person, a real-life puppeteer of the shameless bullying I’d seen scrawled across the Web in varying fonts and levels of grammatical skill behind the curtain of cyberspace anonymity. I’d known that the ugly attitudes toward breastfeeding held by some generations and cultural pockets was a very real problem, specifically for those who mothered just like me (and our babies), but somehow I’d escaped such harassment in my own day-to-day.
Until this day indeed came.
I was sitting with MaiTai in the backseat of my car, feeding him the entirety of his sustenance as he healthily and happily knew it (still no solids or water at this time). I left the door ajar to invite a few more rays of sunlight and grant us more breathing space.
We looked something like this, minus my hat and sweater:
Or like this, which, incidentally, is a photo of us that someone reported for “graphic nudity” on Facebook:
A man exited his car parked next to mine. He was so very redneck dude-y. He looked a little something like this. Plus a shirt, minus the hay-chewing. Slightly less mullet.
Yes, I’ll admit I looked at him first, not he at us. Looking around is just something I do while nursing. I suppose I should’ve minded my own business, right, because no sooner than we made eye contact, the man’s head shook like a tree branch in a stiff wind. It was the begrudged exhale and passive-aggressive yet explicit downturn of his mouth that even more certainly conveyed his disgust and disapproval.
I felt a range of emotions in an instant. I tensed up, my body reacting as though I expected to get “in trouble” for doing something bad. I felt shame — was I doing something wrong here? Is my breast showing “too much”? I felt afraid, too. My heart banged like a drum, thumping hot blood through my veins, preparing for defense from potential threat. Was he about to speak? Yell at us? Taunt us? Would he simply walk away and leave me with the ghost of his condemning look? My adrenaline rush quickly incinerated these emotions that could not serve me now, and I was left with this:
I wanted so badly to let out my percolating ire, to force this man to hear it escape, a high-pitched whistle on behalf of all mothers who endure these looks and worse every day.
But he was walking away, and my opportunity was quickly moving away with him.
I blurted out, “Um, do you need something?”
“You should probably close your door,” he said, pausing in his step.
“So you can be more private.”
“I’m already in my car,” I said. “I think that’s as private as it gets!”
“Yeah well, everyone can see you,” he said. “Kids could be walking by.”
“I don’t care to argue with you,” he continued, no longer holding eye contact with me. “But you really should park somewhere else. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
All of this rolled into such a tiny moment you could slip it into a coin pocket — and then he was gone. He quickly retreated into a Starbucks across the way.
So many responses I could’ve shot back (“Who is everyone in this otherwise unpopulated parking lot?” … “Why shouldn’t a child be subjected to the image of a baby being held by his/her mother?” … “Logically, you understand that EVERY time a mother breastfeeds, a child must see it unless the nursling is asleep or blind?” … etc), but I was too weirded out by the whole situation to immediately contest.
This bold critic seemed to will the brunt of his accusation upon me as an antagonist forcing my baby to accept my nurturing: “Here, now! Feed, suckle, it’s the uproarious rise of breastfeeder rebellion, don’t you know!” As if my baby was not a partner in the activity but rather being acted upon; with myself, the breastfeeder, imposing my indecent, perceived “need for attention” upon him.
The situation would’ve been a bigger deal if I’d known better. Back then, I didn’t. I didn’t know about the Best for Babes harassment report hotline. I didn’t know that the likely reason this stranger reacted poorly to us in the first place is perhaps I unconsciously radiated a nervous and defensive energy, a demeanor that whispered of lacking surety, like honey to the bees of a bully.
Was I asking for it? No, I wasn’t asking for or expecting outright rudeness for no provoked reason — but who does, whether they’re going about THEIR business cautiously or brazenly? Either way, one’s business will always just be one’s own business. I was the one minding my own business. But I was also young in my experience as a breastfeeding mother, and back then my commitment to confident role-modeling was merely an ambiguously-shaped theory I hoped to one day explore.
Also worthy of mention: I “Benefit-Of-The-Doubt” everyone, this man included. I knew this man, a flawed human like myself, was having a bad day. I don’t think he’d planned to say a thing to us, only flash “the look” with a shoulder-toss huff and waltz away. It wouldn’t be a fair trial though, and thus I felt a kind of breastfeeders’ civic duty to illuminate his ridiculousness.
And how did MaiTai feel about all of this, you wonder? Soon into our verbal exchange, MaiTai had flipped away from the breast to get a gander of this man whose strange persecuting voice had interrupted his meal.
We’d looked a little something like this. Again, minus the hat and sweater. And minus my smile.
I wanted so vengefully, selfishly badly to tweezer in a last meaningful word or memory, something that would make this unwelcome stranger feel as stupid as he made me feel (I mentioned I’m human, right?).
When he emerged from the beanery clutching a particularly douchey Frappe with enough whipped cream to compensate for a universe’s worth of inadequacy, MaiTai and I were perched on the curb in front of his truck, still nursing and naturally nurturing and going nowhere else.
“Um, HI,” he greeted us.
“I parked myself elsewhere, like you suggested.”
I wanted to laugh, but I was almost debilitatingly nervous. As a young woman with a young baby, pseudo-confronting a grown man about deeply ingrained cultural taboos, I didn’t exactly feel safe even in perfect daylight. Especially because of what I read on his face: He was pissed, guys. I tried so hard to conceal my nerves as I’m not naturally comfortable with taking the offensive side. Thankfully, he simply got in his truck without looking my way again, and backed away without a backward glance.
Other mothers have many stories like this, especially if they live in a breastfeeding-unfriendly state. I have only this one story, but I felt it was important to share on behalf of other breastfeeders who are too shocked to say anything when unanticipated and negative encounters occur, or for those who don’t feel like they deserve “the last word.”
As mothers, we may not get to choose the story that is written for our babies and how we tend to their unique needs, but we do get a say in how that story reads. I want mine to read this way: Full of lessons learned, not full of lessons missed, and with a climax that favors the needs of my child rather than one that either caters to the reactions of a misguided stranger or to a simple sheep owned by the shepherding puppeteer of our culture’s delusion of natural decorum.