Emily Medley, public programs director for Houston’s Health Museum, looked out from the podium to explain what led her to this place of passion for normalizing breastfeeding in public.
She recalled a time she went into the museum bathroom, and an uncomfortable scuffling drew her attention from one of the farthest stalls. She realized almost immediately there was a mother inside that stall, breastfeeding her baby on the toilet. It broke her heart.
Emily was pained to realize a mother could so greatly fear the stigma and criticisms (whether quiet or loud) that come with public nursing, that even with laws to protect her right to naturally feed in many states, she still doesn’t feel welcome enough to care for her baby where people can see her. A place of isolation and privacy only… a toilet.
She planned to close out this year’s World Breastfeeding Week in a very special way by hosting this museum presentation by Leilani Rogers, an Austin photographer and founder of The Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project. The exhibit called “Cradle Me Here” featured mothers nursing their babies and children throughout the museum on demand –“live breastfeeding art,” if you will — in response to a need, just like they would any other day or place.
Emily wanted us to know how thrilled she felt to host the event for us and that the museum not only welcomes breastfeeding mothers and our “SO beautiful babies!” but cherishes and respects us, too. After all, the museum board is on track to refocus what their education is “all about.” Now the museum touches most upon “the things that make us human,” and recognizes breastfeeding as one of the first major (and most normal) impressions upon childhood and lifelong physical and emotional health.
Despite all the attention given to those who just don’t “get it,” many people like Emily and Leilani do commiserate with the plight of a publicly breastfeeding mother. I myself have endured a few disappointing experiences breastfeeding in public (read about two here and here), but I’ve enjoyed some memorably positive ones too.
By sharing a few personal stories of positive NIP experiences, I hope that any mother who fears or hesitates to feed her child in public may be encouraged to do what she feels is best for her child — which will never be, at any age or level of publicity or food type, to serve him a meal on the toilet.
I was strolling a grocery store aisle with 1-month-young MaiTai chest-to-chest in his carrier. He began to cry. I glanced around nervously, embarrassed that I wouldn’t know how to console my own baby, especially with strangers hearing, and maybe even watching.
“Shh, shh, it’s okay baby, what’s the matter?”
Louder, more shrieky crying, an increasingly contorted, reddening face. I knew EXACTLY what was the matter. Well, this is it, I thought. This is that moment when I nurse in public for the first time. I wanted to consider my options: Quickly nest up on the floor like we do at home? Rush out to the car where it’s more quiet? Jack a pacifier from the baby supplies section and see if he’ll accept it?
But there was no time.
Do you think a baby crying of hunger is loud and damn annoying? Trust me, it’s a hundred decibels louder and in the category beyond annoying (it’s downright frightening) to the heart’s ear of the baby’s mother. I’ll admit, I had a poor plan for finding my breast in that structured carrier. I was truly in the blind. In the early months, I liked to drape a cover over MaiTai to thwart well-meaning but potentially germ-ridden strangers who were sure to find him irresistible to the touch.
So in my frantic boob-digging under a cover and between a carrier, it was like trying to get my hands around a slippery ocean eel — no matter how I attempted to lift and contort the breast, it just didn’t seem to want to be gripped well enough to reach MaiTai’s open, waiting mouth.
I drew in a breath for courage, wiped my sweaty palms off on my jeans (okay, spit-up decorated sweatpants) and tried again. I peeled away that stupid cover, got my milk-bulging breast into MaiTai’s mouth, and suddenly our world fell into a peaceful silence.
Wow, we’re really doing this!, I thought. I began shimmying us closer to the shelves, hoping to get across to any onlookers that this was no-biggie… just actin’ casual over here… yep we’re just checking out the canned tomato selection… boy, it sure is interesting!
Then from behind, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Oh shit oh shit oh shit.
I think I’m going to cry.
But then I heard: “Good for you for feeding your baby!”
I turned hesitantly to face a mother somewhat older than me, with a school-aged child at her feet and a toddler among produce in a cart before her. She flashed me a bright smile so huge I could’ve counted all her teeth. It was a thumbs-up of encouragement reflected on her face. She strolled away as quickly as she’d stopped.
And then, I cried.
Oh shit indeed.
March 5th, 2013
(I wasn’t breastfeeding my son at the time of this story, but I still categorize it as a “positive public breastfeeding encounter).
While shopping with The Designated Dad and 3-month-old MaiTai at Whole Foods, an older woman stopped me to comment ever-so-softly that our baby was so “beautiful.” Very nice, but all babies are beautiful don’t we all know, so I simply said thanks and expected to move along.
Then she said it’s obvious I feed him very healthy… I said again, “Yes, thanks.”
She leaned in and repeated herself using different phrasing, as if she were asking me something.
Ah, I see now.
“Oh, well, he’s breastfed,” I said.
Her eyes misted up as if on cue, now two glistening saucers. She clutched a dear-is-me hand to her heart.
“Sweetie, I already knew that. Bless you,” she said.
She gazed upon us as if the image presented before her of my son being snuggled to my chest, with loving husband by our side, brought back a tidal wave of memories. She’d had children, I could tell in her delicate teariness. And she’d breastfed them, I could tell by her intuitions.
“How long do you plan to do that for?” she asked, still smiling.
“Until he’s done,” I said.
She sighed audibly, some evidence of pride in that exhale. Pride for me, or for herself maybe.
“That’s the right answer,” she said.
I felt a little embarrassed by this unexpected, ultra-emotional exchange, but I’ll admit I shared some of her beaming pride, too.
November 29th, 2013
On Milo’s first “Nursaversary,” we celebrated by taking photos at a butterfly exhibit while he nursed. I’d never nursed (uncovered) in the middle of crowds like this before. It felt natural, normal… but The Designated Dad was snapping away with the camera and I worried about creating a spectacle.
Just in time to quell my thoughts getting swept away on a high-speed train of anxiety, I got a thumbs-up from a man walking past with his female partner.
“Now that’s a good mama!” she said. And I believe I blushed a shade more brilliantly crimson than any Monarch butterfly fluttering about.
In town for the LLL Texas Area Conference, we stopped on the Kemah boardwalk so I could get a caricature done. The young artist asked me to take a seat just as MaiTai began acting fussy like he wanted to nurse. There was a line behind us of people waiting for their caricatures, so with the blessing of multitasking ability I brought him onto the stool with me and latched him. The artist seemed a bit confused, but I told her she could just draw us together like this.
Not long after she began sketching us, a small crowd had assembled, all especially curious about this artist’s subject matter. I began to feel self-conscious and nervous; I’m not used to so many eyes boring into me while I try to remain still and cradle a nursling too. I hadn’t expected this impromptu decision to turn into some kind of live boardwalk performance.
Thankfully most of the crowd moved on after their interest faded, but I noticed one couple did stick around until the end. The young woman was beaming at me, and her male partner seemed in awe.
When the drawing was complete, they approached me. She said, still smiling, “You’re really brave. I think that was just awesome, really cool!”
Here’s the final piece:
Some of the sweetest public breastfeeding reactions I’ve noticed aren’t from adults — rather, from children.
We’ve nursed at the park countless times, the norm being that hardly anyone seems to mind or notice. (Parents are so busy at the park, why is that?). As toddlers and older children love to people-watch, it’s almost guaranteed that at least one would see us, become enraptured in our activity, and stare.
Sometimes they catch my eye and smile. My heart will melt over again each time, and then I’m so happy I chose not to hide.
The looks of primal interest, longing, nostalgia, and love on children’s faces when they see a mother snuggling up to her baby to nourish him are priceless and so worth it.
One time I nursed MaiTai during a library story time when he was a baby. A friend’s toddler in front of us in our semi-circle formation on the floor swung around to see what we were up to, holding a juice box that she pointed in our direction.
“Mommy! What is he doing?” she whispered a loud toddler “whisper.”
“He’s breastfeeding, honey.”
“Ohhh. Just like me?”
“Yes, just like you.”
“Ohhh. That’s nice. I like it too.”
Then she made funny faces at us as we continued nursing, while chewing on the straw of her juice box.
Have you had any memorable or encouraging positive breastfeeding experiences in public? Tell me about them in the comments!