It’s 3 p.m. After the 45 minutes it took to change my daughter’s diaper, bundle her up, get her in the car, fight the traffic, purchase a decaf coffee, and walk into the bookstore, she starts to cry. I finished her last feeding literally seconds before we left the house, but alas, here we are. Her subtle fusses escalate swiftly into full-on screams. With my coffee in one hand and the stroller bar in the other, I’m out of options. Holding her, I ditch the coffee (my first hot cup in days) and wheel the stroller one-handed to a corner of the store. I use my foot to drag a chair across the floor to create some distance between myself and the next seated person.
There are nine people nearby, but none of them offer to help me with the stroller or the chair. It’s not because they don’t see me — everyone is already staring, probably because my daughter is wailing. Once we’ve planted ourselves in the chair, the cover is over us, the baby is latched… and the stares continue. Then the questions begin. My favorite: “Ma’am, shouldn’t you be doing that in private?” From. A. Woman.
I don’t know! Should I? My baby is 10 weeks old. It’s Thursday afternoon and this is the first time we’ve left the house all week. Despite the fact that, as a freelance writer with bills to pay, I started working eight days after she was born, I can’t remember the last time I had an actual conversation with an adult. (My husband doesn’t count. I talk to him while he coos at the baby, and vice versa). I showered this morning. I blew my hair dry! I have lipstick on. And leggings with only one hole. I came here for a hot decaf which I’ve since ditched, and to read a few pages from a book I fully intend to purchase. I made it here, which is a big deal. I want to stay and enjoy for a little. Should I be doing this in private? I kind of think I shouldn’t have to.
The thing is, we live in a society where women are practically vilified if they cannot or choose not to breastfeed. That is its own horrible truth. But for those of us who do decide to nurse our babies, it’s not exactly easy, either. My robust newborn weighed in at almost nine pounds at birth and took to the boob like a champ, but her weary and overwhelmed mama had plenty of trouble with the scheduling and drama of it all at first. Pumping doesn’t yield as much breast milk as I’d like it to, so every precious drop I express is put in the freezer for when I have deadlines and other emergencies that keep me from my baby. With Willow’s feedings starting every two to three hours, and lasting 45 minutes or longer, if I never nursed her in public, that would mean I’d never be able to leave the house. No, really. Never.
It seems from the minute my husband and I started to tell people I was pregnant, the pressure was on for breastfeeding. “Well meaning” friends and strangers alike were constantly inquiring about whether I intended to b-feed my daughter. Within moments of being wheeled into the recovery room, my nipple was shoved into her mouth by a nurse, and throughout our stressful and restless four-day stay at the hospital, lactation consultants I hadn’t requested entered my room unannounced to make sure I was sticking with it. I did intend to breastfeed Willow for my own reasons, and I am not above asking for help. But I remember thinking how horrible all of that would have felt if I had chosen formula from the start, as is any mom’s right. For some reason, I thought that once she was here and I was having success exclusively breastfeeding her, the questions about my breasts would stop. But they haven’t.
It wasn’t just the book store. There was the time at brunch when I ordered a Bloody Mary to enjoy post-feed and it arrived while I was still nursing Willow. A woman at the next table over glared at me until my husband got up to go to the bathroom — and she took her opportunity to pounce. “You can’t breastfeed and drink alcohol!” she admonished. I wish I hadn’t felt compelled to explain myself to her, but I did.
And then there was the day I finally went to the doctor about a years-long problem with allergies. We waited 45 minutes to get in, and when the baby woke up, I fed her. Not only did I get the stink-eye from half of the other patients in the waiting room, one man had the nerve to come up and say, “This is why my wife stayed home when we had babies!” Well… okay, then!
I know I’m not alone here. A friend recently starting nursing her son at a coffee shop, when a member of the staff came over and asked her to stop “because it offends other patrons.”
What I want to understand is, where’s the disconnect? If a pregnant woman or new mom can’t get a break from the endless, judgmental chatter about the benefits of breastfeeding, then why is it that when I attempt to feed my baby in public, I’m subject to ridicule, stares, and rude comments? I happen to use a nursing cover, because I’m terribly shy. But I also don’t understand why anyone who doesn’t want to should feel they have to.
We bring these babies into the world and do our best to nourish them. It might take a village, but shouldn’t we all have a right to decide on a feeding plan with our doctor, and then stick to it in the way that works for our lifestyle? If nursing mamas were forced to stay at home like so many onlookers request, wouldn’t they stop sooner, just so they could enjoy the light of day and a plate of eggs and toast they didn’t have to cook themselves?
It seems that at every step along the way, the choices we make as mothers are being constantly scrutinized by those around us. I am learning day by day to dig deep and stand up for the rights I know I have. So far, the best response I’ve come up with is a meek shrug, cheeks blazing. But maybe now that I’ve written it all down, I’ll find the strength to respond next time: “I’m going to breastfeed in public, and I don’t care if you’re offended.
Photo: Jenny Studenroth