Two months after I gave birth to my son, my husband and I took the kids to the museum. Since my son was exclusively breastfed at the time, I had to stop periodically to nurse him. Nursing in public (NIP) is generally no big deal where I live, but our area is also home to plenty of tourist destinations, which means there are plenty of folks around who aren't as used to it as we are. Fortunately, that day was a day I discovered the many ways strangers can help moms while breastfeeding in public.
As I sat down on a bench to nurse between exhibits, an older woman leading a high school tour group looked at me, realized what I was doing, and proceeded to make a huge, exaggeratedly disgusted face at me. (I rolled my eyes and chuckled, remembering all the sexually-charged shenanigans my peers and I got into on high school trips, 100 percent sure that the teenaged students in her charge had seen plenty of breasts before mine, in far less discreet, respectful, and non-sexual circumstances than me nursing my infant son in a specially-designed nursing shirt.) Once she was sure she'd made eye contact with me again, she made a huge display of marching across the room to talk to a security guard.
After a couple of minutes of her ranting, flailing her arms and pointing at me and my still-nursing baby, the security guard rolled her eyes and responded. I couldn't hear what she said, but I guessed she had affirmed my legally-protected right to nurse in public, because the woman glared at her, then turned to glare at me before storming off somewhere unseen. After she'd turned her back, the security guard looked at me and gave a quick smile and nod, the most soul-filling affirmation of solidarity I'd had in my motherhood experience up to that moment. I didn't have to hear the particulars of their conversation to know that she had my back, ignorant busybodies be damned.
It was such a small thing, but it meant the world to me at that moment and for many moments thereafter. Normally, I just prefer if strangers leave me alone while NIP, but when someone is clearly determined to cause trouble for me and my child, other folks letting them know that their ignorance won’t be tolerated is nothing short of heroic. The memory of her standing up for me helped me feel more at ease wherever we nurse, knowing that I'm not the only one who knows or respects our rights. Though she was among the first strangers whose small gestures helped me while NIP, she wasn't the last. Plenty of others have helped my son and I along our nursing journey, by doing things like the following:
Despite being one of billions of women to nurse a baby through the millennia, when I first started nursing my son, I sometimes felt like I was totally alone and possibly at risk of being accosted. So strangers who smiled at us while NIP made me feel much more comfortable.
They Gave Encouraging Nods
We all know the nursing haters are out there. So it's nice sometimes, especially when you're a first-timer with a young baby, when strangers give you that little nod that lets you know they've seen you, and they support what you're doing (and hopefully, will have your back if someone else in the vicinity isn't as cool).
They Spoke Quietly If They Absolutely Needed To Get My Attention
Sudden noises can startle a nursing child, which can result in a painful chomp or them unlatching and being too distracted to continue (even if they need to) for especially distractible babies. So big thanks to all the folks who, when they saw my son was nursing, gave a little wave to get my attention or spoke softly to tell me something I needed to know while my son and I were NIP.
They Lowered Their Voices But Kept Talking Normally If We Were Having A Conversation
After our first few weeks of learning how to nurse, nursing became NBD to my son and I, something we can do literally anywhere at any time. So it would always drive me nuts if, during one of my all-too-rare opportunities to talk to other adults, the other person would freak out and think they needed to leave us alone once he had latched. There were specific times in his life where that was necessary, and I'd ask whenever it was needed. But pro-tip: unless a mom has explicitly asked you to leave so she can nurse, just talk a little softer and keep on chatting with her. Nursing a baby is awesome, but it can be a bit tedious. Talking to a real, live person is way better than staring at him or surfing Facebook on my phone until he finishes.
Unless a mom is totally clear with you that she needs absolute solitude in order to nurse, don't abandon her like she's a leper. Just chat a little more mindfully. For many of us, nursing a baby or toddler is like giving a kid a cheese stick. They just need a little snack so they don't melt down.
They Made Space For Me To Sit Down
By all indications, my son has inherited my constant hunger, which means he also spent a lot of time clawing at my shirt and chest before I taught him to "ask with [his] words, not [his] hands" when he wanted to nurse. Several astute strangers on the Metro and elsewhere saw this display, smiled knowingly, and quickly gave up their seats so I could sit down (or even made space for me in their offices and employees-only lactation rooms!) and nurse him comfortably. Amazing.
They Didn't Stare
I've nursed something like a gazillion (totally scientific estimate) times since my son was born, so people nursing is NBD to me. However, I know there are plenty of folks who don't see many people breastfeeding in their lives, so for the people who glanced over, realized what was happening, and then didn't stare like weirdos — thanks. Sure, it's kinda weird to thank people for doing common sense stuff like not being googly-eyed jerks, but whatever, there's a shortage of gratitude in the world. So y'all get some, too.
They Didn't Distract My Kid
People love to walk up to my son and start interacting with him, and have since he was a newborn. That's kind of a hassle when you're trying to nurse, though, so to all the folks whom I could see were itching to talk to my "little doll!" of a son, then realized he was latched on and decided against it, thank you.
They Nursed Next To Me
Nothing feels better when you're in a spot when you're not quite sure if you'll get some grief over NIP, than having another mom and child sit next to you and start nursing, too. Mom at that out-of-state college football game who nursed next to an uncharacteristically-unsure me and my baby: you don't know this, but you're kind of totally my best friend.
They Redirected People Who Might Interrupt Us
Sometimes, these folks acted as the security guard at the Smithsonian did, thwarting people who were inexplicably preparing themselves for some kind of fight over my right to feed my son, and his right to eat. But sometimes, they just ran interference with someone who didn't realize what we were doing, but could have distracted my son or made me uncomfortable.
They Left Us Alone
As much as I truly, deeply appreciate all of the people who proactively, affirmatively did things that made NIP more comfortable for me and my son, I also really appreciate all the thousands of people who did, well, nothing. I'm super grateful for all the people who glanced over, saw my son nursing, and thought, "Oh. Her boob is boobing. Whatevs," and went back to playing Candy Crush on the Metro, or walking around the zoo, or listening to a sermon in church.
Thank you, strangers I never had occasion to talk to, for minding your own business and treating nursing like what it is: an ordinary part of life.