I’d like to tell you that I was confident and steadfast and determined when it came to breastfeeding my child in public. I’d love to be able to pen eloquent sentences of strength, highlighting a woman’s right to feed her child without shame or embarrassment. I wish I could tell you I wasn’t apologetic or bashful for using my breasts as they were intended to be used: a method of nourishment for the life I brought into this world.
But I can’t.
When I nursed in public, without a cover, I felt flustered and ashamed. I was having a difficult time coming to terms with my changed, post-baby body as it was, so the added pressure of judgmental stares and awkward whispers made my self-esteem all the more non-existent. Even though I felt far from sexy — simply feeding my child when he was hungry — I was simultaneously made to feel sexualized and dirty by those who chose to view my breasts as sexual objects instead of natural milk producers. It was an uncomfortable, palpable experience of maternal instincts clashing with societal standards of female sexualization, and I was left in the middle — simply attempting to focus on feeding my son.
In an attempt to normalize breastfeeding and completely embrace my choice to feed my son with my breast milk whenever and wherever he needed to be fed, I decided to document each instance I nursed in public, uncovered, for one week. I wanted to completely immerse myself in other people’s reactions, to better understand why they feel so uncomfortable with a woman’s body and, in turn, why I felt so uncomfortable with mine. I was interested to hear what people would say to me about breastfeeding in public. If putting myself out there, literally, could help me feel at peace with my new form and all the ways it functions (not just for the benefit of sexual desire), then goodbye covers and hello nipples.
While shopping for next month’s baby clothes and a few extra pairs of yoga pants for yours truly, my son started getting hungry. I didn’t want to sit in a bathroom and I didn’t want to take up a changing room, so I decided to breastfeed at a table, in the food court section of the mall. I picked a relatively out-of-place spot, as to not draw too much attention to myself or my son, but it was all out in the open and people were everywhere; ordering their meals, throwing leftovers away, or walking to the next store on their list.
One woman, with her in tow, confronted me directly, as abrupt and unapologetic as my late college hangovers. She demanded I cover myself because “her child shouldn’t see such tastelessness.”
Another grandmother approached me, much more polite but as equally disgusted. She asked that I be aware of my surroundings. She whispered:
You’re in public, ma’am.
As if I had no clue the local mall wasn’t my living room. I tried to remember that she grew up in a different time, with different expectations and different standards. I tried to forgive her. But I couldn’t.
The last woman to comment on my “situation” was an exhausted mother of three rambunctious boys, the difficulty of her day as apparent as the stains on her clothes and the bags under her eyes. Her sons — perhaps 10, 12, and 15 — were making jokes and pointing and staring. She asked me to cover as to not “make a scene."
I silently sent her a wish for sleep, clarity, and peace of mind. I also made a mental note to send my OB-GYN a thank you note, for the IUD she had recommended I use post-baby.
Three people made comments in the span of 10 or so minutes, and I was horrified. I refused to stop breastfeeding in those moments, refused to take away my son’s meal and refused to give them the satisfaction of his tears, all because my “indecency” — my unforgivable decision to feed my child — offended other people. I didn't want to cover up with a breastfeeding top. I just wanted to feed my son, and move on.
At the same time, I felt dirty and inappropriate and sexualized; all the things those women had accused me of being. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, but I felt it all the same. My body felt disgusting, my parenting choices felt wrong, and I felt like I didn’t have the right to feed my son or be a mother. It was exhausting, and I left the mall as soon as my son was done eating. I wanted the comfort of my home and the peace and quiet of a judgment-free space.
I was driving to the grocery store when my son started screaming in the back seat. A quick look at the clock and I knew it was time for a feeding. I didn’t want to drive all the way back home and waste my time, a trip, and untold gallons of gas. I didn’t want to go into the store and nurse in a bathroom, as I knew there wouldn’t be a nursing station at my local market. So, I decided to nurse right there, in my vehicle. I parked my car, got into the back seat, unbuckled my son from his car seat, and held him in my lap, awkwardly removing half of my top as to be able to successfully feed him.
A pregnant mother parked her car next to me, clearly uncomfortable and close to her due date. She struggled to exit her vehicle, so I wasn’t surprised that trying to get her toddler out of the car seemed borderline physically impossible. Perhaps I’d parked too close or just seemed to be much more serene, and therefore unlikable, but she shot me a dirty glance and ask that I “do that somewhere else.”
I knew she was exhausted, but I was surprisingly slighted by her unwillingness to understand my particular set of mom problems. Surely she’s been in my shoes before, with a crying baby and nowhere else to turn but the backseat. When I feel like I’m constantly surrounded by people who just don’t have the ability, or the willingness, to be supportive, it was a special kind of hurt to see that a pregnant woman was one of those people too. I was hoping we’d have shared a gaze of unspoken camaraderie, but instead, she made me feel about two inches tall and nothing more than another inconvenience in a seemingly more important life.
We were stuck in a crowded waiting room for what felt like an eternity. It was one of my son’s many wellness checkups, which meant he’d get vaccinations and I’d have a difficult time watching him get poked and prodded. I wanted to try to wait to feed him until his actual appointment, as breastfeeding can soothe an upset baby and I figured after the shots, we’d both need it. Unfortunately, thanks to the prolonged wait, my son was hungry and wanted to eat at that precise moment. I wasn’t going to go into the bathroom and sit on a toilet while feeding him, and I couldn’t go into the examination room yet, so I decided to feed him right there. In the waiting room. In front of complete strangers.
A nurse — embarrassed, annoyed, and probably over-worked — quietly came up to me as baby fed. She whispered that there had been complaints and asked, in a painfully polite manner, that I find a cover or wait until I was in the exam room. “This is a family establishment, with children,” she explained, a look of remorse peaking through the bashfulness of her cheeks.
Part of me was angry, and silently dared those who did have a problem with me to say something to my exhausted face. Then, I remembered all the other people who had decided to say something already that week, and decided that the kindness I got from the nurse was probably more than I was going to get from anyone else. So I swallowed my rage. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but she was just doing her job. I just wish that others could realize that I was just doing mine, too.
A brand new mother of a 6-month-old didn’t directly ask me to cover up, although her snide remarks were as noticeable as if she’d said them aloud. She was bottle-feeding her baby, very happy with her decision to provide nourishment to her child sans breast. She emphatically whispered to her husband, proudly proclaiming her revulsion with, “See? This is why I didn’t want to do that. So disgusting.”
I turned away from her, secretly jealous that she could feel so confident about her parenting choices. I wish that my choice to breastfeed was as widely accepted as her choice to bottle feed. I wish that the decisions made by others aren’t so quickly condemned, especially when I’m trying to prepare myself for a pediatrician appointment I know will end with my son screaming and crying. In my pre-baby years, I would’ve thrown her attitude right back at her with a few choice words and inappropriate hand gestures, but in my state — tired, scared, and vulnerable — I just wanted to shrink into a tiny corner or steal Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
After a few months of home-cooked meals, my partner and I decided to treat ourselves to a night out at a family-friendly restaurant. It was a nice change of pace, to have someone else cook for us and clean up after us, as we were definitely feeling the effects of night-time feedings. When our son started crying, I knew I had to feed him. I thought about going into the bathroom at this point, having been relatively beaten down by the week and all the comments I had sustained. I even walked back to the woman’s restroom, but couldn’t get past the smell or the thought of my son eating in a stall next to someone who was pushing out their lunch. I was going to breastfeed my son where I sat, and hope that he ate his dinner as quickly as possible.
It didn’t take long for our young, probably-just-turned-21-year-old server to ask that I be “respectful” of the other patrons. She seemed tired of her shift, perhaps nearing the end of a double or fed up with the restaurant industry altogether. While refilling my water she haphazardly asked that I “remember you’re not the only person in the establishment.”
Along with the now-normal shame and guilt I had grown accustomed to feeling, I was starting to feel angry. I was so tired of being treated like a second-class citizen, just because I was doing my job as a parent. Our first night out in months was ruined because society had done a bang-up job of sexualizing women’s bodies, and I was so disappointed. I was furious, in all my feminist glory, but lacked the strength or the energy to properly school our young server. So, instead, I quickly asked for the check and left without leaving my usual 25 percent tip.
It wasn’t until I looked back at all of these instances, and on the countless others times when people didn’t blatantly ask me to cover up yet insisted on staring or laughing or pointing or whispering or joking, that I realized the people who seemed to have the biggest problem with the method in which I chose to feed my son were women — some with children, and some without.
They were most embarrassed of my body, and the ones made most uncomfortable when I fed my son in public. It made me stop and think: not once, during my week-long experiment, did a man stop me; not once did a man make me feel small; not once did a man make me feel less than. Realizing that I felt the most judgment coming from other women sucked, but it also reminded me that, as a whole, women have been taught that our bodies are for sexualized consumption, so we’ve struggled to view our female forms as anything other than objects that inspire erotic thoughts or carnal desires.
With this realization came an overwhelming feeling of both sadness and determination. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. The very natural, very normal act of feeding your child shouldn’t come with side order of guilt and shame and self-hatred just because a patriarchal society has taught women that our bodies are nothing if not sexual. My anger toward the people who had something to say about my decision to breastfeed in public shifted toward remorse and understanding. While they’re not entirely faultless (no one, man or woman, has the right to shame another person for his or her choices), I know that their disgust at my breastfeeding is part of a larger issue. So, despite the comments, the hurt, and the shame I endured, when I have another baby, I will choose to breastfeed him or her where they need, when they need, and without a cover.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.