I've been breastfeeding in public for six years. The first time, two weeks after my son was born, we sat in a restaurant as I fumbled with a blanket and my own shame. The blanket was a giant pain, so I decided, however scared I was, to breastfeed uncovered from then on. It helped that I had a supportive group of friends with children, all of whom agreed that if someone had a problem with my breastfeeding, the problem was theirs. They reminded me that I was protected by law. So, armed with their confidence, I breastfed in public everywhere I could: while pushing a cart in Target, in our church, in every restaurant in town. I breastfed my son at the zoo, seated in front of a giant aquarium, as we walked through the farmer’s market. I breastfed in the mall, even though I didn't want to. I hadn’t even dressed for breastfeeding, either. I was wearing my higher-necked dress and a conventional bra. There wasn’t even anywhere to sit. But Sunny, my baby, kept screaming. And someone had something to say about it.
The Botanical Gardens had just opened a brand-new, three-acre kids’ center, complete with a dinosaur dig, giant Lincoln Logs, bubbles, a tadpole-catching pond, and a splash pad whose water collected and tumbled down four steps, where it made a fast-moving stream for the kids to play in. This place is basically kid utopia, and when I take my sons there, I regret I’m not a kid myself. We’d been there once before, but I had promised them we’d go again this afternoon.
The time we'd planned to go — from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. — is also basically my youngest son's witching hour. My older sons have mostly grown out of that siren song of misery, but I have a 2-and-half year old. And while he did well for a little while, by 4 o’clock, he was ready to feed. There are places I don't like to nurse an older kid — for example, the mall. People are unfamiliar with extended breastfeeding and either glare or gape at me. I was worried that today would offer ample opportunity for unwanted stares and attention.
I also didn’t want to nurse for another reason: my clothing was not only unsuitable for nursing, it would leave my entire breast bare. In six years of nursing in public, I’ve never bared all in public. But Sunny continued to scream.
We tried playing in the stream under the splash pad. They’d set out a collection of toys for the kids to race from the top to the bottom, including simple plastic boats and yellow rubber duckies. Two kinds of duckies, in fact: the classic ones, and giant mama ducks who the little ducks could ride. Sunny zeroed in on those ducks immediately. He wanted a mama duck, but barring that, a little duck could suffice. But bigger kids kept using them, and then snatching them up at the bottom grate before he could make it down. I actually took a duck from another kid who’d grabbed it out from under his hand. But one duck, for one run down the stream, wasn’t enough. Sunny started to cry.
“Here, let’s go look for tadpoles,” I said. “No, duckie! Duckie!” He stretched his arms towards the stream. “DUUUUUUUUUCKIE!” And when a toddler screams in all caps, you’ve entered tantrum mode. I picked him up and dragged him, kicking and screaming, to the shade near the tadpole pond. I really didn’t want to feed him in public. He’s 2-and-half, the border age when I stop breastfeeding in public. But nothing stops a tantrum like a boob, and that’s why I extended nurse.
I also didn’t want to nurse for another reason: my clothing was not only unsuitable for breastfeeding, it would leave my entire breast bare. In six years of breastfeeding in public, I’ve never bared all in public. But Sunny continued to scream.
I didn’t tell her how embarrassed I’d been. I didn’t tell her that I’d been nursing in public for six years. I didn’t tell her that now, of all those times, was the one day when I needed to hear her words: the day I bare-breast nursed a 2-and-half year old at a crowded tadpole pond. I didn't tell her how thankful I was.
So I sat on an artfully tiered rock face, yanked down my dress, pushed down my bra cup, and latched him on. For the edification of the general public, I had covered nothing but my nipple. Sunny nursed happily, his tantrum disappearing with each such. He cuddled into me. I looked around. A woman sat next to the tadpole pond. She didn’t appear to notice what I was doing. A man standing at the head of the pool clearly averted his eyes. The kids in the pond stayed intent on their tadpoles.
I smiled at the people who walked by. Some of them nodded back. Some of them looked away. With Sunny’s head in the way, I was covered more than the average lingerie ad. But that vast expanse of pale top boob sat exposed for all to see.
Finally, Sunny unlatched (and a mad scramble to cover my nipple ensued), and wandered off to catch tadpoles. I actually breathed a sigh of relief. “Good for you,” I heard from somewhere below me. A woman sat dangling her feet in the water. It was the older woman I’d seen earlier.
“Huh?” I asked, though I’d said it countless times to other women. She looked at me and said it again, only louder:
Good for you for nursing in public. If they need it, they need it.
My stomach unclenched — I hadn’t even realized I was tense. I felt my shoulders relax, my defensive posture melting away. “Thanks,” I said. I didn’t tell her how embarrassed I’d been. I didn’t tell her that I’d been nursing in public for six years. I didn’t tell her that now, of all those times, was the one day when I needed to hear her words: the day I bare-breast nursed a 2-and-half year old at a crowded tadpole pond.
I was so grateful. I'd been scared, for the first time in my breastfeeding tenure, and insecure, and someone had helped me to feel better about it. I wasn't a new mom with a cover. I was breastfeeding a 2-year-old baby bare-breast in public. At a mall. I needed to be reminded that it's OK to breastfeed whenever and wherever your child needs it, no matter their age. But in that moment, I blanked. I didn't tell her how grateful I was. Instead, I asked her which kid was hers. She pointed them out. I pointed out mine. We talked. I don’t remember about what. Even now, I don’t remember our conversation. But I won’t ever forget her words.