Memories of Nursing in Public

So today I saw an article about a woman who confronted another woman for nursing her baby in a park and distracting her husband. The nursing woman’s response? To squirt breastmilk at her. While squirting body fluid at someone is not an okay response, the fact of the matter is, the nursing mother should not have been harassed in the first place. Period. And it feels exasperating that this simple fact has been written about repeatedly and it’s still a headline making issue. Well, here’s my two cents.

Even in the 1950s and 1960s when breastfeeding fell out of fashion, the women in my family continued to breastfeed. So when I was pregnant with my son it was a no brainer that I would follow this tradition. And when Buddy was born we got started with the process with no problems. He was a champion eater. In fact, most of what he did was eat. Twelve hours a day minimum.

There were benefits, such as I could lay down, get him latched on and get a good eight hour stretch of sleep so I weathered the early days with a newborn better than a lot of new moms. But it was also stressful to be his only source of nutrition. Especially when you factor in just how long he nursed (and yes, looking back the amount of time he was nursing was an early autism warning sign. He wasn’t hungry, but the sucking sensation was comforting, and he had to do it constantly, and dealing with a nursing baby is infinitely better than a crying one).

Here’s the catch. I followed all of the books to the letter and didn’t try to introduce a bottle of breastmilk until he was a few months old, you know, to avoid nipple confusion. Well, by that time he was so used to the breast he refused the bottle. Even when I would leave him with my dad to go to work for four or five hours at a time. The first night we left him with my parents overnight we were sure he would take the bottle. He didn’t. Aside from the indignity, pumping milk was never as issue. He nursed so much that I was producing milk in overdrive and could easily pumped eight ounces of milk in thirty minutes. He just wouldn’t take it.*

So with Buddy, using a bottle in public was not an option.

Neither was covering up. Buddy hated having a blanket over him. He liked to keep an eye out to see the world. In fact, covering myself with a blanket would have been more of a distraction because he would have thrown it off, unlatched himself, and then I’d have to get him back on again. Once a baby is latched on typically people can’t see anything. And I say this as a rather buxom woman. It was not uncommon for me to nurse him (or later Sissy), and for people to come in, start talking to me, and get up to have a better look at the baby and then blush and realize I was breastfeeding the whole time before apologizing. They just thought I was cradling a sleeping baby to my chest. Once Buddy was latched on, he was usually good to go for hours.

So what was I supposed to do when he was nursing? Stay home for a year so I wouldn’t have to inconvenience others with seeing me nurse my baby? While I am a homebody, staying in the house for a whole year with a baby is still just not doable. There were errands to run, weddings to attend, places I wanted to take Buddy to see, and sometimes I just needed to get out of the house for my sanity. And even as an infant, Buddy enjoyed getting out of the house and seeing new things. In short, why should my freedom be curtailed because I have to breastfeed my child?

Let’s call out these attempts to tell women where they can and can’t breastfeed for what they are, methods of control to keep women out of public.

In my heart, though, I’m not a revolutionary. When all is said and done, I don’t like drawing attention to myself. I am also extremely modest, and being rather buxom it was extremely difficult for me to get my babies latched on without it being noticeable. And I don’t want to be noticed. For the most part I was good at finding nursing rooms or some out of the way place where no one would find me until my baby was latched on.

But I remember vividly at the Christmas party after Buddy was born, nursing him in a private place, and listening to my family laughing and having a wonderful time and feeling incredibly left out and lonely, and wishing I could be a bit more daring about nursing in public. I thought about how ridiculous it was that I was stuck in a room by myself just because I was nursing a baby because I was scared of attracting trouble if I didn’t. Buddy was a month old at the time, and I was full of postpartum hormones, and feeling disconnected from others. It’s not something we want new mothers to feel.

More often as a new mother with Buddy, though, I felt trapped. I could only work three or four hours at a time without feeling extreme guilt since he wouldn’t take a bottle. When we moved him to a crib at three months (Buddy and I are both light sleepers and would wake each other up), I never had a morning to just sleep in because I had to get up and nurse Buddy. Sure, after I nursed him I would go back to bed, but I’m one of those people who has a hard time falling back asleep. It also just did not feel fair that, whenever Buddy woke up in the night, I had to get him while my heavy sleeper of a husband slept on. I would get so mad as I would get up to take care of Buddy and watch my husband sleep on. But Andy couldn’t feed him. I could.

I worried about what would happen to Buddy if anything happened to me and I could no longer feed him. And when I did get sick and started running a high fever, it was hard having to nurse him while I was so ill AND be worried about giving Buddy what I had (for the record, Buddy only got sick once his first year of life, and it was so mild we didn’t even have to take him to the doctor).

Even though the umbilical cord had been cut, I still felt that there was a tether between Buddy and me. It was emotionally exhausting and draining, and the reason that, when I had Sissy, I was insistent that she take a bottle when she was two weeks old. I didn’t give a damn about nipple confusion then. Having someone who wasn’t me who could feed her was more important. And yes, it made it a lot easier, even if we did end up weaning her earlier than we weaned Buddy. I don’t think she is any worse because she has formula for a few months while Buddy went straight from breastmilk to cow’s milk (which was a surprisingly easy transition). If anything, Sissy benefited from having a mother who was less stressed out and the security of knowing that mommy, daddy, grampy, grammy, etc could all feed her.

The time eventually came when I could not avoid nursing in public. When Buddy was eight months old we went on vacation in South Carolina and took a plane to get there. I was so nervous about what would happen when I nursed him on the plane (which I was counting on to help him pop his ears on take off). Would a flight attendant tell me to stop? What about another passenger? I dislike confrontation and worried obsessively about it.

When we got on the plane, Buddy was fascinated by it. And even though we’d had to wake him up early to catch the flight and I was hoping I could nurse him to sleep as soon as we got on the plane, he was so fascinated by the plane that I would get him latched on and then he would get curious about something and turn his head to look at it. I accidentally flashed quite a few people as a result. Fortunately no one complained and I eventually got him to settle down and nurse and nap. But it was the most emotionally grueling flight of my life.

When I hear about incidents like this, I think back to how I felt when my babies were newborns. And I say this as someone who my pediatrician remarked as having handled the transition to motherhood rather smoothly and who didn’t suffer from postpartum depression. However, even if the transition is smooth and even if a woman weathers it well, after a woman has a baby, her hormonal balance is altered and the world doesn’t feel the same, and this can be disconcerting. Between being unable to sleep more than a few hours straight in the third trimester and then having a newborn, a new mother’s sleep schedule is thrown. Pregnancy is no easy task, and women go straight from the discomforts of the third trimester to trauma of childbirth, and then having to heal from that while taking care of a small, helpless and demanding little being.

We evolved in societies where women used to have a lot more support after the birth of a child than they do now. And the brutal fact that we now live in huge mansions separate from other people makes modern parenting grueling. Parenting tasks used to be divided between the mother and a network of caregivers. Now it tends to be divided between the mother and her partner. And we’re struggling to cope with this reality as best we can.

In short, women need lots of support during this time!

I was lucky to have this support. My husband supported my breastfeeding and was understanding when, after a twelve hour nursing marathon with Buddy where I was so overstimulated I felt as though my skeleton would burst through my skin, I would look at him and growl, “Don’t even think of touching me! Not even platonically!” My family was supportive of my nursing. And so was my husband’s family. This was something I needed during those early months, support, not judgement or condemnation.

A woman who is breastfeeding is not thinking about flaunting her breasts or attracting male attention (hell, I in such a hormonal fog and so tired that men and sex were the last things I was thinking of, that’s what led me to being in a hormonal tired fog in the first place! Sexy was the LAST thing I felt when I was breastfeeding and I would have been horrified if I thought a man was oogling me when I was breastfeeding). My typical thought process was, “I hope no one notices what I’m doing and if they do I hope they’re understanding! I really don’t want to be on the 8 o’clock news!”

Thing is, it is ridiculous that I even had so much anxiety about it! Having someone harass me for taking care of my baby is that last thing I should have worried about.

New mothers are under so much pressure to breastfeed, and the realities of breastfeeding means that there are times when a baby is going to get hungry when it isn’t at home. Especially once you have more than one child, staying at home for a solid year is just not feasible, and even if it were, it is unethical to expect a woman to stay under house arrest for a year to nurse a baby. A good antidote to postpartum depression is have healthy socializing experiences, to still feel connected with others, to get out and socialize, to still feel connected with this world. It is not healthy for the mother or the baby to stay at home all the time!

Women and babies have every right to be out in public. And this means sometimes those babies are going to get hungry and need to nurse. A new mother is adjusting to a major upheaval in her life and all of the emotional and biological changes that comes with it. Most likely her thoughts are consumed with those, not wanting to make a stand for breastfeeding in public, attracting male attention, or exposing herself. She wants to get her baby to stop crying (something she will be yelled at for if she doesn’t soothe it). Let’s stop making this time harder for women.



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