My breastfeeding journey is not unlike many others; there were difficulties and mistakes, some regrets, some heartache. There were triumphs and bliss and quiet moments I’ve tucked away next to my heart.
But my favorite breastfeeding story is none of those things. It was really only a fleeting encounter in the end but the impact rippled out immeasurably from there, became not just about breastfeeding, but a reminder to give people the benefit of the doubt and a boost of courage when I needed it most.
Sebastian was a difficult, exhausting baby who took his first steps at eleven months and, elated with his new found mobility, almost immediately started running. Everywhere. He became an active, exhausting toddler, who had decided that food was okay for occasional snacking, but still got almost all his nutrition and comfort and momentary naps between adventures from nursing.
We went to Disney World when he was thirteen months old and his older brother was three. Despite being probably too young for Disney to really get the most out of it, they both had the time of their lives. The weather was pleasant, the park quiet in the off-season. He ran and ran and ran. And ran.
At Pooh’s Playful Spot (RIP) I sat down on a bench; the closed off, padded play area a welcome oasis of containment. I watched my boys climb and slide, hide and run. After a bit Sebastian came up to me a made his sign for nursing. He’d finally run out of steam, needed to eat and drink and get a revitalizing cuddle from Mama. Lucky for us, nursing still remained all of that in a very convenient and portable package.
I looked around nervously. The play area was fairly quiet and I was tucked in a corner with a bench to myself. I’d never been as comfortable nursing in public as I wished to be. It wasn’t and isn’t something I encounter often where I live; seeing a nursing mother is a thrilling rarity, like spotting an elusive Glasswinged butterfly, or maybe a nervous lizard darting into the shadowed underbrush.
I’m a private person, and I dislike confrontation. I wanted to be the type of mother who had a witty, biting comeback, who nursed where ever and whenever no matter what anyone said, but was probably more likely to freeze up and leave in tears.
But I plucked my courage and did it anyway, always discreet, somewhere quiet if could, and if I couldn’t I’d just remind myself that I was not doing anything wrong. That I was not trying to prove anything to anyone, I was not there to make someone else uncomfortable. I was feeding my baby. Period.
But nursing a toddler had brought all of those uneasy feelings back, and sure enough, a woman spotted us, walked across the play area and sat down right next to me. I braced myself, frantically trying to locate my husband as he played with our three year old to back me up, searched my mind for a comeback or defense or just a way to politely but firmly tell her to mind her own business.
But then, “I just wanted to tell you how sweet you two are. The moments I spent nursing my boys are some of my fondest memories. I miss it dearly. Good for you.”
I don’t think I managed much of a coherent reply. Probably just stuttered and blushed and choked out a thank you. Her kids came by then, two preteen boys, and she left. I never got to tell her how much her words meant to me. How it was the first time a stranger had gone out of their way to say something kind, just because. How after that encounter every dirty look and offended scoff no longer bothered me quite as much.
I try to pay it forward, encouraging when I can. I’m still private, still tend to keep to myself. But when I see a nursing mother I at least offer an encouraging smile, though I’m always afraid it comes off as creepy and slightly manic, I try.
If I could do it again, I would tell that lovely woman that her words meant more to me than I could ever say. And to all the nursing mothers who still have to look around nervously ready for confrontation, I’d like to say that you are so sweet and the moments I spent nursing my children are some of my fondest memories. I miss it dearly. Good for you.
Jill Vettel is a writer and stay at home mom of two preteen boys and their little sister in Durham, NC. In her spare time she smiles awkwardly at strangers. She means well.