Lessons in Public Breastfeeding
By Valerie Barrios Cagle
Issue 136 - May/June 2006
I was 24 the first time I was attacked for nursing my baby in public. Waiting in line to board a cable car in Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, I absentmindedly held my daughter to my breast while I stood chatting with a friend. Seemingly from nowhere, the irate face of a woman materialized inches from my own. Loud enough for everyone on top of the mountain to hear, she shouted, “Could you please go do that somewhere else, because my husband does not need to see that!”
I looked at her, aghast. I hadn’t meant anyone any harm; why was this person being so hostile toward me? I looked at her husband, whom I had supposedly traumatized. He was gazing off into the distance, a pleasant expression on his face, as though nothing was happening. Being naturally sensitive to criticism, I felt tears start to prickle my eyes, but I rallied and yelled back: “I will not go somewhere else! Federal and state laws protect my right to nurse here!” She retreated, muttering. I continued to nurse my daughter, but for days afterward my heart pounded in outrage whenever I thought of what had happened.
Fast-forward five years. I was in a pediatrician’s waiting room, and my two-month-old son was snapping at the air hungrily, working himself up into a roaring cry. I appraised the situation, counted the number of people in the room, and, for the first time ever, chose not to nurse—simply because I was in a semipublic place and wary of offending someone. By the time we were ushered into an examining room, my baby was wailing hysterically. It felt wrong to put him through that; I was ashamed that I’d allowed myself to be cowed into submission.
The interesting question is this: Why had my attitude changed so dramatically? The confrontational stance I’d adopted atop Stone Mountain had somehow evolved into this new, cowardly attitude that wasn’t me at all. I’d gone from loudly quoting breastfeeding law, chapter and verse, to refusing to nurse a screaming baby until I was holed up in a private examining room. Where had my courage gone?
One explanation I considered was that my own family’s attitude had finally worn me down. I remembered the first time I had ever nursed in their presence—in a hospital room, after the birth of my daughter.
I had removed the top of my gown in an effort to better get the hang of nursing, and with my husband looking on, I struggled to support my newborn’s orange-sized head while simultaneously trying to position my cantaloupe-sized breast. Then I noticed my mom and grandmother exchanging a glance. My grandmother said, “We’re in mixed company here.”
My eldest child continued to nurse until the age of two-and-a-half, when she weaned herself. Like many others, my mother is of the opinion that a walking, talking child is far too old to be suckling at her mother’s breast. Whenever she witnessed my daughter toddling up to me and latching on, she would roll her eyes or exclaim, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this!”
It also seemed I was never modest enough for her taste. Once, when I stopped to nurse in the mall during a holiday shopping trip, her eyes darted around nervously and she said, in a voice edged with warning, “Make sure you’re covered”—as if she were the spokesperson for all mall shoppers, every one of whom I was about to personally insult by breastfeeding my child in their presence.
But my mother and I have had differences of opinion since I was about two. Many of my parenting methods—from the family bed to tandem nursing to teaching the kids to use words such as vagina—have driven my mom squirrelly. Yet, even as she expresses to me how strange she thinks I am, I know she respects my dedication to my children. Her disapproval is tempered by love and her acceptance of my independent nature, and that makes it easier to live with.
The really hurtful negative reactions to my breastfeeding have come from people who don’t know me—strangers passing judgment. Once I sat down outside a Starbucks coffee shop at a table with some friends and friendly acquaintances.
When I began to nurse my child, one man—a friend of one of my friends—jumped up and went to another table. I looked after him, stricken, but he didn’t return. His blatant rejection and disgust felt like a punch in my stomach.
Sometimes when I nurse in public, someone nearby seems incapable of looking away. But Starers are definitely preferable to Glarers. A few months ago I was at a restaurant, sharing a booth with my husband and baby, and the whole time my baby suckled at my breast, a woman across the room blasted me with a look like an arctic wind. I almost would have preferred to be screeched at.
Then there was the long, loud whoop of delight from a teenage boy hanging out the window of a passing school bus. As the bus trundled out of sight, my preschooler, who was playing in our front yard, asked me, “Why are you laughing, Mommy?” I think I laughed because that had been the first approval of public nursing I had ever experienced—though not exactly the kind of approval I’d hoped for.
My most devastating experience of breastfeeding in public happened recently. A week after my son’s birth, I found myself in the grip of horrific postpartum depression. In the private office of a mental health professional, as I sobbed while attempting to describe my feelings, my son started rooting and whimpering. I automatically put him to the breast, but the mental health professional interrupted me in midsentence: “Do you not have something you can cover up with?”
Speechless, I fumbled around until I found a receiving blanket. It was her private office, after all, and at that moment I felt too weak and vulnerable to snap back an appropriate response. I don’t remember if I was able to finish what I’d been saying, and I never went back. Luckily, I found the help I needed elsewhere.
But such an experience makes a deep impression, and something finally clicked. After five years of such negative breastfeeding experiences, over and over, my behavior in the pediatrician’s waiting room began to make sense to me. I had gone from being young and innocent, zestfully pulling out my breast anywhere and everywhere when my baby needed it, completely oblivious to the fact that some people consider this inappropriate—to being nervous and covert, a clandestine breastfeeder more likely to sprint across the parking lot to the van than to find a nursing spot in the store. In those five years, I had learned an important lesson: modern American society is not kind to nursing mothers, and I had better take heed.
I was at a nursing home the other day, with the intent of sharing my children with the residents for a few hours. I walked around for a while, talking to the patients, putting their soft, wrinkled hands on my baby’s foot for a moment if they were too frail or shaky to put it there themselves. Then my baby started to seem hungry, biting at his fist, licking the empty air next to his face. “Robin’s hungry, Mommy,” his four-year-old sister informed me. “Stop and feed him!” I found myself glancing around furtively, wondering: Will breastfeeding be accepted here? Or will I be accused of titillating the infirm and be ordered to leave? Maybe I should haul everyone to the van and nurse there?
But although the sky was a beautiful piercing blue, the day was cold and windy—and anyway, I was thinking about how I’d felt a few weeks before in the pediatrician’s waiting room, after I’d let my son suffer just to placate the ignorant. I found a couch in the common room, sat down with the children, and nursed my baby, surrounded by two dozen or so patients in their wheelchairs. The patients stared taciturnly at the television, or nodded off, or smiled mildly at nothing in particular—one sang old folk tunes with great energy and vigor, although she’d long since lost the ability to produce intelligible speech. No one seemed to notice that I was nursing or care that my breast was exposed.
I’ve decided not to learn my lesson after all. Instead, I’ve decided to teach modern American society a lesson, one public breastfeeding at a time.
Valerie Barrios Cagle is a full-time mother and freelance writer. She lives with her husband, Brian, and their four breastfed children on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska. She considers being a mother her most important and rewarding job.
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