Somewhere in the depths of my Facebook account is a photo album chronicling the birth of my first son. Included in the album are photos of our trip to the hospital, the early stages of labor, and an unflattering look at my grotesquely over-inflated bottom as the anesthesiologist prepared me for a much-needed epidural. There is the photo of me holding on for dear life to the gas and air machine, and there’s the one of me blissed out once I was numb from the waist down. There’s a beautiful photo of my husband planting a kiss on his newborn son, and there are photos of me with my new baby, surrounded by various friends and family who made the trip to the hospital to visit.
Perhaps incongruously placed in this album is another photo. It is of me smiling happily as my hours-old baby suckles hungrily at my engorged breast, my pink aereola as big as a dinner plate as it peeks past his tiny head. A comment on it is from a male friend admonishing me for posting a photo like that where people would be able to see it. “No one wants to look at that,” he swears.
It is the first time I am shamed for my accidental exposure while breast feeding. It is not the last.
As I navigated the early waters of motherhood and breastfeeding, I found leaving the house difficult, knowing that this tiny person was completely dependent on me to nourish him. There was no schedule to speak of… he had a big appetite, and it could strike at any time. In those early days, I had not perfected the art of the cover-up. A blanket over his head while he fed only served to make me nervous – I couldn’t be sure he was latched on properly unless I could see his mouth attached to my nipple. I had a bit of paranoia that he would suffocate under the weight of my gigantic breasts. I feared hurting him in some unknown way because I didn’t know what I was doing.
I remember going out to lunch with my husband and mother on one of the last days she was visiting with us after the birth. We went to a diner so that we could eat quickly, and I might get through without having to feed him. But lo and behold, as soon as the food came, he began to cry. I looked around frantically – there was nowhere I could go. The restaurant didn’t have booths to hide in, and we were in front of a solid wall of windows with hundreds of people walking past. My mother and husband urged me not to worry, but I was embarrassed to feed him in this open space. I went to the only place where I knew I’d have privacy – the public restroom.
I sat on the dirty toilet, and I cried my eyes out as I fed my son. I was stressed and sleep-deprived and feeling like I would never be “mom enough” to do this. If I hadn’t been 100% decided on breastfeeding, I think I might have chosen that moment to give up. I am only glad that I had the strength to get past it.
Over the next several months, it got easier. I learned how to drape a small blanket across my chest and how to feel a proper latch without being able to see it. I worried less about accidental suffocation, though I still had a constant paranoia of someone saying something rude to me (as happened several times a week).
It was at a small tea room in Upwey, Dorset that I had my first bit of positive feedback about how I’d chosen to feed my baby. I was huddled under a small blanket in a corner of the restaurant, red-faced because I wasn’t yet totally at ease. A little old woman came by our table on her way to the toilets, and she leaned toward me with a smile on her face.
“I think it’s so lovely that you’re choosing this way of feeding your baby,” she said. “It brings back so many memories of my own children. Motherhood is such a blessing, and your body is a miracle.”
With a sweet smile, she was on her way, and I felt my insecurities melt away. Her words filled me with a confidence that I’d previously lacked, and it was from that point on that I had no problem feeding him in public.
I’ve never set out to expose my breasts or throw what I was doing in the faces of those who were uncomfortable with it. I’ve never felt the need to be political about it. Other than occasional glares or pointed comments thrown my way, I’ve not noticed any real discrimination toward me for it. I was happy to breastfeed for a year and a half before I got pregnant with my second son. Him, I nursed for well over a year, including for four months into my current pregnancy.
That photo on my Facebook profile, with nipple exposed for the world to see has remained there for the last three and a half years. No one has reported it, and other than that one lone comment, there’s been no flack taken for it.
I’ve seen in the news and across social media lately that accounts are being shut down for displaying mothers breastfeeding their kids. I’ve seen “Nurse-Ins” being staged at popular retail chains to show support for those who have been discriminated against for it. I’ve seen other retail chains being lauded for making their establishments “breastfeeding friendly.”
The whole thing fills me with a sort of incredulous amusement. That the most natural thing a woman can do (other than actually birthing a baby) should be met with discomfort, anger and condemnation by a vast majority of the populace is baffling. But I’m equally unsure why so many women feel the way to make it more acceptable is to push the envelope by overexposing themselves. Surely the best way to normalize something is to just do it? Forget those who are rude and do it anyway.
It has been my experience that the vast majority of people don’t mind if you breastfeed… they are simply uncomfortable because they have no idea where to look. They are as afraid of offending you as you are of offending them. They feel that they are intruding on a private moment, and for some folks, this makes them feel uneasy and even upset. They deflect their own discomfort by saying something rude. Like the male commenter said on my photo – “No one wants to see that.”
For now, I understand that not everyone will be accepting of the parenting choices I make, including how I feed my kids. But the great thing is that it is up to me how I choose to react to their criticism. For my part, I intend to continue doing what is best for me and mine, and I will leave the politics of it to those who feel so inclined to fight.