As I approach the halfway point of this pregnancy with my third child, it’s finally starting to sink in that there will most likely be a tiny baby in my house in a few months and I should probably start preparing my life. Questions like ‘Where will everyone sleep?’ and ‘Will my two year old legitimately try to murder his new baby sibling?’ have been running around my mind. And lately, while my boys and I have been kicking around our usual haunts (the Aquarium and the Discovery Museum), I’ve been preparing myself for another inevitably of this child’s arrival: breastfeeding in public.
I’ve experienced breastfeeding in two different countries. My oldest son, Jack, was born in Australia. I, like most new moms, started my public breastfeeding journey using a cover in public, more for my embarrassment than anyone else’s. But Jack would get really hot or fussy or constantly pull the whole thing down so even though I felt incredibly awkward, I started doing it without the cover. To my relief, I never received an unkind remark or dirty look or even really any look at all. People simply ignored me as the boring, basic, breastfeeding lady I truly was.
Those easy, breezy vibes changed, however, after I moved back to my hometown of Chattanooga and gave birth to my second son, Beau. When he was about three weeks old, we ventured out of the house to my niece’s birthday party. After about four and a half minutes, Beau started screaming. Because it was the middle of August, I had naturally forgotten to bring a blanket, so I couldn’t cover up even if I had wanted to. I decided I would wait until no one was looking my way, get him latched on, and try not to call too much attention to myself while he was nursing. I was at my brother’s house, I knew pretty much everyone at the party…it would be fine, right?
It was decidedly not fine.
A few days later, I got a call from my dad, who had been out of town the day of the party. He told me that I had totally upset my brother at the party, everyone in my family thought I was totally inappropriate and I either had to cover up and go somewhere else if I wanted to breastfeed. I spent the day crying, feeling ashamed and dirty, like I had stripped naked and done body shots at a three year old ‘s birthday instead of feeding my small child. For the rest of my time breastfeeding Beau, I either didn’t go out or went to great lengths to cover up or move to a different location, even if it meant hauling a hungry, screaming infant and a disappointed, screaming toddler away from whatever activity we were doing at the time.
I was reminded of this recently, when I read a story about a first time mom in Connecticut who was breastfeeding her weeks old baby in the snack area of a Target. A man waiting for his food started berating her, telling her to leave, calling her a whore, generally letting her know he thought she was disgusting. Thankfully, another customer and a few Target employees stepped in to help and most people believed the man was in the wrong.
Compare those stories to an experience I once had in Australia, before I had even thought about having kids.
I was riding the train to work on my morning commute. Across from me a woman wearing a business suit had one breast completely exposed from her camisole, feeding her son who looked to be around two years old. At the same time, she was having a completely casual conversation with an elderly gentleman of indeterminate relation who was standing in front of her. Was this kind of a weird and uncomfortable sight? Yes, it was. Was this something I was super excited about witnessing at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning in a cramped subway train? Not particularly. But both I and my fellow passengers managed to make it through the train ride fairly unscathed, because we all had the ability to turn our eyes to something else.
I’ve breastfed two children, often in public, and I STILL sometimes feel taken aback when I see another mom doing it. I’ll be the first to admit it can be a startling and uncomfortable sight. What I don’t understand is why so many in our society think it’s appropriate and even necessary to call these women out with disgust when they’re simply trying to feed their children.
It often seems like a very fine line one has to walk as a new mom: ‘Breastfeed or you’re not trying hard enough. But not for too long or else you’re a gross weirdo and your kid will be permanently scarred. And you can only breastfeed in the designated areas we’ve deemed appropriate, like your house or your car or a public bathroom. Step outside of these safe zones and you’re just a disrespectful whore, an exhibitionist who wants to push her shameful breasts into everyone’s face. Why can’t you just cover up or pump a bottle or stay home for a year? That’s what I did so you should too.’
Public breastfeeding is more accepted in Australia, I think, because Australians just aren’t all that concerned with what other people think. (And I mean that in the BEST way, Australians!) If her baby needs to be fed, an Australian mother will feed it, and if someone tries to shame her for it, she’d hit back with some words I’m not allowed to use here and go about her day without a second thought.