Monday, March 1, 2010

Show Us Your Tits (or Why Moms SHOULD Nurse in Public)


When I had Violet 22 months ago, I knew very little about what kind of Mommy I'd be. One of the few things that I did know was that I would stop at nothing to breastfeed her. I was more determined than knowledgeable at the outset but that determination paid off. After a rough start, Violet and I found our nursing rhythm and it has been (mostly) smooth sailing since then.

Nursing has become such an integral part of the kind of parent I am that we are still at it, 10 months after I reached my personal goal of breastfeeding for a year. I did not plan to nurse Violet this long at the outset, but I can't imagine abruptly stopping right now. This one activity fills so many purposes: nursing is a hug and a nuzzle, it's a pacifier and a nap begetter, nursing is a reassuring squeeze in an unfamiliar situation; it is a snuggle and a refreshment, all mixed into one.

Because I am now nursing a full-on toddler, I have gotten pretty sensitive to what the public perception of breastfeeding beyond a year is. And I am more easily ruffled when I read things like this. Because instead of it just being an anecdote about someone far away, it is a story about someone LIKE me, doing what I am doing, and being judged harshly for it.

I wish I could say that my determination to breastfeed at the beginning translated to me feeling comfortable nursing Violet when and where she required but that was not how we started. When Violet was between 1-3 months old, there were dozens of times when I put off her cries or left a situation in a hurry to feed her. There was a family brunch at Le Peep when she was 3 months old where I forgot my nursing cover and so I scooted off to the car to nurse while my pancakes got cold. I remember a dinner at Charleston's where I spent 25 minutes before we left pumping so I could fill a bottle for Violet to have during dinner. She finished that bottle in less than 5 minutes and I still had to nurse her in the restaurant. I almost made Shawn leave an Indian's baseball game in the 4th inning because I was so paranoid about nursing in public. Thank God Shawn noticed another mom nursing and pointed her out to me. The sight of that mom was enough to give me the courage to nurse.

She probably had no idea that by nursing her kid at the baseball game that night, she made another mom feel normal.

I got pretty good at nursing Violet comfortably around the time she turned 5 months or so. I nursed her at the library, at the State Fair, at the mall, at a parade next to my also nursing sister in law, at P.F. Chang's, in the doctor's office, and pretty much everywhere in between. Those were the glory days of public nursing; I had become comfortable enough to do it almost anywhere and still had a baby young enough to "pass." Not so much anymore.

Violet is a big, old, nursling, now. She doesn't walk, she runs, and she's speaking better each day. She is one of the kids people joke about when they say "If they're old enough to ask for it, they're too old to have it." Again, nursing in public has become nerve wracking for me.

Shawn and I flew to Florida a few weeks back and I knew that when it came to keeping Violet content and thus making my fellow passengers' trip more pleasant, nursing was going to be my ace in the hole. And it was. On the way down, Shawn and I sat next to each other and Violet was a peach. She read books, ate pretzels, and nursed to sleep for the remainder of the flight. After we landed, the older man sitting in the row ahead of us turned around and commented on how well behaved Vi had been during the flight. I don't think any passengers were any the wiser about why she'd been so mellow. The flight attendants might have noticed that she was nursing, but they would have had to been looking closely.

On the flight home, Shawn and I were seated in different rows. I had Violet on my lap and a 40 year old man sitting in the seat 7 millimeters away. My palms were sweaty as I adjusted Vi and I into our window seat and tried to get into a position that would be comfortable for all of us. Since airplane seats have shrunk considerably since I gained a lap rider, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to keep the nursing secret from the guy next to me. Violet's return flight was much like the way down; some books, some snacks, and then nursing to sleep. What they guy next to me thought, I'll never know. He was polite enough, and seemed to be genuinely engrossed in his own book, so maybe it was a non-issue for him. I just hope there wasn't something ugly written about me on the Internet later that night. I guess I'll never know.

So, why, despite the fact that it makes me nervous, do I nurse in public?

Because it sucks that I'm nervous.

Because mothers who feels too uncomfortable to nurse in public are far less likely to meet their personal breastfeeding goals than a mom who is willing to give it a whirl. No one can stay at home forever, after all.

Because there is all kinds of lip service telling women "Breast is Best" but very little societal support for that statement. You cannot say you are "all for breastfeeding" and in the next breath be "NOT supportive of moms" who do so in public.

Because I worked really hard to get breastfeeding established and I didn't want the use of bottles to undermine that effort.

Because the decision to breastfeed Violet is one of the cornerstones of my mothering philosophy and I am proud of that.

Because nursing is NORMAL, for heaven's sake!

When I was hiding in cars or restrooms to nurse, I was doing nothing to help other nursing moms feel normal. As a matter of fact, I was buying into the shame that nursing mothers feel that makes them hide from view in the first place. Unless people see babies at the breast, it will never become the norm. As long as bottles remain in plain sight and nursing is hidden, artificial feeding will be accepted as normal and breastfeeding a baby (let alone a huge toddler like mine!) will remain on the fringe.

4 comments:

Jinny said...

I love you. Next time I watch her, will you hate me if I teach her to say, "Mama, I want breat-milk?" It's better than "cheeto", right?

Amanda Berkey said...

I LOVE this post! Americans have lost their common sense. Nursing babies and toddlers are so common in the rest of the world! I'll use this as my inspiration in the next few years!

Babs said...

Very well said. And right on the mark. Violet has a very good mommy!

Aly said...

We saw a mommy nursing at the Easter breakfast at the zoo this weekend. Andy noticed it, even though I had looked that same direction a dozen times. (I guess once you've done it, you don't pick up on it as standing out in public) Part of me wanted to go over to her and say "good for you!" I wish I had. Instead I caught her eyes & gave her a big smile and nodded a bit. Maybe if more people see a baby with a ni-ni rather than a ba-ba, people will start to accept it as the norm.