Monday, 1 October 2012

Why I nurse in public (and why I am grateful you do too)

Today I almost did something that I'm not particularly proud of. I almost stayed home because I was scared to breast feed my baby in public. This bothers me because I like to think of myself as someone who believes in a woman's right to breast feed her child in public (and who believes in her child's right to eat in public) and who does not let the opinions of others dictate how or where I feed my baby. If I am more comfortable at home, great. But if I feel confined to my home because of fear of reproach from others, then that is a problem.

You never know how comfortable you will be nursing in public until you do it. I can still remember the first time. I was picking up some much needed clothing when my baby was just a few weeks old. I knew that I was going to have to feed him, and when it came down to it, I chickened out. I awkwardly fed my baby in the change room. My partner encouraged me to come out, and sit in a chair in the store, so I would be comfortable. I told him I was fine, that it was no problem. But it was a problem. I was physically uncomfortable and felt isolated, as if what I was doing was something shameful. I was scared.

A few weeks later, I had a very different experience. My partner and I were in a busy mall and my baby started crying, that cry that can mean only one thing. This time I didn't think about everyone else, I just thought about my child. I found the nearest bench (which happened to be at the busiest junction in the mall) and latched him on. Dozens of people walked by, but I didn't really care. My baby was content.

Since then I've nursed my baby in public all over the place. In the park, on the bus, in an elevator, while eating casual pub fare as well as gastronomic delights. I've nursed in public in five different provinces. I wasn't trying to make a statement, I was simply feeding my child, wherever it was I happened to be at that time.

Everyone has preferences, personally I try to wear clothes that give the baby discreet, easy access, usually a nursing top and bra. I don't use a cover. A lot of women feel more comfortable with a cover, but I actually feel more inconspicuous without something extra draped over me, particularly now that my son is old enough to throw it off anyway. If I have the right outfit, everything is pretty much covered by the baby, although I might occasionally flip the tail of my ring sling over the baby or cuddle the baby against me with a receiving blanket.

I've always known intuitively that not everyone supports women who breast feed in public. Recently I started following a woman on Twitter who devotes a significant amount of energy responding to people  who make uninformed and discriminatory comments about nursing in public. She is not rude or even particularly aggressive, but she assertively stands her ground. Reading what some people say about women breast feeding shocks me and hurts me in a way that I've rarely experienced. Put simply, people can be very mean.

That brings me back to today. I had to swing by the ATM and pick up lunch and I wanted to beat the noon hour rush, so I wanted to get out the door by a certain time. As I was getting my son changed, he started to protest. No problem. I finished up, put him in the carrier, got him into position, and he latched on. I'm a big proponent of baby wearing, or using a baby carrier, and when we purchased the Boba 3G carrier I was so psyched that I was able to breast feed my son while in the carrier on the first try. Being able to nurse hands-free standing up, even walking, made me feel like a rock star mom. Think of the doors this will open up for me, I had thought to myself. No more need to sit down to nurse.

As I was getting ready to leave, I caught my reflection in the mirror. Although my nursing tank was open on one side, between my son's head, the carrier and my sweater, I was showing much less skin than a teenage girl's Facebook profile picture, but I still felt exposed.

I hadn't even left the house, and I could hear their inner monologues. "Can you believe I saw a woman breast feeding her baby while she walked down the street?" "So I'm standing at the counter at Subway, and this woman is ordering a turkey sub while her baby is sucking away at her boob!" "Awkward!" "Inappropriate!" "Gross!"

I know those people are wrong, but it still bothered me.

In the end, I left home before he was finished, and before abandoning my plans of beating the lunch time rush. I knew if I stayed home I would only be hurting myself. Because if I can't breast feed in public, then I can't leave the apartment for more than a couple of hours at a time. And since we don't have a car, that pretty much rules out any excursions beyond our immediate neighbourhood. If I'm not willing to take a deep breath and get past my fears, then I could end up weaning sooner than I would if I were able to incorporate breast feeding into my life outside my home. Or I could just end up stuck at home all the time.

After that first time in the mall, I realized that I wasn't just feeding my child, I was normalizing breast feeding in public. I retract what I said earlier, I was making a statement. I was saying, "I can breast feed my baby in public, and if you want to, you can too." I genuinely appreciate seeing other women nurse in public. It bolsters my confidence and makes me feel like I'm not alone. I have also benefited from taking part in a breast feeding mothers' group. Spending time each week in a supportive environment makes me feel like I can breast feed on my own terms, on my own timetable (or rather, his).

The decision to breast feed or not is deeply personal, as is the decision to nurse for an extended period, as is the decision to nurse in public. Where I see fault, and inequity, is where those decisions are taken away from women because of a culture that is hostile to their choices.

I still struggle at times with my need to leave home and my need to feed my baby, but with a supportive partner, like-minded mothers and fearless advocates, I am confident that I will be able to make these decisions on my own terms.


  1. This is a terrific post. I just shared it on Facebook and Twitter; and I'm going to link your blog to my website. Look forward to reading more of your posts.

  2. This is so true; the more you do it, the more 'normal' it becomes in the world at large. And the funny thing is, in four and a half years I have only had ONE person make a negative comment, and that was the wife of a friend in her home. I've openly (and not that discreetly) nursed in Old Navy, and had two elderly women approach me to tell me what a beautiful and natural thing I was doing for my baby. I've nursed in my house of worship, and heard nothing negative from anyone. Given the opportunity, people can really surprise you in lovely ways.