When I was pregnant, I’d see scary headlines of breastfeeding stories gone viral – you know the ones. Mom gets shamed for breastfeeding in public. The online trolls come out, and the debate resurfaces. These stories would ignite anger, but also fear as a mother-to-be. “Is this what it’s going to be like when I nurse my baby?
But I carried on with my pregnancy, assuming that breastfeeding would be easy because it is natural, and therefore my confidence would simply follow suit.
When my baby was born, he was instantly rooting frantically for my milk (or colostrum, rather). Oh my god! He latched on! I was awe struck, holding him close, both of us still traumatized from 31 hours of grueling labor. Neither of us could do much of anything at this point, but we could nurse, and that alone was a pretty fantastic accomplishment. Whether or not I was ready, our breastfeeding journey had begun.
We transferred to the recovery room. I was told I could hit this button if I needed anything, but the nurses would be in round-the-clock anyways. We were tired. We were shocked. We were overjoyed. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but we knew how to breastfeed. We got this, I thought.
Midnight rolled around. I had just nursed him 20 minutes ago. Why is he still crying to feed? A nurse came in and gently smiled, “Cluster feeding?” I nodded quietly because I didn’t know what that was. Damnit, this is why mamas told me to read that breastfeeding book instead of worrying about how Pinterest-worthy my nursery was. What is cluster feeding?!
Thank god for nurses. And lactation consultants. And doulas. And Google. And breastfeeding Facebook groups. And the La Leche League. And all the other resources out there for breastfeeding mothers. Slowly but surely I learned about breastfeeding and all of its terms – cluster feed, lip tie, tongue tie, thrush, mastitis, clogged duct, dangle feed, football hold, cradle hold, milk bleb, engorgement, let down – you get the point.
My perspective changed. Breastfeeding is not easy just because it is natural. It is so. much. work.
Home from the hospital, I would sit on the couch tapping my feet, shifting my gaze into my baby’s eyes, around the room, at my cell phone, and back to my baby’s eyes – wondering how much longer he would need to nurse. Right off the bat, I was easily spending eight hours a day nursing – the same amount of time previously spent at a full day in the office. Yet, nursing alone is just one of dozens of things I somehow needed to accomplish in a day’s work as a mother. I completely underestimated breastfeeding.
Fast forward a few weeks, and there I was trying to figure out the pump, the proper bottle prep, cleaning and storage – color coordinating a chart on all the storage rules including tips for introducing a bottle. I had different brands of bottles to try and Amazon packages half opened with a pumping bra, breastmilk storage bags, sterilizer, bottle warmer, and different sized bottle nipples.
Imagine the look on my face when after all this prep, he refused a bottle. He turned bright red. He screamed. He punched. Even alone with daddy, he would not take it.
Okay. There really was no reason as a stay-at-home mom that I needed to keep forcing this, and honestly, it was not just my baby who didn’t take to the bottle. I was not taking to the pump. And as for my husband, well, he didn’t understand why we needed to change our routine to begin with. “Can’t you just breastfeed? You are all he needs.”
From that point on, we decided to breastfeed exclusively. I quickly grew to love it. But this also meant I needed to grow confident with breastfeeding in public.
I still remember the pain of my first time breastfeeding publicly. I cried.
I was at the grocery store with my husband. It took all of my energy to get out of the house as I was still nowhere near full recovery. I was wearing him in our baby wrap and I remember looking down at his fuzzy head as I grabbed a cart from the parking lot. “Oh good, he’s asleep,” I thought, basically praying that he would remain invisible to the world, tucked away against my chest.
Avocados, tomatoes, oranges – oh crap. The baby is awake, and we haven’t even been shopping for more than two minutes. And when a newborn is awake, it’s for one thing: milk. They need milk.
My heart started racing. I locked eyes with my husband. We both gave each other a look. I started bouncing as if that would cure his hunger cues. Mushrooms, spinach, blueberries – I hurried through the rest of the aisles. Now his hunger cues turned into screams. Bright red screams.
I turned to my husband on a mission and said “Take the cart, I’ll be over there.” I pointed to a small dining corner by the grab and go food. There was only one other person there, a middle-aged male. I nervously walked over there and sat behind a giant, overflowing garbage can trying to hide myself.
My husband followed with the cart. I started to unhook my nursing bra, shoulder exposed. His face looked confused and he stopped me in my tracks. “What are you doing?” He asked. “I’m feeding our baby!” We both turned bright red. “You’re going to do this here? Stop!”
I froze, looking around. No one was looking at us even though it felt like it. My eyes welled up with tears. My baby was still screaming. My husband was more nervous than I was. I felt humiliated. I held my baby closer, grabbed the shopping cart and raced through the rest of the aisles while my baby cried himself to pure exhaustion – by now, drawing the attention of everyone who passed.
I went to bed that night feeling like the worst mom on Earth. It was the first time I let my son down. I also felt angry at myself. I was strong, confident and independent. How did I suddenly fall so weak to the distorted pressures on breastfeeding mothers in our country?
The more I shared this experience, I discovered many people within my own circle who were not blatantly discriminatory, but not necessarily supportive. Someone even said, “Well, you’re not planning on being one of those ‘showy’ moms, are you?”
I hit a breaking point. This is not about me and the rest of the world, or even those in my own circle. This is about my baby. My screaming, hungry baby who just needs to eat, and a tired, caring mother who also needs to get groceries.
I talked to my husband, and he reassured his support. He just didn’t understand how it would work in public. He wanted to avoid confrontation and didn’t want to be part of the next viral story on breastfeeding in public gone wrong. I couldn’t blame him for that fear. Secretly I had that fear, too, even though I appeared confident.
But, there wasn’t much time to ponder over it as our baby needed to eat and we needed to get out of the house. Target. Panera. The car. The mall. The dog park. Our porch. Friends houses. The salon. The doctor’s office. The coffee shop … Not one passerby has questioned us. It was soon the opposite, actually. “Your baby is beautiful.” “How old?” “You are doing a great job, mama.”
Soon, my silly tears were a distant memory, and the demanding work of breastfeeding lightened up. My confidence grew accordingly.
But in reflection, it makes me even more upset for all those moms who do and who will face discrimination. People who snap at moms to “take it elsewhere,” “cover up” or “bottle feed,” are ignorant to the hurt they cause and hypocritical to the “support” they pledge of mothers in this country. How ironic that we live in a society that boasts motherhood as the toughest, most admirable job, yet we don’t actually want to see new mothers being new mothers.
There is a level of bullying that exists, pushing nursing moms out of sight and minimizing just how big of a job it is. These bullies manage to create shame where there shouldn’t be – over something that is crucial to the development and health of our children, making it somehow offensive and inappropriate.
These intruders have no idea that public facilities are so sorely lacking that “taking it elsewhere” isn’t an option, and that in that moment, that mother is doing the best thing she can by responding to her baby’s cry for hunger.
They have no idea that using a cover is simply not an option for every mom, as some babies refuse to eat with one, can quickly overheat or easily unlatch with one.
They have no idea that bottle feeding isn’t always an option, as in my personal case. That some babies do not take a bottle, and even if they do, breastmilk has to be prepped, stored and served at a certain temperature.
My heart pours out to the women in the spotlight who have and who will find themselves confronting uninformed bystanders. Luckily, many of us won’t ever have to deal with this. But the truth is, we are panicking – looking over our shoulders wondering if anyone is going to say anything. We are the silent nursing mothers; we get by in this quiet state of uncertainty.
This is wrong. This is not how it should be. Breastfeeding is incredibly beautiful, pure and powerful. We should not feel scared, hesitant or anxious, and neither should our husbands or closest friends. We need to be louder than the outliers who are shaming mothers – to not only stop their direct hits, but their indirect wrath that silently disempowers every single one of us.
To the silent nursing mom, you are doing amazing. I see you worrying as you fumble through your diaper bag for a blanket, contemplating if you should just take your screaming baby back in the car and go home and never come back out. I was once you.
I promise, you not only have a legal right to be here, but you belong here. Your needs matter, and the needs of your baby matter. These needs do not have to be hidden behind the isolating walls of your home, in a germ-infested public restroom or behind an overflowing garbage can.
You both are beautiful just as you are. Please stay awhile.