Why I Am No Longer Ashamed to Breastfeed in Public
As National Breastfeeding Month comes to a close, I have been reflecting on my own personal journey as a breastfeeding mother. To be completely honest, I was that naive new mom that thought breastfeeding was a simple as: 1. Undo nursing bra 2. Baby eats 3. Everyone lives happily ever after. I was not prepared at all for the reality of breastfeeding.The awkward positioning of a flailing newborn, the cracked and bleeding nipples, learning what the “perfect latch” was… In the beginning it was really hard for me. Between trying to figure out what the heck I was doing, recovering from giving birth and my milk coming in, my baby ended up becoming jaundiced and needed photo therapy. Seeing my sweet little newborn baby wearing goggles under those blue photo therapy lights because I didn’t provide her with enough food shook me to my core. I thought many times, “Am I really cut out for this? How am I supposed to do this for a year? This baby has been alive for two days and I’m already failing as a mother.”
One of the best pieces of advice I was given regarding breastfeeding was from one of the kind, seasoned NICU nurses who cared for my baby. She told me, “Breast feeding is a dance between mother and baby, you both just have to find your own rhythm together.” That quote became my mantra during those tough 4:00 AM feedings. With a lot of patience, guidance and support; over time I was able to master the art of breastfeeding. Now that I had figured out how to feed my child, I found that I was faced with a whole new challenge: breastfeeding my child in places other than the privacy of my home.
There were three different events that occurred before I finally started to really evaluate my own anxiety and cultural beliefs about breastfeeding in public.
1. After we finally got out of the hospital, my husband and I decided to have newborn pictures taken of our daughter. Between set changes I breastfed my daughter. During one of the times I was breastfeeding, the photographer asked me, “Would you mind if I took a couple candid photos of you breastfeeding?” I thought to myself, “Who will ever see those pictures besides myself and maybe my daughter one day? I could never display them in my home, or post them to social media… People will judge the crap out of me!” I think she must have seen my moment of hesitation flash across my face, because she then said, “Looking back, I wish that I had pictures of me breastfeeding my babies. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” So I agreed, and she snapped away.
Once the pictures were edited and sent to us, I had prints made. As I was arranging and placing the photos into my child’s photo album, I purposely tucked the shots of me breastfeeding behind other pictures. I thought to myself, “In case anyone visiting looks through the album, I don’t want them to stumble across those… But they are still in there! I’ll just know they are there.”
2. We had a small family reunion at my grandmother’s home this summer, as my aunt and cousins were visiting from Texas. During the visit, two of my cousin’s daughters (aged eight and four years old) were very interested and enamored with my daughter. They were so lovely and inquisitive regarding all things about the baby. As the day went on, my daughter started showing hunger cues, so I went into one of the bedrooms upstairs to feed her. As we were mid-feed, I heard the door open, and in came those two sweet little girls. My anxiety shot through the roof. My mind reeled from “Oh my God, they are going to see me half naked!” to “Do I stop feeding baby and cover up?!” I decided I couldn’t just stop mid-feed. In their unbiased innocence the girls asked me, “What are you doing?” In turn I asked them, “Have you ever seen a mama dog or cat feeding their puppies or kittens? I’m just doing the same thing. I’m feeding the baby.” They replied, “Oh, ok.” and watched me finish the feed.
3. The other day I went out to lunch with two girlfriends of mine who wanted to meet my daughter for the first time. We decided to meet up at a local popular restaurant in town. Not even a half hour into our lunch date my daughter once again started to show hunger cues. Instead of feeding her discreetly at the table, I excused myself and went into the bathroom with her. My friends wouldn’t have cared, but I wasn’t so sure about our waiter or the rest of the restaurant patrons. As I was crammed in a tiny 4×4 bathroom stall juggling my daughter in one hand, and struggling to get my bra off with the other… I decided that the best option was to just cut the lunch short. I ended up dashing out the door with my untouched salad in a carry out box.
The restaurant incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the culmination of these events led me to start re-evaluating my own fears, anxieties and biases regarding breastfeeding in public. Why am I scared to display a tasteful portrait of my daughter and I? Why am I terrified that breastfeeding in front of children is “indecent?” Why do I have off the charts anxiety about feeding my baby discreetly in public? The answers lie in my own cultural upbringing, what society views as “normal” and the over-sexualization of the female body.
If we look at the very basics of the female anatomy, my body is designed to be able to create, house and give birth to another human being. Once said human being is born, it needs nourishment- cue the two lumps on my chest (aka my breasts). Nature designed breasts with one purpose in mind: to be able to feed our offspring. They are here for my baby to be able to feed and thrive, not to be sexualized. If you walk through almost any piazza in Italy or museum in France, Guess what? You’re probably going to see women’s breasts. Yes, I know it’s typically in the form of beautiful marble statues or paintings… But please tell me what is more beautiful than a child being fed?
In regards to the duration of breast feeding, The American Academy of Pediatrics website currently recommends, “Babies should be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months of life… babies should continue to breastfeed for a year and for as long as is mutually desired by the mother and baby.” So during whatever duration of time works for breastfeeding women and their babies, they are to be sentenced to feeding their child in the cramped cell of a public restroom or essentially be a shut in? This can’t be the answer. Believe me, if I have the option to go in an unconfined private area of a public place, or an extra room of a friend or family member’s house I prefer that much more than feeding my baby in front of total strangers or my father-in-law.
I hope by now you view the following photographs as portraying a synonymous message:
These are all mothers feeding their children. This is normal. This is OK. Period.
P.s. The last photo is of my daughter and I. The same one I had originally hid in her photo album. You can judge me if you want, but (finally) I don’t care.
How I Reframed My Postpartum Frame
You will be two months old next week. You’re happily playing with your dad downstairs, and I finally just took a shower for the first time in two days. As I stepped out of the shower, I caught a glimpse of my naked body in the mirror. Disgust. Anger. Shame. I felt those emotions in that exact order. What happened to me? All I can focus on in the mirror is my misshapen form, the web of stretch marks etched across my body, and a dark double halo of purple circles under my eyes. I stare back at this new person in the mirror and think to myself, “Who is that? What have I become?”
I look closer.
I trace my fingers over the silvery stretch marks that snake across my breasts. I can feel where my skin cracked open so that my body could fill with enough milk to nourish your body.
I slide my hands lower over my wide hips and protruding stomach. I push into the middle of my belly. I feel the stretched out muscles that provided you with a safe, warm home for nine months. I grab a handful of my hips and remember the very early morning you were born and how extraordinarily strong they had to be to bring you into the world.
Finally, I look myself in the eye. The dark circles melt into warm late night memories of you snuggling into me for comfort, love and protection.
I begin to look at my frame through new eyes. I now can only see my body for what it really is: an unbelievable life giving vessel. Pride. Awe. Appreciation. I feel those emotions in that exact order. I take inventory of all the marks, stretches and lumps. Each one tells its own story of how it was so beautifully acquired in order for you to be able to continue to grow and thrive.
After taking this moment of reflection, I answered my two questions out loud.
“Who is that?”
“I am love, grace, perfection and strength.”
“What have I become?”
“The most incredible thing: a mother.”
A version of this first appeared on The Huffington Post.