Every now and then, a news report or story related to nursing in public pops up in my news feeds. Often, it's about a mother who was asked to stop nursing while doing so in a restaurant or store. Sometimes, these stories are reporting on the result of a mother being asked to stop breastfeeding: the civil protest by a bunch of breastfeeding mothers, otherwise known as a "nurse-in." Either way, it usually comes with a very heated debate about whether or not nursing in public is OK (or if it is OK only if done in a particular way).
I only comment on these stories occastionally. Not because I don't support breastfeeding when and wherever you and your baby please -- I am as a lactation consultant and obviously an enthusiastic advocate. But being asked to stop nursing is completely beyond my realm of experience; it seems, in a way, fictional.
Between my two daughters, Nora and Zara, I have breastfed for more than three years. In that time, I have breastfed in more places than I can list; everywhere from malls and grocery stores to airplanes and trains to restaurants, parks, beaches -- and even while walking down the street. When Nora was a baby and I had to work, I was very lucky to be able to occasionally bring her with me, and thus I have even breastfed while at work: not just in my own office, but also during staff meetings with my boss and colleagues. Since quitting my job to work from home, I have continued to practice my own version of attachment parenting and have nursed both girls at one time or another during meetings with my web design clients. In all of that time, breastfeeding in New York, California, Massachusetts, Texas and a handful of other states, I have never once been asked by an owner or employee of a business to stop nursing, relocate or cover up.
Saturday afternoon, my husband, Chris, and I decided that we would spend the afternoon together as a family at the county rec center's indoor pool. We moved to Wyoming just a few weeks ago and were excited to find such a great place for family fun in our new city, especially on snowy April days. That day, we put on our bathing suits, loaded up the stroller and walked over. We swam, floated and splashed for an hour before we got out of the pool for a break, at which point it became clear that my 3-month-old was hungry and more than a little tired. Without thinking twice, I did the perfectly natural thing: hugged her close "tummy to mummy," adjusted my bathing suit and latched her on. The conversation Chris and I were having did not miss a beat, and Zara quickly settled in.
I'll be the first to admit, there was a little more of my breast visible than would be the case if we hadn't been at the pool. While I can't say that I have ever nursed under a blanket (or a nursing "burka" either), save one awkward time trying to disappear on a bench in the mall when my older daughter was still a newborn (after which I realized that the blanket was way more trouble than it was worth), I do generally wear clothes that keep my skin from being exposed while nursing. I've found that the older I get (and I'm not even that old!), the more modest I get about skirt length, low-cut tops and even two-piece swimsuits. It's not exactly my prerogative to flash my breasts around, but babies have to eat and in our family that is how they do it... and honestly, given the size and cut of some of the bikinis in the swimming pool that day, I can hardly understand how someone could complain about seeing a tiny bit more of my breast as I used it for its intended purpose.
So, imagine my surprise when I heard a voice say, "M'am," and I looked up from peaceful Zara to see a teenage lifeguard standing before me.
"We don't allow breastfeeding on deck; you can go in the locker room."
For an instant, I completely disconnected from everything around me. All I saw was this girl standing before me in her white t-shirt, her dirty blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, obviously so far from motherhood and without any understanding of the implications of what she had just said. For a second, I wondered if that could really just have happened. Could this girl have actually thought that me feeding my baby was something that shouldn't be done in a space that was built for families?
I took a deep breath and with it, the chaos of the noisy pool deck returned. I sat up straighter, looked her square in the eyes, and said, "State law says I can breastfeed wherever I am legally allowed to be."
And that was it. Her face reddened, she mumbled an apology and quickly walked off.
I looked down again just to check. Was my other breast hanging out? Was Zara not covering as much of me as I had thought? No. No. In fact, her head and body might have actually been covering more of the top of my breasts than my one-piece bathing suit covered.
I watched the lifeguard rejoin a group of lifeguards standing across the pool, and watched her clearly report on what had happened. Many of them turned to look over at me seated in my chair against the wall; no one else approached, but even as Chris and I marveled in shock at what had just happened, I worried what might come next. Nothing did, but it soured the afternoon for us and when we returned to the water, it wasn't for long.
The timing of this incident is interesting given the link I had shared just that morning in my Saturday Surfing post about why supporting breastfeeding in public is necessary to supporting breastfeeding. It also happens that I had decided to look up the breastfeeding laws in my new state.
Though the experience was annoying and I felt uncomfortable to be singled out by the group of lifeguards, since Zara is my second child and I am now a dedicated and confident nursing mother, it won't ultimately have an impact on my nursing practices or relationship. However, the more Chris and I discussed what had happened, the more I became concerned about how such an experience might impact a new mom, who may already be struggling with nursing or feeling self-conscious. Being told that she can't nurse somewhere could be the thing that makes someone stop breastfeeding.
I remember in vivid detail the nervousness I felt the first time I nursed Nora outside of our home. It was at a time when I was still fighting engorgement, leaky breasts and a painful latch. It was long before I felt comfortable with much of parenting, let alone unbuttoning my shirt in front of others, but I realized that I would need to get over that hurdle if I wanted to meet my one-year breastfeeding goal. So one night, I took advantage of a party at a local maternity/baby boutique, slipped Nora into a sling and headed out. There were plenty of moms and babies there breastfeeding, which made it feel safe. I wasn't going to be the only one nursing. But, there were also men I'd never met and I was horribly embarrassed. So, when Nora got hungry, I sat down on the couch, did my best to latch her on and prayed that no one would pay too much attention to me.
Going to that party turned out to be one of the best decisions I could have made for my breastfeeding confidence. I'll never forget a friend's amazing husband (to whom I had just been introduced) who sat across the room from me while Nora nursed, and who talked me like a normal person as if nothing was going on. His complete non-reaction to breastfeeding was exactly what I needed to start building my confidence in my ability to mother Nora through breastfeeding.
No one, myself included, would breastfeed for a year (which is really just the minimum recommendation) if we could not continue with our lives while doing so. If we were stuck at home, unable to go shopping, eat at restaurants or play with our older children in the swimming pool, it would be impossible to breastfeed for a year. If our first experiences with nursing outside of our comfort zone are of someone telling us we shouldn't be doing it or creating a feeling of shame or embarrassment, then it is incredibly unlikely that we will continue. Breastfeeding is best for the baby; it is best for the mother; it's best for the family, best for employers, best for the community and best for the environment. Breastfeeding is best, but if we don't all support it -- which means reacting to it no differently than we would react to the sight of a mother hugging her child -- then there will continue to be women who are unable to meet their breastfeeding goals.
Saturday, I filled out a comment card and I called the rec center first thing Monday morning to speak to the pool manager. I wanted to know if they really do have a policy against breastfeeding or if that was just something that came from the lifeguard/supervisor on duty. I am happy to report that they do not have a policy against breastfeeding on the pool deck or anywhere else in the building, and they are aware of the state law protecting a woman's right to breastfeed. I conveyed my concern about how an experience like that could profoundly impact the nursing relationship and that I hoped they could better train their staff, especially since they serve so many families. The manager was sincerely apologetic and assured me that she would speak to the lifeguards and supervisors to make sure they know that they cannot ask a woman to stop nursing or to relocate while nursing.
Overall, the outcome here is good. This experience will end up being a tiny blip in the whole of my breastfeeding years. It's an experience that I am glad I had, not just because it was a reminder of how far we still have to go regarding the normalization of breastfeeding in this country and, perhaps, this state in particular, but also because it was a moment that showed me how important it is for us as mothers to be confident in our choices and to be able to stand up for ourselves and our children. I could have moved to the locker room, but I didn't because I knew that I wasn't doing anything of which I should be ashamed or that should be hidden. I was caring for my baby in the best way that I know how and I was setting an example of motherhood not just for my daughters, but for every girl and young woman there. Which, when it comes down to it, that is perhaps the best reason for nursing in public in the first place.