The Question I Can't Believe I've Been Asked as a New Mom

Why, I wonder, do people want to know? Do they have tips to share? Stories to swap? Or are they seeking information that helps them make some kind of judgment about my parenting?
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Since I gave birth to my first baby eight months ago, I have been asked -- and I've answered -- many questions I expected would come my way.

"Is he sleeping through the night?" (Almost.)

"Who does he look more like?" (His dad.)

"Is he rolling over/talking/crawling?" (Yes, yes and God help us, yes.)

Then there's the question I never anticipated: "Are you breastfeeding?"

The first time I got this question, I was at an appointment with our pediatrician, when we were fresh from the hospital and my son was still pink-skinned and strange to me. It did not surprise me then, nor should it have. Whether or not I nurse my baby is relevant medical information that his doctor should absolutely have.

It is not, however, information that almost anybody else requires, and yet I have been surprised by how many people feel entitled to it: friends, extended family, work acquaintances, even a stranger I met at a party when my son was 3 months old and I was nervously navigating our first real night out. "He's beautiful," she said kindly while I bounced him in the Ergo, trying to sneak a few sips of wine before he erupted into his next colicky rage. "Are you nursing him?"

I'm not sure when "Are you breastfeeding?" entered the range of routine questions to ask new mothers, but it's rarely -- if ever -- an acceptable one.

Why, I wonder, do people want to know? Do they have tips to share? Stories to swap? Or are they seeking information that helps them make some kind of judgment about my parenting? (I told my brother-in-law that I planned to write about this subject, and he joked that he likes to just cut to the chase and ask women if they're good moms.) Most of the time, I assume people want my answer to be "yes." But then what about the woman the other day -- not more than an acquaintance -- who asked, "You're not still breastfeeding, are you?"

Of course, parents are asked all kinds of sensitive questions, and I do appreciate when people show an interest in my experience as a mom. But "Are you nursing?" isn't an innocuous conversation starter. Breastfeeding is at once private and public -- even political. It's a global public health priority, and a matter of debate in some feminist circles. It's emotional, and physically intimate, and that last point, I think, is what really gets me. Despite the fact that we live in a culture where people think it's acceptable to touch pregnant women's bellies and comment endlessly on the shape of new mothers, the bodies of pregnant and postpartum women are not public domain. At the most fundamental level, I cannot get behind the idea that people think it's acceptable to casually ask about what I'm doing, or not doing, with my breasts.

For the record, eight and a half months later, I am still breastfeeding my son, and also supplementing with formula. Like a million other women's experiences, it's been a bit complicated. By the time I left the hospital after giving birth, my nipples were so cracked and bloody they got infected. Once they healed, I had to work hard at pumping to keep my supply up. But somewhere along the way, the whole thing just kind of clicked for my son and me, and for the last few months we've had a somewhat unremarkable experience. It has worked. We've enjoyed it.

It's a good thing that people are talking more about breastfeeding. Mothers should feed their babies any damn way they can, and fully own those experiences -- whether that means publicly nursing a toddler, or formula feeding a 2-month-old. But no one on the other side should lose sight of how personal this all feels when you're going through it. Breastfeeding is just one small part of my (as yet) brief history as a mom, but it's a sacred one. It's about my broader parenting ambitions, as well as a hundred mundane moments I've spent soaping breast pump parts, or holding my sweet, big-eyed baby against my chest. Parents should feel empowered to share these stories if they want to. But please, let us start the conversation.

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