I sat frozen in a barn across a picnic table from a woman with her back to me. She was breastfeeding without a blanket, and I didn’t know what to do. Should I say something, anything? Like, “How’s it going? How old is your daughter?” Umm… this is awkward, I thought to myself. Should I just sit there, or should I get up and find the others? We were at a wine vineyard, and she was my good friend’s sister that I had just met like ten minutes prior along with the rest of her family.
She had just had the most beautiful baby girl, and it was my first encounter with an American breastfeeding mama showing boob. And I’m not talking just a little bit of the bottom half or even side boob, but all of it. My own child was running around somewhere with his friend, and I thought about how things were so different when he was born. That first week from the hospital while my parents and siblings were there I’d run to my room every time I had to feed or throw a blanket over his head. I hated feeling so isolated from my family and awkward even sitting there with a blanket. It didn’t last long though since I gave up trying to feed after about a month of struggle.
Fast-forward back to the present story. My then-8yr-old ran over to where we were sitting, and I was horrified that he would see too much at his tender age. I wasn’t ready for the questions he might ask. I thought maybe my friend’s sister felt more comfortable because we were kind of away from everyone, fellow wine-drinking strangers included, but nope! Once we got back to my friend’s house that evening and the next day, every two hours or so she was just as exposed no matter who was around.
I was so uncomfortable not just for my own sake (as I am for any form of public nudity), but also mostly for my son. No one seemed to be bothered though, and I was utterly bewildered. Not her mom, sisters, dad, husband, brother-in-law or her mother-in-law who was visiting from England. Just me. I felt like I was screaming in the twilight zone and no one could hear me. I couldn’t say anything because I thought maybe I had missed the memo that this was now ok. Didn’t want to seem like an uncool jerk stuck in the 20th century for not wanting me or my son to be involuntarily part of such an intimate moment.
Earlier I had mentioned it was my first encounter with an American breastfeeding momma because in college I studied abroad in Ghana. Occasionally we’d come across African women completely naked from the waist up with their suckling babies. My silly male travel mates would make a big fuss, and we’d laugh about it, I hate to admit. I was just as uncomfortable back then, but we chalked it up to being in a different country and culture with different societal norms. I never expected to experience it here in the United States.
I thought about it a lot in the days after this experience, and I realized a couple of things. One, every family is different in how they interact with each other and what they are comfortable with. Who knows, maybe I was late to the party, and this topic had already been discussed and settled long before I got there. Two, I didn’t have to look. In fact, I got used to averting my eyes whenever it was her time to feed.
Three, this experience had exposed to me my own ignorance. I had read articles about the issue when there was a buzz about women breastfeeding in military uniform, but this was in my face. It forced me to think about it from the mother’s and baby’s perspective. I thought, “What sense does it make to put a blanket over a baby when it’s summer time in the south? Would I want to eat under a hot blanket?” Of course not.
And lastly, in spite of feeling uncomfortable, and annoyed that my feelings weren’t considered as a guest among this family for the first time, I found myself strangely in awe of this woman. She exuded a level of confidence and inhibition that I knew I did not possess. It’s like she knew exactly who she was, what she had to do for her baby and didn’t care what anyone thought. Without words, she spoke for her daughter and the right to nourish her.
Ironically, it was the total opposite of me not speaking up for my son. By the way, I worried about him, but he just seemed to go with the flow. He only cared about playing, as do all boys his age, and never said anything about it. Perhaps, when he’s a little older, he will be more mature than my male travel mates who pointed and snickered every time we saw a mother breastfeeding. Or maybe he’ll have more tolerance than the men who say it’s gross and a disgrace for them to do it in public.
I still feel a small rush of uncomfortableness whenever I am around a breastfeeding mom I don’t know who chooses to do so sans the blanket, but I’ve grown used to it by now. I look forward to having more children and exercising my right to nourish them as well whenever and wherever I want. If it’s cool enough, it probably won’t be without a blanket, but hey, that’s just me. Everyone’s comfort level is different. Kudos to the women who have been courageous enough to normalize one of the most natural, loving parts of giving and sustaining life.
Have you had a similar experience? Comment below and share your story from either perspective.