Massachusetts – Last week, I took my 5-month-old son to Whole Foods.
We bought a few things (bread flour, a chicken who’d led a happy life). After paying, he seemed hungry, so I grabbed a seat at a table in the café area to feed him. A well-meaning older woman walked over and said, “It’s so nice to see a nursing mother. It’s so important to breastfeed.”
I found this incredibly annoying.
I am (mostly) breastfeeding my baby, but not for philosophical reasons. I am doing it because it’s cheaper than formula and more convenient, most of the time. And because breastmilk doesn’t have a million unpronounceable ingredients, like crypthecodinium cohnii oil, which is in the organic formula in my pantry.
Additionally, I have the luxury of working from home and having all my parts and my baby’s parts anatomically suited to breastfeeding.
But listen, lady at Whole Foods: I’m not doing it because I believe very deeply in the health benefits or because I want to bond with my baby in a special way or because it’s natural. We do lots of bonding when he’s not sucking all my body’s nutrients out of me, thanks. Don’t force me into a conversation in which I must thank you for supporting my lazy choices.
The next day, an art museum in Boston was offering free admission. My son and I strolled through for about an hour and then got ready to go. After retrieving our coats and getting packed up, my son fussed and I decided to feed him before we went outside in the snow. I took out a contraption I refer to as my “shame apron,” covered myself up, and fed him on a bench near the exit.
About 10 minutes later, an employee of the museum came over to me. “I think you might be more comfortable doing that in the living room,” she said. The living room is in a different part of the museum, further from the entrance.
“That’s okay,” I replied, thinking she was concerned for my comfort. “We’re just about done.” The woman stalked away and did an elaborate shrug gesture to somebody I couldn’t see. That’s when it occurred to me that she might have been suggesting that I shouldn’t breastfeed on that particular bench.
I live in Somerville, Massachusetts, a rapidly gentrifying, hip, young area just outside Boston. Baby-wearing, breastfeeding, and baby-led weaning are big here. Being shamed for breastfeeding was a completely foreign concept to me.
Somebody doesn’t want me to breastfeed? I found myself wanting to do it in defiance, free of the shame apron, just to spite the museum lady. Then I thought that maybe my ideas about breastfeeding were offensive to people, maybe I was too exposed?
A friend said that I was completely covered and what she was asking of me was illegal anyway. But I couldn’t shake the idea that I was doing something wrong.
The fact that I’ve made it five months without encountering this sort of thing is an indication that attitudes about breastfeeding have changed a lot, and that’s probably a good thing. However, I think the more important takeaway from this is that people still feel like they need to weigh in on women’s choices, and that’s not okay.
I was bothered by the museum woman, for sure, but I was also bothered by the stranger in Whole Foods, telling me I was doing the right thing. By complimenting me, she was implying that there’s a wrong choice to make.
She doesn’t know that when my son refused to take a bottle I quit pumping, because he wasted so much of my milk. Then we discovered that he would take a sippy cup, and I gave him formula because that’s what I had on hand. If she had known that, would she have told me that was the wrong choice for me to make? But also, and more importantly, I do not care what she thinks. Just leave me alone! Leave me alone, everyone!
If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.
It seems like there are a lot of parenting philosophies out there, but I think the best thing to do is make the appropriate choice for your situation, case by case, day by day. Why is there no middle-of-the-road parenting philosophy?
Baby sleep-training is a great example of this. If you don’t let your baby cry it out, you are a wimp. If you do let your baby cry it out, you are cruel. How about some babies need sleep training and some don’t? How about let’s just leave everyone alone to figure out their own lives? I know that if my baby has a mother who is well-rested, his life is going to be more pleasant. I am a better mother when I have slept. Take from that what you will.
I’m not making a political statement by breastfeeding in public. It’s just something that has to happen if I ever want to leave the house. And I need to leave the house so I don’t fall into a deep depression. I would love to keep my choices private, but I need to be in the world and I won’t be sequestered.
I think the reason people feel entitled to comment on mothers’ choices is because babies are very cute and great and they are our future and somehow that starts to feel like public domain. (See also: abortion.) There seems to be some disagreement about when a baby stops being an extension of the mother. My son still feels sort of like my third arm: ever-present, part of me and not quite fully necessary, really more of a hindrance to productivity. But he’s my arm and as long as I’m not hurting him, I get to do what I choose. Right?
Okay, so one takeaway here is that everybody is a jerk. But, there is a generous way to think about this. Maybe everybody is just doing their best.
Whole Foods woman thinks that breastfeeding makes babies healthier and happier and maybe she lives in a world where breastfeeding is not encouraged. She is fighting what is, for her, the good fight. Maybe she thinks I’m fighting, too, and she wants to fight alongside me. Thanks, Whole Foods lady. Even though you annoyed me, thanks for the support.
Maybe museum lady was concerned about the group of middle school students who walked by me while I was discreetly breastfeeding. Maybe she has a middle schooler at home and she can see firsthand that everything in the world is confusing and hormonal for a middle schooler and maybe she was trying to protect the last dregs of childhood and mystery for that group of kids for just one more day.
Or maybe her boss told her to come talk to me and she felt super weird about it. I don’t know that lady’s story. I’m sorry you were in a weird situation, museum lady. I don’t know your life, and you don’t know mine.
It’s possible that Whole Foods lady spends all her time not in Whole Foods shaming her daughter-in-law for bottle-feeding her baby. And it’s definitely possible that museum lady thinks boobs are gross and I’m gross for having them and using them. But we don’t know their lives, so let’s go ahead and assume they are good people, doing their best to get by in the world. Maybe we can all just assume the best of each other from now on.