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Breastfeeding: Beautiful act or act of public indecency?

Published: Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 6:02 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 11:12 a.m. CDT

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It won’t surprise you to learn, if you read last week’s column, that I’m a huge fan of breastfeeding – anytime, anywhere – but I appreciate that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. While I found creative ways to maintain some semblance of modesty whenever we were in public and my babies were hungry, not everyone does. And some folks aren’t too keen about that.

I’ll never forget the reaction of one young man, whose angst still makes me giggle.

Wanting to contest a speeding ticket, I reported to the courthouse on the appointed day and took a seat in the crowded corridor outside the courtroom. An obviously nervous teenage boy sat down beside me, and directly opposite us sat a mom and her children.

It wasn’t long before she unbuttoned her shirt. Her daughter, who looked to be about 4 years old, immediately climbed onto her lap and asked to nurse. Just a few minutes later her much older brother kicked her off their mom’s lap and demanded his turn, but his feet never left the floor. He just kind of leaned over and, well, you get the picture.

“I’ll never speed again, I swear,” my young neighbor whispered. Beads of sweat blossomed above the peach-fuzz on his upper lip as he turned to me, wide-eyed. “I can’t watch,” he said.

Giving up your seat meant forfeiting your place in line, so we were forced to stay put and wait it out. It was a long wait.

“There, there, it’s gonna be OK,” I shushed, patting his knee.

 Traffic court was nothing compared to the scene in the hallway. 

Though I was a long way away from becoming a mom myself, back then, don’t get me wrong. I don’t judge this mother for nursing in public – or even for nursing her children well past the age our uptight society deems is appropriate (in some cultures this practice is commonplace, but that’s a topic for another column).

While I “only” nursed my kids for two or three years each, a far cry from five or six, I get that it’s uncomfortable for some people to observe – for all kinds of reasons.

You may recall that a few years ago a young mom made headlines when another woman threatened to call the police if she didn’t stop nursing in a Chicago park. The woman’s behavior, that of nursing her 7-month-old, was “indecent,” she said.

She cited the other children present as her concern. Maybe she didn’t want them to see a mother bonding with and feeding her baby, in a way perhaps unfamiliar to them. They might have gotten ideas about what others consider natural and normal, and maybe even have learned that breasts are more than mere sex toys.

They might even have been inspired to breastfeed their own babies someday. And that would be a bad thing?

I feel sorry for this woman – and her kids, if they were hers – really, I do. Perhaps she couldn’t or wouldn’t nurse her own, and encountering this scene pushed whatever buttons her feelings about her own situation inspired? Whatever was going on for her, I feel for her. 

I also feel for the young mom in question, but, stunned as she was at this woman’s hostility, she quickly got over her surprise and staged a nurse-in at the same park. She figured a few friends would drop by, but word quickly spread and eventually 60 nursing moms showed up with their babies. Some even drove a couple of hours or more just to be there.

I get it. Not only is breastfeeding beneficial to mothers and babies, but if you want to get a life, public nursing is bound to happen sooner or later – especially when newborns are involved (they generally need to be nursed every two to three hours).

I made my first attempt at public breastfeeding when Noah was 4 weeks old, at a meeting for writers. I sat toward the rear of the gathering, hoping to be discreet, but the moderator came and stood directly behind me to make his announcements, forcing the group to look my way. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to disappear, but, as you know if you’ve ever nursed a new baby who is unused to disruptions during his feedings, you don’t just get up midstream and relocate.

By the time Holly came along, though, I had it down. I was able to rescue my busy toddler from various perils while the baby was “latched on,” and even engaged in witty repartee with other parents while I nursed and scanned the jungle gym for signs that my then 3 year old, caked in a gritty mix of sunscreen and sand, still had a heartbeat.

It was thrilling, actually. I felt like I could leap over tall buildings, back in those days. They were great days, but perhaps not for everyone involved, unbeknownst to me. You just never really know the impact you’ll have on others.

As for my traumatized teenage friend back then, I suspect he’s never gotten another speeding ticket.
• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at jenniferdubose@msn.com.

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