Two months into motherhood, I was shamed for breastfeeding in public. While nursing my newborn son Jacob last weekend in a discrete corner of a hallway at a charity function hosted by a Toronto country club, the Lambton Golf and Country Club, the restaurant manager approached, saying there had been complaints because “people don’t want to see that while eating.” Grabbing a tablecloth, he shielded me from the view of other diners, and escorted me to the basement.
While nursing there, my initial embarrassment turned to anger. Why was I being publicly shamed for feeding my baby? To raise awareness, my partner, Lia Grimanis, wrote a short description of what had happened, and posted it to Facebook together with a photo of me nursing in the basement. Later, I emailed the club to ask for an apology and sensitivity training.
Hardly a week goes by without a new study on how breastfeeding is good for your child. We’ve been told that it improves brainpower, strengthens the immune system, protects against ear infections and diseases like type I diabetes, accelerates baby growth rates, strengthens bones and reduces the incidence of SIDS. The “breast is best” message from nurses, midwives, doulas, doctors, scientists, politicians, and pretty much everyone else is that breastfeeding is essential, not just for your child, but for the world at large to produce healthy, functioning offspring. (This is an exaggeration, of course; my sister is adopted and was fed on formula, and she is fine.)
Meanwhile, a contrary—but equally assertive—message is also put forward by society, and it's one that I experienced both at the club and on social media (and in the online comment sections) after sharing my story this week. This message says that breastfeeding in public is shameful and wrong, even though our right to publicly nurse is protected by both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and by the Ontario Human Rights Code. Despite these legal protections, people still wrote that nursing in front of others was nauseating, or compared it to “dropping my gear in a restaurant and taking a poop while you are trying to eat.”
Once my story hit the media, many women reached out to say that I wasn’t alone. My neighbour received so many dirty looks while nursing in public that she decided to stop, and instead went to public restrooms to breastfeed, which she found unhygienic. Sometimes she ceased going out at all.
No one explicitly says that a women’s place is in the home, but in these messages, it’s implied. Normally, my son nurses every two hours, but sometimes he cluster feeds every thirty minutes. Critics of public breastfeeding must not understand how breastfeeding works. For me to run errands, grocery shop, or cook—let alone have a life—I need to be able to nurse him whenever or wherever he is hungry. (And sometimes, your boobs don’t give you a choice. You can’t turn them off and you can’t always delay feedings, without risking engorgement, mastitis, and health problems.)
Moms know that this isn’t just a matter of wanting to continue to go out for dinner, go to a hockey game, or have a healthy social life (although it is puzzling and frustrating to me why some people feel that becoming a mother also entails abandoning one’s friends). It’s about continuing to be functioning and engaged members of our families and our communities. In other words, continuing to be equals.
Many women who are nursing their newborns have older kids with needs, too. What if your infant gets fussy and needs to eat in the middle of preschool pickup, or during a play date, or while letting your three-year-old run off some excess energy in the park? Anyone who says women should only be breastfeeding in private are effectively telling us we need to be shut-ins and that we can't participate in day-to-day life, including being present and involved caregivers for our older kids. What, exactly, are breastfeeding women supposed to do?
On Monday, the club publicly apologized and promised to provide sensitivity training to their staff. Let’s hope all those businesses still shaming women for providing babies the nutrients they need will follow their example.