A month or so ago I was in an H&M in downtown D.C. when the baby, cranky and tired, hungry and fussy, began to squirm and cry. We were miles from home, an hour from prepping food. I unbuttoned my shirt half way, sat down on a display cube and pulled her on my lap.
Within seconds a clerk was upon me. "Wouldn't you be more comfortable in a changing room?" a male H&M staffer said to me, not meeting my eye, nor my breast, looking instead somewhere just east of my right shoulder. "You mean the changing rooms with a 20-minute wait to get in? No," I replied.
"Well you can't sit here," he said.
And so I stood. Babe latched on, and I cocked my hip to support her until she finished. Downstairs, hipsters and tourists were lounged all over the display cubes. No one said a word to them.
My breasts are pretty awesome. I don't mean beautiful (though, naturally, like the Seinfeld character, they are real and they are fabulous). I mean: I'm a lactation machine. Match that with full-time work? Ridiculous at times; fulfilling at others. But I'm a firm believer that breasts are every woman's own decision-making field (i.e formula suit you best? By all means, bottle feed!).
And yet my breasts scare me too.
For a country that finds them vaguely titillating, and totally socially unacceptable, we think about breasts a lot here in America. After living in Spain for a few years, where even the abuelas are topless at the beach, I'd forgotten that some folks just can't abide by 'em. And more than sunbathing, it's nursing, for some reason, that still causes consternation.
But breast cancer? Knit brows, and what my mom calls rachmanus eyes. Rachmanus
, in Yiddish, means pity or compassion. When my mom had breast cancer – twice – the supermarket conversations all came with Rachmanus eyes. (And my mom, a survivor for over 15 years now, didn't get to hang out with the McCartneys
, unlike my illustrious colleague Bonnie Goldstein. She'll be very jealous to read that!)
Last week, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic announced
that mice bred for breast cancer tumors were injected with a vaccine that appeared to completely prevent the cancer. Buzz grew about a vaccine in the offing: before too long, lead researcher Dr. Vincent Tuohy
promised, 40-something women may well be able to get a shot which will dramatically reduce their risk of breast cancer. Just think! A two-fer: their girls can get shot up for HPV, and their moms can take a syringe to prevent the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women.
But before that vaccine comes on the market (human studies are next, in case you're interested in signing up), women in the position to do so might consider long-term nursing, which has been shown to dramatically cut breast cancer risk
, especially in gals like me. My mom's two bouts with breast cancer both occurred in her early 40s, before menopause. That means I'm signing myself up for mammograms a full decade before everyone else I know, simply because the family history is strong. One study
found that women with my history lowered their cancer risk by 59 percent
if they breastfed.
To be fair, I'm not doing it for breast cancer. I'm doing it because it works for me (and for my baby), and I enjoy it.
But some people can't stand it. That's why laws have been passed to allow women to breast feed when and where they need and want to. Being pushed into a closet – at H&M or anywhere -- is illegal in many states.
I was reminded of that when I was invited to a nurse-in in Frederick, Md.,
recently. A woman named Ann-Marie Luciano's story was forwarded to me by e-mail:
On Monday, May 24th, at approximately 10:30am, I was nursing my 3 month old son on a bench in the Francis Scott Key mall. While I was nursing a woman who worked at the mall customer service desk that was nearby came up to me and asked me if I knew that there was a nursing room in the mall. I told her that I was not aware of the nursing room and I continued to nurse. She then asked me if I'd go to the nursing room to nurse. I told her I would not, that I was okay nursing on the bench. She then asked me again to either go to the nursing room or to cover up with a blanket because she was uncomfortable "and there are kids around."
I told her that under MD law I had a right to nurse in any public or private place and that I was not going to either leave to go to the nursing room or put a blanket over my son's head. I added that if she was uncomfortable, she could cover her head. A mom who was in the play area with her kids then came over and said, "I agree with her - can you please go somewhere else or cover up? My KIDS are here." I told the mother that I was fully within my rights to remain on the bench and nurse my son. She then replied: "But my son asked me, "Mommy, why is that lady putting her boob in that baby's mouth?" and I don't know what to tell him.
I told her: "Tell your son that that mom is feeding her baby the way moms have fed their babies for millions of years." A female security guard came over to me and asked that I either go to the nursing room or cover up with a blanket. I told her that under MD law I had a right to breastfeed in any public or private place. The security guard continued to state, "but this is private property" and I continued to remind her that MD law entitled me to nurse on private property as well. All women eventually left to go complain to the head mall office. I finished nursing about 5 minutes later and then left the mall.
The mom in question – who turns out to be a Cornell Law grad on maternity leave, best be careful with who you harass! – brought a copy of the Maryland law to the mall staff the next day. And now she has organized what's become known as a "nurse-in" – a gathering of nursing moms with infants and toddlers in tow, who go to a place where a nursing mother has been shamed or verbally assaulted and stage a massive breastfeeding frenzy.
"I don't feel any shame about feeding my baby," Ms. Luciano said, when I reached her by phone. "People can not separate the fact that the breast is not just a sex object . . . It's unfortunate. Something has been lost in our culture."