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Nursing in Public: Americans Need to Get Over Their Hang-Ups

4 years ago
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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."
Filed Under: Woman Up

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272 Comments

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Lynsey

Breast feeding is a natrual and beautiful thing. But it is something to be done behind closed doors. Someone commented that men can show their nipples in public. Well that isn't true. Stores and Restaurants will deny service to shirtless people. Public nudity is unacceptable. I don't understand why people thing that if you attach a baby to the naked part, it makes it okay. There shouldn't be a different standard for a nursing mother because she doesn't feel she needs to inconvienience herself by walking to a restroom or mother's lounge. If I whipped my breasts out in public, I would be charged with indecent exposure! And not everything that is natural and healthy is okay for in public. Pooping is natural and healthy, too.

August 19 2010 at 6:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Lynsey's comment
tiffany8079

Ok, the next time you are ready to eat a meal, be sure to do it in the restroom. If you don't like the fact that I am FEEDING MY BABY, don't look!

August 22 2010 at 1:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cynthia

I am in business to make money, not a social statement. When someone decides to nurse her baby in my shop, customers leave and it costs me sales. I do not let people nurse their children or change diapers in my store. In fact, I do not let any food or beverages be consumed in my shop. There is a time and place for everything. It may be the time, but not the place. Please be more considerate and take care of your business somewhere besides my business.

June 12 2010 at 8:57 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Cynthia's comment
Brenda

Do you kick out people who are bottle-feeding babies?

June 14 2010 at 12:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ACL

So breast feed in public! Just keep in mind that you are in public and you should be as considerate of others feelings as you want them to be of yours. Why should everyone share your beliefs and how do you make it your place to expose your breasts to other people who are uncomfortable with it, or their childeren? Go ahead, breast feed your baby...... just show a little consideration of others as you are asking them of you. We can all share public spaces....let's just use a little good ole' fashioned common coutesy.....that seems to be lacking in many situations.

June 12 2010 at 2:04 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
cmp759

I wish I could have been at that nurse-in. People are so warped. Breastfeeding is being pushed on women BY the government more and more, so people had better get over their hang ups. Breasts are primarily for feeding a baby. The USA needs to relax.

June 12 2010 at 12:39 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Laura

seriously, why does a breastfeeding mother make people uncomfortable??? after reading alot of the comments it seems as though people think that the mother is "exposing" herself or trying to "cause trouble"..but that makes no sense. ive seen more exposed at the beach, at the mall, on the streets, really anywhere than i have from a mother who is breastfeeding. i am starting to wonder if perhaps you dont want to see someone breastfeeding because you find it perverse? maybe in a way it embarrasses you to see that much contact between mother and child even though it is completely normal? from these comments it seems as though people are horrified by something as simple as breastfeeding. honestly, if you want a mother to breastfeed in private, on a toilet in the bathroom then you should eat in the bathroom as well..maybe your offending someone.

June 12 2010 at 10:54 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
goetzbog

The problem IS the fact that breasts have become a sex object. This is why it has become uncomfortable for everyone. Until that changes it will be embarrassing to see women breast feed. We can't have it both ways. It doesn't work that way as much as women want it to be that way. Breasts are a tease to men. They get arroused expecially teenage boys.
As much as it is uncomfortable see women breast feeding I do believe that you should be able to do it in public. But at the same time everyone should have respect for others no matter what it is. If there is a private place available why not have respect for others?

June 12 2010 at 10:19 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
beautiful geeta

When I was breastfeeding my daughter in public, I covered her with blankets out of my own shame. I wish I didn't have to and looking back now I would have made it more comfortable for her and myself by being braver and lightening up on the blankets. It's soooo unfortunate that public breastfeeding causes shame.

June 12 2010 at 7:08 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
bimmy13

its the women who insist on breast feeding in front of everybody that need to "get over it" & quit thinking they are special cuz if we just stared at them they would then be complaining about that.

June 12 2010 at 6:04 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bimmy13's comment
cmp759

Why do you say breastfeeding women think they are special? A breast is for feeding a baby on all women. Get over your weird hang ups about "boobies." Men can show their nipples in public. Why the double standard? If a woman chooses to feed her child in public and that makes YOU uncomfortable, look away.

June 12 2010 at 12:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dtw2354

Going to the bathroom is the most natural thing also and it's not sexy either but I don't think you'll be catching these mothers doing this in the open! When is America going to go back to common courtesy instead of I have a right to this no matter how it makes others feel?!! I would never want to make others uncomfortable just because I can do something. I have feelings for others around me and do not want to go out of my way to make folks miserable just because I can!

June 12 2010 at 5:21 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Katrina

I agree. You don't eat your food in the bathroom, why should my child? I nursed my daughter (14 years ago) ANYWHERE and ANYTIME she was hungry. I got stares but no one ever approached me. If I were in a department store like Wal-mart, I would walk over to the baby aisle and nurse there.

June 12 2010 at 5:17 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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