When I was 23 years old, nursing my first baby in a public place, I learned that breastfeeding is not a neutral act. Not when you’re in public. Rather, it’s staunchly political. Hopefully this changes someday through efforts like World Breastfeeding Week.
My first child, Ava, was 7 months old, and we were in Virginia, visiting Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s plantation). During the tour of the house, Ava woke from a nap and started crying, clearly needing to be nursed. So I walked outside, used the restroom and then found a nice bench under a tree. I sat down and began nursing my baby.
About five minutes later, a security guard approached me, saying, “You know, there’s a women’s lounge where you can do that.”
“Oh yeah, where?” I asked.
He pointed to the area I had just come from. He pointed to the bathrooms.
“Actually those are toilets and stalls,” I said.
He just looked at me.
“I’m fine right here, thanks.” I stared at him with my hardest look of death (dramatic, yes, but I was angry). I imagine my eyes made it rather clear there was no way in hell I was moving.
I had done my research, so I knew the breastfeeding laws in Virginia, and I knew I was protected. There was no way I was going to feed my baby on a toilet. There was no way some puritanical, power-hungry security guard was going to make me move because he didn’t approve of the way I cared for my baby. And there was no way I was going to suffocate my infant under a blanket in the stifling, humid Virginia summer.
So I guess I knew it was a political act before the moment I was asked to move (since I’d looked up my legal rights and all), but this was the first time the politics of breastfeeding became real to me, and I had to stand up for myself and my baby.
The security guy walked away, probably hoping a tree branch would suddenly crash down on my exhibitionist head. We finished nursing and rejoined the group.
That guard is one of the reasons World Breastfeeding Week exists. Beginning Aug. 1, the goal of the effort is to “assert the importance of increasing and sustaining the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding.”
It doesn’t seem like we should need a week promoting an act as natural and healthy as breastfeeding, but thanks to the Great Formula Movement of the 1970s, profound misinformation and our country’s great continued legacy of misogyny, we are far from where we should be when it comes to breastfeeding: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 76 percent of mothers begin breastfeeding after birth, but only about 16 percent of those moms are breastfeeding exclusively six months later.
Breastfeeding doesn’t seem political, does it? It’s feeding a baby. And it’s generally the safest, healthiest and most economically sound way to do so. It’s good for the mom and good for the kid and is supported by virtually every health organization on the planet, but how and where and when that breastfeeding occurs reflect a patriarchal power structure that continues to deem breasts as appropriate only for its own sexual consumption.
The effects of this misogyny are felt daily, by women all over the country.
Though the law is on their side in every state, mothers are still told to cover up, get out and/or move to the bathroom. Mothers are denied a private place to pump at work. Until recently, breast pumps were not even covered by health insurance. Women are ridiculed, humiliated, belittled and bullied for choosing to breastfeed in a way society has deemed inappropriate.
I don’t care how you choose to breastfeed your baby. You want to use a cover always? Fine. You want to nurse only in private places? Cool. You want to exclusively pump your milk and use bottles? More power to you.
Here’s what I choose: I choose to nurse my baby wherever I am, and I usually prefer to do so without a cover. I don’t like covers. It’s hot where I live. Also, it’s too much work. Also, the baby thrashes around. Also, I’m comfortable without one, and it’s not my problem that it offends you.
Depending on what I’m wearing, sometimes I pull my breast out the top of my shirt, exposing (gasp!) a pretty decent amount of breast flesh. Given the number of half-naked females plastered all over television, billboards, magazines and the internet, I’m surprised this bothers you. Oh America, you’re a strange place.
Sometimes I just lift my shirt. Sometimes you give me dirty looks, but this is how I’m comfortable. Sometimes I nurse and walk at the same time. (Oh yeah, badass nurser over here.) Sometimes the baby pops off and looks around, and you might get a glimpse of nipple for a moment or two. I’m 99 percent sure you’ll pull through this one. Grow up, people. They’re just boobs.
You don’t like it? Don’t nurse that way.
The problem is not that we disagree, people who think all women should cover up when they nurse. Disagreement is golden. The problem is that telling me to cover up or leave is a violation of my legal rights. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what you think or how you think I should be nursing my baby.
And I know now that each time I sit down to feed or comfort my baby in public, I am not just nurturing my child — rather, I am engaging in a political act. A tiny act of resistance. A tiny “screw you” to the people who think I should get myself to the nearest toilet. A small ripple toward change, toward a world where women feel empowered, confident and supported to nurse when, how and where they please.
And you know what? I’m OK with that. For my daughters, I’ll take it.
So bring it on, America. Ask me to move. Cover up. Move to the bathroom.
Try to kick me out.
I don’t want to fight, but I will. And I won’t stop until you don’t even notice me over here on this bench.
Nothing to see here, friends.
This post originally appeared on AllParenting. It was written by Janelle Hanchett, a “mother of questionable disposition” to three kids.
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