Why was I contorting myself into a human pretzel? Because we were at a public park, for one of Lily’s pre-school friends’ birthday party, and Neve was due to be nursed. So I let myself into the parked, empty car, nudged Neve’s infant seat into the space between the driver’s and passenger side seats (to make a little more room for myself, while also obstructing the view of folks in the park), and settled in for a feeding.
Yes, before we left our house for the party, I’d done a quick search of our basement, looking for my old hooter hider knock-off cloak, but I’d had no success. And honestly, even if I’d found it, I probably would have ultimately opted for the less comfortable, but more private, car option anyway.
Why? Not for the reason you think.
Although there’s been a lot of discussion, and sometimes anger, about women feeling (or being rudely told outright) that polite society is uncomfortable with their public nursing – and I understand the moms’ frustration with this – the fact of the matter is, the public’s potential discomfort takes a backseat to my own discomfort when it comes to this issue. For me, nursing is an intimate, personal act – one that I happen to prefer to perform in private, if that’s at all possible.
Now before anyone jumps in to tell me that I’ve simply absorbed society’s unhealthy skittishness regarding this issue, or that I suffer from some seriously unhealthy body shame issues, I’ll confess that both are probably, to some degree, true. I am modest by nature, being one of those people who often changes in a bathroom stall when in a locker room; I rarely look at myself without clothes on in a mirror; and before I had children, I was wildly uncomfortable when a woman nursed a child in public.
But I don’t think this discomfort arose from what is clearly one of the most sexually fetishized body parts being suddenly, publicly visible (since, really, it’s pretty much de-sexualized by its function in this context). No, my thinking is that I used to look away from a nursing mom for the same reason I looked away from a couple passionately making out in public, or two people having an intense argument in public: there’s an inherent level of intimacy involved that makes me feel like what’s happening is none of my business; and while they’re choosing to perform each of these acts in public, my natural inclination is to provide them with some kind of respectful privacy, whether they seem to want it or not.
Yet even if I always felt a little skittish about this issue before, I never wanted to make the mother feel uncomfortable, since I believe she has the right to nurse wherever she needs or wants to. It’s a practical, natural thing. And just because I’m overly sensitive doesn’t mean other women should have to twist themselves into the backseat of a crowded car, too. Everyone has the right to their own choices, and rightfully so. (And regarding my own repression and body issues, I’m 40 at this point, and I simply embrace, rather than fight, who I am, warts and all. If I’m more comfortable nursing between two car seats than doing so out in public, that’s my prerogative, and no one is hurt by this choice either way.)
I nursed Lily for a year, and my plan is to try and do the same with Neve, if that’s possible. (Though, interestingly, as my fabulous writer friend Danielle Magnuson pointed out in her recent Utne Reader blog post, a recent article discussed one woman’s questioning of the superiority of breastmilk over formula, and not surprisingly, it’s creating a stir.) I’d wondered how Lily would react to seeing me feed Neve from my own body – despite being modest, I never for a moment considered hiding from Lily every time I needed to feed Neve – but I’d tried to tell her about it before Neve was born, and seemingly because I treated it like it was no big deal, Lily has done the same. And this has been a relief.
Now, most moms I’ve talked to fall into one of two camps regarding breastfeeding: they either love it, waxing poetic about how it makes them feel calm and close to their baby; or they hate it, since any little problem that arises becomes so instantly fraught with anxiety and guilt. (Somewhere along the way, we’ve unfortunately been indoctrinated to believe that a non-breastfeeding mother is a bad mother – despite the fact that the vast majority of our generation was raised on formula and turned out just fine.)
But frankly, as far as nursing is concerned, I don’t love it or hate it. In the parlance of a certain athletic shoe company, I “just do it” – and because I haven’t yet had a problem with milk production, the latch, infections, etc., I’ve been lucky enough to maintain this relatively simple, straightforward attitude toward the process. Yes, I’ll celebrate when I reach the breastfeeding finish line, and I’ll finally get to feel like my body is truly my own again; but especially this time around, when the Grekin-McKee household can get a bit riotous, I also sometimes appreciate stealing a few quiet minutes with the baby.
Which is partly why, when it’s time to nurse, I’m usually looking for a little space that’s one remove from the rest of the world.