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Ode: Breastfeeding in public

Amelia Saint
Ally Karsyn
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When my oldest son was about six months old, I took him to his first Royals game.

Now, with my first kid, I was not comfortable openly nursing. So, I had this system where I would wear two shirts—I would pull one up and I would pull the other one down. I would expose just the bare minimum, and whenever possible, I would nurse in private or, at least, go find an out-of-the-way place.

But that day, it was about 95 degrees, and it was way too hot for layers. The Royals were good that year, so the stadium was packed, and if I had wanted to get up and go find some quiet, out-of-the-way place, I would have to like scooch past 10 strangers in either direction. So I spent most of the game surrounded by strangers, nursing a fussy, sweaty and very, very thirsty baby.

At one point, the man sitting in front of me noticed what I was doing, and he turned around to watch. Not enough action on the field for him. I was there with my friend, who is this red-bearded giant of a man, who looks like he just fell out of a Viking ship, got sucked through a hole in time and landed in Kauffman stadium.

So my friend leaned forward and said, “Hey, do you like it when people stare at you while you’re eating?” The guy turned around and kept his eyes glued to the field for the rest of the game.

But what my friend said to that man, intending only to embarrass a rude stranger, really highlighted for me the crux of our culture’s hang-up with breastfeeding: essentially that we think of it as feeding and not as eating.

We’re here, tonight, in this community garden, surrounded by food, and we’re eating food and talking about food, but for so many of us, there’s a disconnect between the idea of food and feeding a baby at the breast.

I once cleared out a Waffle House because I was feeding my baby while I wolfed down hashbrowns. And even though the sight of me shoveling fried potatoes, covered in cheese in ketchup into my mouth as fast as I possibly could is objectively far more revolting than my son peacefully nursing, I know it was not my table manners that drove the people in that restaurant away. It was the sight of roughly 40 percent of one of my breasts.

I hear a lot of people—seemingly enlightened, supportive people—say things like, “Oh, I think breastfeeding is great! It’s perfectly natural! Women should be able to feed their babies whenever, wherever and however they need to be fed. But do you have to just… flop it out?” The answer is yes, sometimes I do.

From my male friends, I’ve heard, “Oh, I don’t mind if you nurse, but I just don’t know where to look.” To which I say, “Do you normally only look at my boobs? Because if so, we probably shouldn’t hang out anymore.”

Now, when I’m nursing in public, I do it with blinders on. I go about my business. I flop it out when my baby is hungry. And I don’t pay any attention to the people around me.

I’ve grown so oblivious that I once bragged to a southern friend about how enlightened this part of the world is. I told her that I’ve never gotten so much as a sideways glance when I’m out nursing in public. At that point, my husband piped up, “Oh no, people give you dirty looks all the time. You just don’t notice.”

The reality is that women who nurse openly, as I do, are gawked at or groused about or deliberately avoided. Our focus is centered so much on what the mother is doing. Is she covered? Is she being modest? Why can’t she just give him a bottle until they get home?

And I could. I could wear one of those poncho-style nursing covers over me and my baby, but those remind me of the ortolan, a French delicacy in which a little songbird is trapped, blindfolded, fattened on millet, then drowned in brandy and flambéed whole. Traditionally, the diner drapes a large napkin over the his head while he eats the bird in one bite, bones and all. Supposedly, this napkin-over-the-head thing was started by a priest who did it to hide his decadence from God.

Now, every time I see a baby nursing with a cloth draped over his head, I have the overwhelming urge to ask, “Oh, is he eating an ortolan under there?” I resist this urge. I have a hard enough time making mom friends.

What I really, though, desperately want to say to other mothers and to everyone who stares or conspicuously looks away is that there’s nothing to hide from God or anybody else.

If I’m nursing my baby while I walk around a museum, I don’t need you to show me to a small, windowless room with nothing but a chair and a dirty diaper funk in the air that you call a “Nursing Refuge.” I don’t need refuge or concealment. I don’t need a golden throne or a public toilet on which to feed my baby. You don’t have to avert your eyes, but you don’t have to lean in and admire my son’s good strong latch either. And if you don’t know where to look, look at my baby as a human being, a very hungry little human being, who should, like the rest of us, be allowed to eat without criticism or judgment.

 

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Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.

We’re hosting Ode’s 2nd Anniversary Show on Friday, February 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Shawn Blomberg, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Risk.” 

Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.

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