My friend Jessica at The Mom Creative was visiting Atlanta last weekend and was asked to move while she was breastfeeding in public (in the lobby of a church she was visiting). Now, I don’t want to turn this into a debate, and I’m not going to stage a nurse-in at the church (although I’m tempted). But the comments on her post really made me think. Apparently a lot of people, even women, think it’s okay to ask a woman to move to a more private location when she’s in the middle of breastfeeding–even when she’s completely covered up. (If you look at the post, you’ll see a picture of Jessica with her nursing cover. She’s not showing anything, not even the baby. She’s showing less skin than I show in a v-neck t-shirt.)
Now, I get being uncomfortable with somebody else breastfeeding. Really, I do. I used to be uncomfortable with people even talking about breastfeeding. But no matter how awkward you feel about a woman breastfeeding–and this applies no matter how much she’s showing, even if her entire boob is exposed–it’s not her problem, and you shouldn’t make it hers. It’s your problem. Because she isn’t doing anything wrong. She’s doing something right, something that’s difficult in our culture, and your attitude is part of what makes it difficult. You may think you’re being nice when you ask if she wants to move to “a more comfortable, private location.” But the reality is that just by saying that, you’re implying that what she’s doing is inappropriate. That she shouldn’t be seen doing it. That it should be hidden behind closed doors. And that is exactly what makes breastfeeding so difficult in our culture. It’s the fact that people even notice it, that they think it’s a big deal and requires special treatment. It doesn’t. Trust me, if she weren’t comfortable doing it where she’s sitting right now, she wouldn’t be doing it. And your response can make a big difference in whether she feels comfortable doing it again–and even in whether she achieves her personal breastfeeding goals. Sure, in the big scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world if a woman quits breastfeeding before she wants to. Her baby will be fine, and she will be fine, and when her kids are in high school no one but her will remember how long they breastfed. But when your kids are babies, how you feed them is a big deal. And whether or not a woman continues to breastfeed should have to do with her own choices and her own baby’s needs. It should never, ever, ever have anything to do with other people’s reactions or opinions.
So. You want to be supportive and help out a woman who you see breastfeeding in public? Here’s what you should do.
1. Smile at her. Don’t stare, but catch her eye (you don’t even need to look at her boob, hello!), and smile. Show her that you’re comfortable with what she’s doing. If you can’t do this, then don’t do anything. Seriously. Don’t even look at her if you don’t feel comfortable catching her eye and smiling, because if you’re so awkward about the situation that you can’t even do that, then you shouldn’t be interacting with her at all.
2. Say something kind to her. You don’t even need to mention breastfeeding if you don’t want to. Give her a thumbs-up and tell her that her baby’s adorable (assuming you can see the baby and she doesn’t have him covered up). Or better yet, tell her it’s awesome that she’s breastfeeding her baby in public and that you wish more moms felt comfortable doing that. Thank her for helping change society’s perceptions of breastfeeding for the better.
3. Ask if she needs anything. This does not mean ask if she wants to move. Seriously, do I need to say this again? Don’t ask that. Ever. Because it implies that where she’s doing it is not okay. My friend Jessica handled this very graciously, but if you ever ask me if I want to move while I’m comfortably breastfeeding my baby, you will get more than an eyeful of boob. You will get an eyeful of breast milk. But that’s just me.
However, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask if you can get her anything, assuming that you’re in a place where it would be appropriate for you to do that (like a store where you’re the manager, or a church where you’re an usher). Ask if she wants some water or anything. Then, if she would be more comfortable in a different location, she’ll tell you that and ask where she can go.
The one exception about asking her to move would be if she’s sitting in a tiny, cushionless, straightbacked wooden chair and you know there’s a super soft rocking chair in a different room. But if you want to tell her that, first make it clear that she is more than welcome to stay where she is. Say, “Of course you’re fine where you are and you can stay here as long as you like, but if you want a more comfortable chair, there’s an awesome rocking chair over there and I will help you move your stuff.” Make it clear that your priority is her comfort, and make it explicit that the question has nothing to do with other people seeing her breastfeeding. Because if you honestly think that a woman who’s in the middle of breastfeeding should move to a different location just to make other people comfortable. well, I’m sorry, but you deserve a squirt in the eye.
4. Tell her your own experiences of breastfeeding if that’s appropriate. Please don’t go telling every mom you see this, because she may not care. (I’m talking to myself here. Sorry if I annoyed you with my stories of breastfeeding when you were sitting quietly in a restaurant trying to feed your baby. Sometimes I can’t help myself. I’m so extraverted it’s practically a disease.) But if you breastfed your kids in public, or if you’re still breastfeeding older kids, then sharing that can help her feel supported. It will make her feel less alone. So if you get into a conversation and it seems appropriate, feel free to share. Most moms feel a lot more comfortable breastfeeding in public when they know they’re not the only one doing it.
5. Ignore it. Sometimes this is the best response. She’s minding her own business; you can do the same. Would you feel the need to say or do anything if she was giving her baby a bottle? No? Then why do anything when she’s breastfeeding?
Number one still applies, though: a smile is never out of place.
Other moms who have breastfed in public: what about you? What do you wish people would do to support you when you’re breastfeeding in public? And–I’m curious–have you ever breastfed in church? I have plenty of times, and I’ve never felt the need to leave the service, and I’ve never had a negative comment, either. But I will say that church was the place that I felt most awkward about nursing in public, especially at first. Christians can be so squeamish about the body. Gnosticism is rampant in the western church.
But–and I hope the church that Jessica visited reads this–you do realize that Jesus was probably breastfed till he was three or four, right?