By the time my son was a few months old, I became an expert at nursing anywhere, anytime. And let me tell you, my baby nursed all the time — every hour, to be exact. I gave little thought to nursing in public. If I hadn’t done it in public, I wouldn’t have left the house (pumps didn’t work well for me, nor did I particularly want to use bottles).
So I nursed at stores, parks, and restaurants. I nursed him in a baby carrier while walking down the street. I learned how to nurse while leaning over his car seat (only when the car was stopped in traffic and with my seat belt on).
I never got a second glance from anyone while nursing in public without a cover. We live in a suburb of New York City where not many mothers nurse in public, but it isn’t unheard of. I took for granted that I was never harassed. It didn’t even cross my mind.
And then, the summer my son was 6 months old, we spent a week upstate. One afternoon we decided to go out to lunch. There weren’t a lot of restaurant options so we reluctantly settled on Subway. While we waited for the sandwiches to be ready, my baby needed to nurse. As always, I lifted my shirt and nursed him. We were seated near the back of the place in a booth, and my breast and baby were fairly well-hidden. I didn’t think about that at the time, but it was a detail that would spin through my head later as I revisited the scene in slow motion.
Across the restaurant, an employee called out to me: “Excuse me, ma’am, you can’t do that here.”
“What?” I asked, truly not even realizing what she meant.
“Listen, I nursed by babies too, but you can’t do that here. You can go to the restroom if you want to continue. People are eating here.” She motioned to the one other patron, his back turned to me. “That’s indecent exposure,” she said.
Although I usually have no problem letting my voice be heard, in that moment I was completely tongue-tied. I did mumble something about having the legal right to breastfeed, but she kept insisting it was “indecent” and so I did what many women do when they feel violated: I got the hell out of there.
This was over eight years ago, and I can still feel the tears burning behind my eyes, and honest-to-god fear pulsing through my veins. Although I was fully clothed while nursing my son, her accusations made me feel exposed, naked. And even though no one was watching me nurse my son, it felt like the eyes of the world were on me.
I feel embarrassed even telling the story now — not for what happened, but for what didn’t happen. All these years later, I am still ashamed that I could not stand up to that woman. I wish this piece of my breastfeeding history were colored with more valor, more glory.
Yes, I ended up writing Subway a letter, and yes, I got an apology. I received a nice letter from the store’s owner, saying he would speak to the employees and post new rules about a mother’s right to nurse. I got a coupon for some free sandwiches.
But I need to tell you that even though I should have known better, even though I felt fully supported by my friends and family, I still never felt completely comfortable breastfeeding in public again.
It wasn’t that I stopped — not at all. But that innocence that I’d had before was lost. Now I was always aware of who was around, always aware of what I was wearing, always aware of how much nipple was or wasn’t visible for the split second when my baby unlatched.
Soon after this incident, I became a breastfeeding counselor, and a few years later, a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). I could talk for hours about how screwed up our culture is — how breasts are sexualized to such an extent that breastfeeding is seen as indecent or inappropriate. I could tell you that 49 of our 50 states have breastfeeding laws in place which state that all women have the right to nurse in public. I could tell you that very few states have enforceable consequences for those who violate that law, and that needs to change.
I could tell you how we need to take matters into our own hands and report incidents where mothers are harassed while breastfeeding in public. I could tell you to attend all the nurse-ins that come up. I could tell you that more women need to nurse in public to normalize breastfeeding. I could tell you to support all new breastfeeding mothers with good information, praise, and love.
But no anger, righteousness, or rationalization can give me back the innocence that was robbed from me when that woman harassed me for nursing my baby. And I’m not the only one. Women are harassed daily for breastfeeding. Some incidents are reported; most aren’t. And many, many women simply don’t breastfeed in public because they know how vulnerable they are to such harassment.
Some of these women persevere anyway. Some use breastfeeding covers to hide what they are doing. Some pump their milk and give their babies bottles. Some wean their babies earlier than they would have because breastfeeding makes them feel chained down to their homes.
As a lactation consultant, I never tell a mother that she should or should not breastfeed in public. I never tell her she should wear a cover or not (though, to be honest, I think the cover actually draws more attention). Being able to nurse outside the home can be vitally important to maintain breastfeeding, but I know the depth of a woman’s feelings about bodies, shame, and exposure.
I wish I could tell mothers that if they nurse in public, everything will be fine. And it will, most likely. But I also know that all women are vulnerable to harassment while breastfeeding, and there is so much we need to do to change this — so much. It goes beyond whether or not you care about breastfeeding. It goes beyond nursing covers, pumped milk, or bottles. It’s a feminist issue, an issue of human dignity and human rights — it’s about how we treat mothers, children, and families.
It is unacceptable that in 2016 women have to give a second thought about lifting their shirts to nurse their babies. But they do. And it needs to change.
This post originally appeared on Role Reboot.