Is There Shame In Not Publicly Breastfeeding?

by Mary Cosgrove

I understand the push to normalize public breastfeeding. Women shouldn’t be forced to hide out in hot cars, gross public bathrooms or whatever other nook and cranny to avoid the side eye from people who don’t get it or who are uncomfortable witnessing a mother feed her child.

When I moved to Atlanta, one of the first stories I ever covered as a reporter was when a city just to the south of us banned public breastfeeding of children over the age of 2. A large group of women congregated on the lawn of city hall to publicly breastfeed their children in protest. I wasn’t married and I didn’t have children, although I was in a committed relationship with the promise of both. My extended family was spread across the country, and my immediate family was pretty small and relatively devoid of opportunities to spend time with babies. Needless to say, I had never come across opportunities to witness breastfeeding or develop opinions on it. But I didn’t mind it being planted in a sea of nursing women. It didn’t seem weird or creepy. These women had a right after all.

Two years later, married and with a child on the way, I was dead set on breastfeeding. And if it had to be done in public, oh well. I could be discreet and who am I to deny a hungry baby of ready-made milk?

Turns out, public breastfeeding is not for me. I’m an awkward person—prudish even. I couldn’t bring myself to whip out a boob in the middle of a crowd and let my baby go to town. I find nursing covers nearly as awkward as I am, and I also greatly struggled breastfeeding my daughter in the first weeks of her life, finding it easier to do it in a quiet, comfortable place. I don’t blame the haters. They didn’t drive me to want to privately breastfeed. The onus is on me. In fact, I feel a little shameful even—that I don’t have what it takes to flaunt my magical breastfeeding powers.

When I was pregnant the second time around, I had the misguided fantasy that I would have to publicly breastfeed because I would be constantly on the go with my now-toddler daughter. But the opportunity hasn’t risen. It doesn’t help that my son thrashes about like a fish out of water, latching and unlatching for whatever reason. The dripping milk, the constant redirecting of his head, that’s all hard to do while being strangled by a nursing cover. He’s also easily distracted, and I worry about him getting his fill, so it’s easier to do it somewhere private. Not to mention the impossibility of keeping an eye on my tornado toddler while being rooted in place trying to nurse. I haven’t had any issue in the past popping my daughter in her car seat and turning on her DVD while I nurse him in the front seat. Besides, our life isn’t so busy that I have to feed him on the go. Yes, there have been a few car nursing sessions, but they’ve been few and far between because I can nurse him before we go somewhere and nurse again when we return. Rarely are we out of the house long enough that it necessitates a nursing break.

That doesn’t mean I’m not supportive of women who breastfeed in public. I’ll wing a silent “You go, girl!” any time I see a woman breastfeeding in public. Good for you that you’re confident enough to do that in public. I just happen to not be, and I’m coming around to being OK with that.

Only one time have the stars aligned and I was able to feed my son in public, and as irony would have it, it was probably the most public platform I could imagine. I had just completed a 5K in downtown Atlanta that ended on the 50-yard line of the Georgia Dome. Runners were being recorded in real time crossing the finish line and projected onto the Jumbotron. My husband met me at the finish line with my son and daughter and left to go compete in the 1-mile run. My son was having an absolute, squalling, red-faced meltdown, and it had been almost three hours since I fed him. I snagged a banana to occupy my daughter, found a bench, tossed a blanket over my shoulder and let him hop aboard the milk expressway. I didn’t get any sneers or weird looks—people were just milling about minding their own business. I was flooded with confidence. “You go, girl,” I told myself. So now I know I can do it. I’m not overly prudish or awkward—to an extent. And I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to freely feed my son in a public forum. So I get it. Let’s normalize public breastfeeding. There isn’t any shame in it. But conversely, should there be shame that I don’t readily choose to do it?

What I would like to see is the recognition that there are times when a mother needs to feed her child in a public place, but would like to do so privately. Perhaps she doesn’t want to play Twister with a nursing cover or isn’t comfortable enough using her baby’s head as proper boob blockage. Where I live, there is a brand new shopping center that has its own private nursing room. A television is mounted on the wall, and there is a child-size set of chairs around a table covered with children’s books, so blessedly, a mother with multiple children can keep them occupied in a safe place while the baby nurses. There’s even a rocking chair for mom and baby. That’s progress to me. A woman isn’t forced to hide, nor is she forced to do it in front of dozens of strangers. It’s the perfect fit for someone like me, who can and will breastfeed in public when the need arises, but who would prefer not to. Surely I can’t be the only one.