The first time it happened, it was as if I had landed in a Seinfeld episode. Harmless office chitchat turned awkward when a male colleague I didn’t know very well struck up a friendly conversation about my breasts.
“So I assume you’re planning on breastfeeding,” he casually inquired.
This guy may have been the first to put me on the spot, but he was far from the last. From the moment my pregnancy started to show, it felt like my boobs were everybody’s business.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned or just a little prudish, but when did it become polite to ask?
It’s still considered inappropriate to ask a woman her bra size or whether her breasts are real, right? Yet, nowadays it seems perfectly acceptable for any stranger on the street (literally) to ask if I am lactating.
So I’d like to set the record straight for those of you interested acquaintances and random parties who want to know. To the cable TV guy, the couple loading their toddler into their minivan on my block, the real estate broker at the open house last week, the personal trainer at my gym, and the man next to me in line at the post office: No, I am not breastfeeding!
Yes, I am well aware that “breast is best” for mother and baby as touted by both the medical establishment and the government. And I wholeheartedly support the new proposal in Congress to give businesses incentives to provide mothers with a room to nurse and even breast pumps. Thanks, MomsRising for alerting me to this effort. New moms need all the help they can get!
But here’s the rub. Not everyone can or wants to breastfeed and it is deeply personal. When you ask me the powerfully loaded question of whether I’m nursing or not, it stirs up every insecurity I have about motherhood. With that innocent query comes the inevitable judgment—am I a good mother? How much am I willing to sacrifice for my child? Don’t I want “the best” for my baby?
I’m all for community mindedness. I am inspired by people selfless enough to care about my infant’s well being. But when it comes to my breasts and how I use them, I’d like a little space and frankly, a little less guilt.
The truth is that I was an expectant mom of twins who planned to nurse. As a thirty-five-year-old, well-educated, career oriented woman, I wanted to do everything that I perceived to be “right.” I made sure to read up on breastfeeding multiples and the juggling act of nursing and working. I made a pilgrimage to Manhattan’s Upper Breast Side shop to buy nursing bras, nursing pads, nursing shirts, a “Pump in Style” breast pump, and all the accoutrements. I dutifully researched the names and numbers of lactation specialists and breastfeeding support groups in my neighborhood.
But, when the big moment arrived, my choice was made for me. The breast surgery I had as a teenager ended up having more far reaching consequences than I had cared to think about all those years ago. After all the anticipation, I was disappointed and yes, felt like a loser that I was to feed my infant twins formula. Thankfully, the lactation consultant at the hospital was both helpful and sensitive. And our pediatrician was also reassuring. She knew immediately when she asked if I was nursing on that very first visit that I was conflicted about the situation.
Not all moms have such positive experiences though. Several women I know were reduced to tears in their hospital rooms when especially militant lactation advisers lectured them on their failings. One new father I know even had to ask the lactation coach to leave because his wife was so distraught that her newborn wasn’t latching on.
In the end, now that my two-year-old twins are healthy and strong, it doesn’t really matter why I didn’t nurse, does it? The point is that I didn’t and whether a woman is going back to a demanding job where pumping isn’t an option or she’s dealing with post-partum depression or juggling twins (or triplets!), or whether she’s just more comfortable with a bottle or she just can’t, it is her decision, and it is private. Same goes for women who breastfeed for a short time or supplement with formula.
New moms already have enough pressure to live up to the incredibly exhausting (and exhilarating) role of motherhood. We don’t need total strangers making us feel like we are negligent caregivers … or worse, feeling like we have to lie when someone rudely asks.
Just as more and more people are starting to accept that it is a mother’s (and baby’s) right to breastfeed in public, it is my right for my breasts and my decisions about them to be left alone.