Since I was a little girl, I knew I intended to breastfeed my future babies. My grandmother had done it, my mom had done it, my aunt had done it, my mother’s friends and the women I’d babysat for in high school had done it. It seemed straightforward enough and easier than making and then washing formula bottles. Plus, you can’t forget your boobs at home, a major pro for me because I was absentminded even before mommy brain took over.
The only glitch in this pre-baby fantasy of an easy, convenient, earth-goddessy breastfeeding experience was that I wasn’t sure how breastfeeding while out in the world worked. Did it work? I mean, you have the baby, you have the boobs, and (because this is fantasy-land), the baby latches on like a pro, no pain or coercion required. But… didn’t that require exposure? Or one of those claustrophobic-looking, tent-like nursing covers I’d seen in the baby store where my friend worked? Nursing seemed natural enough, but nursing under a tent? Not so much. Still, I imagined I wouldn’t be able to just whip my breasts out either… I mean, I’m frum! I’d never seen a frum woman nurse in public without being all covered up in a blanket or running off to find somewhere private. Actually, I hadn’t seen much nursing at all.
The first time in recent memory that I saw a woman breastfeed was a year and a half ago, when I went to visit my friend Rivky* and her brand new baby boy. I was snuggling him on the couch when he started to fuss. I stood up to rock him, but when my signature baby shuffle didn’t settle him, Rivky said he must be hungry. I walked over to where she sat in a weathered, wooden rocking chair and handed him over. She lifted her shirt, latched him on, adjusted her shirt to cover her breast (a tank top covered everything it didn’t) and, after a moment, it looked like she was just holding him close.
I couldn’t believe she was breastfeeding! If I hadn’t been rudely staring, I don’t think I would have seen her breast at all. Actually, I didn’t see her breast. I saw a drop of her nipple, just for a second. And I only saw that much because I had been staring — I was fascinated and couldn’t bring myself to look away. I was eager to start my own family and desperately curious to see how this was done. Fortunately, she knew this and didn’t seem to mind.
I was awestruck. Her baby was barely two months old and here she was, breastfeeding like it was no big deal. She looked so comfortable, not to mention completely tznius and discreet. She made it look almost effortless as I’d dreamed it would be.
And yet, when I asked her how she manages with taking the baby out and nursing in public, she said she doesn’t really. She explained that she tries to time her outings with feedings. She nurses the baby just before she leaves and doesn’t stay out too long, so she’s home in time for him to eat again. Or, if she’ll be out for a while, she pumps a bottle before she goes and hopes he’ll be willing to take it. Even if she doubts he’ll accept it, bringing that bottle makes her feel better, because at least he’ll have something to eat, if he really needs it.
The whole thing sounded like one big ball of stress to me. I couldn’t understand why all that would be necessary. She had been so discreet sitting in her own living room — why couldn’t she have nursed like that anywhere? It seemed bizarre to bring a bottle along when your breasts are coming along too.
A few days after our visit, I got the positive pregnancy test I’d been waiting for and my baby girl was born this past October. Breastfeeding certainly didn’t come as naturally to me as I’d imagined it would, but it slowly came and it mostly worked. Still, I didn’t know how I would manage leaving the house.
I texted Rivky constantly in those first weeks, needing advice, reassurance, and virtual hugs. While I fed my baby in bed one afternoon, I prodded her again about her experience (or lack thereof) with nursing in public. She said that she wished she could have done it, as it would have made her life much easier. She explained that she was too nervous to try. She was worried about offending people. She had heard horror stories about women being harassed for having the audacity to feed their babies while out in the world and she didn’t want to subject herself or her child to that.
I sat in bed under the weight of my baby’s warm little body and felt stuck. I wanted to be able to go out when I felt up to it. I wanted to be able to just nurse my baby, no matter where I was! But I still didn’t quite know how… or if frum women even do such things. As positively as everyone seems to represent breastfeeding, no one had ever demonstrated for me that it would be okay to easily, uncompromisingly nurse in public.
My mom had regularly nursed in public, but she always threw a blanket over herself and her babies when she was out. Whenever I went out with a woman I regularly babysat for, to help wrangle her other kids, I inevitably found myself accompanying her into public restrooms when the baby got hungry. My mom had friends who seemed comfortable nursing in public, but always under nursing covers. Not a drop of skin was exposed, but, in my mind, sitting under those enormous things always seems to shout, “Hey, look at me, I’m breastfeeding over here!”
Besides, at first I couldn’t even figure out how to use the freaking cover. But… I couldn’t figure out how to nurse discreetly without it either, so how was I supposed leave the house? What if the baby got hungry? A friend had explained that she often used her car for private breastfeeding. Discovering this (perhaps obvious) solution came as a relief, a happy medium between mostly staying home and carefully timing outings with feeds or hiding in public restrooms, where I couldn’t stomach feeding anyone, much less my sweet new baby. So I started nursing in the car. It was mostly comfortable and mostly convenient… while it lasted.
When my baby was three weeks old, my husband and I ran out to the tile store, to finalize a decision for our bathroom renovation. It felt like a grand, spur of the moment adventure, my first real errand since my girly’s arrival. While we were there, the baby started to fuss, so I took her out of her stroller, which I knew she hated lying in. This settled her down temporarily, but she kept fussing.
Soon, rocking her while we continued to look at tiles wasn’t cutting it. I knew she was hungry, but I had no idea how to feed her in the middle of a store. My breasts were right there, the baby was right there and some chairs were right over there. But I couldn’t do it. The baby needed to eat, but we needed to stay a few more minutes to finish up and there was nothing I could do to help her. My heart raced and all I wanted to do was get out of there and feed my baby.
Finally, I could leave. My husband paid and I ran to the car just as fast a postpartum woman carrying her newborn can run. I fed the baby. All was well.
Except it wasn’t. I hated how helpless I had felt. I worried that I had let my baby down by not being able to respond to her needs as quickly as I would have liked. I felt frustrated and guilty, because it felt like the only thing stopping me was myself. So I went home and vowed to figure out this whole nursing in public thing.
I knew it was possible. I remembered something that another frum woman had posted in a Facebook group months earlier, a picture of herself nursing in public. She explained that she was actually in a fitting room, because that’s where her baby happened to start fussing. She saw her reflection in the mirror across from the bench she was sitting on and she had to take a selfie. She wasn’t using any sort of cover over her baby, but not a drop of her skin was revealed. She just looked like a beautiful mama holding her sweet babe close. She explained that she nurses in public all the time, whenever or wherever her baby needs to eat. All it takes, she explained, is a tank top to cover your tummy and a top that lifts up easily and can drape over your “exposed” breast — exactly what I’d seen Rivky do in her living room!
No complicated or suffocating covers, no running out to the car or hiding in a bathroom, but no nipples flying everywhere either. If this lady on Facebook could do it, I could do it too. I was determined, I refused to be stuck in the tile store situation again. I practiced a lot at home and in the meantime, I avoided going anywhere I couldn’t quickly find a private (non-bathroom) place to nurse.
Finally, finally… just after she turned 6 weeks old, I nursed my girly in public for the first time.
My in-laws were in town and we decided to venture out to to a mall… a mall without a Nordstrom and its pleasant nursing rooms. I knew there was a good chance my baby would want to eat and I’d have to feed her wherever we were. She started her hungry fussing at Indigo, Canada’s version of Barnes and Noble. My chest and shoulders tightened and it felt like I had stopped breathing. I hated when she fussed and it instantly put me on edge. What if she didn’t latch nicely? What if I couldn’t calm her down? What if we made a scene? What if, what if, what if…
But my baby needed me, so I took a deep breath and announced that I had to feed the baby. As confidently as I could, I scooped her up and carried her off the children’s section — a low-traffic area with mostly kids and their parents sounded like the perfect public feeding training wheels. I sat down on the floor in a quiet corner, turned away, latched my baby on and covered my breast with the hem of my shirt. That was that. I was nursing in public! My baby was eating, I was fully covered, and no one was staring or harassing us.
When my husband wandered over to us, the first thing I asked him to do was snap a photo for me to post on my modest fashion blog’s social media pages. Why? Because I was incredibly proud of this milestone. Because my baby and I looked adorable together. Because I wanted to be that lady, the one online who shows other women that it’s possible, and acceptable, and even wonderful, to nurse in public. I wanted people to see what a frum woman nursing modestly in public looks like. I wanted to inspire women who nurse or want to nurse, but are worried because it can be hard, worried because they aren’t sure how to nurse on demand while also leaving the house from time to time, since they may never have seen other frum women nursing in public.
Also, I think it’s important for women and girls to see what breastfeeding looks like. That way, if or when they have babies and choose to breastfeed, it isn’t completely foreign territory, whether or not they want to nurse in public. I want to demonstrate that frum women can comfortably and modestly breastfeed in public without shame. I also think that everyone should be exposed to breastfeeding, so they can come to see it as no big deal. The more we normalize nursing in public, the easier it will be for everyone to do (if they want to), because they’ll have a better sense of how it’s done and no one else will bat an eye.
These days, I’ve gotten really good at breastfeeding anywhere and everywhere — the Shabbos table, at a mixed shiur, while walking around my neighborhood or browsing sales racks at the mall, at the Rebbe’s Ohel and once I even nursed while talking to government officials about my daughter’s NEXUS card application.
I will confess: despite the selfies I post on Instagram that depict me confidently nursing all over the place, I’m not always as at ease as I may look. In the earliest days, nursing at all was a challenge and I wasn’t able to do it in front of anyone but my mom, my sister, my husband and the lactation consultant, who my mother hired to come to my house day after day, until I figured out what the heck I was doing.
Even once I got used to the mechanics of breastfeeding, discretion was difficult to achieve and I was nervous nursing in front of men — particularly my extended family and other frum families, whose opinions mattered to me more than those of strangers at the mall. I worried that they might feel uncomfortable, which would make me uncomfortable, even if they didn’t comment. I worried that they might comment and that I’d be too emotionally fragile to let their words roll off. I felt self-conscious about lifting my shirt in contexts where that would usually feel entirely inappropriate. I was anxious about my baby not latching nicely and causing a scene. I didn’t want to feel like I was acting out of line. I’ve always been a socially-anxious rule follower. I don’t like to cause a stir or call any negative attention to myself. Breastfeeding in mixed company, in frum company, has always felt like it goes against all that, like it potentially invites conflict and funny looks and stirs.
Even now, the prospect of nursing in public can still feel daunting. Like when I’m at a friend’s house and need to feed the baby in her husband’s presence for the first time or at a new Shabbos table and my baby decides that she’d like to eat her dinner then too. A familiar bubble of anxiety and dread will rise through my chest as I endeavor to lift my shirt and coax my baby to latch, without revealing any skin — a difficult task whether you have an inexperienced newborn or a distractible older baby in your lap. But then she latches on, and I drape my shirt just so and I lean back in my seat and carry on with my conversation. And the bubble releases.
Yes, sometimes breastfeeding in public is uncomfortable. But I push through that discomfort, because overriding it is my discomfort with feeling banished, even of my own accord, every time my baby needs to eat. I hate missing out on meals and conversations to go do something in another room, especially something that can just as easily be done in the room I’m already in.
I love that I often see well-appointed nursing rooms in malls and airports these days, as they feel like a step in the right direction. But I can’t imagine what it would be like if I felt the need to seek one out just to feed my baby. Now that I’ve gotten the hang of it, it’s so much simpler to just nurse wherever I happen to be. Half the reason I enjoy breastfeeding is because of its convenience. At this point, going somewhere special and private to feed my baby would feel as asinine as seeking out privacy to enjoy a glass of water when I’m thirsty.
I will occasionally make use of an opportune nursing area and their convenient changing tables, but when it will take more than 30 seconds to find an ideal place to nurse, I simply sit down in the nearest seat and feed my hungry baby. Or, as I’ve gotten more adept at both breastfeeding and babywearing, I’ll just put her in a sling and feed her while I continue to go about my business. Whatever it takes to get the baby fed and go about my day.
Once I got over the initial (steep) learning curve, breastfeeding has made mothering as easy as possible for me — it nourishes my baby’s body, comforts her, fulfills her emotional needs for bonding and even puts her to sleep. Nursing anywhere, without having to interrupt what I’m doing for more than a moment or rummage through my diaper bag for a bottle or a cover, makes motherhood as easy and unstressful as possible for me. It’s been incredibly freeing, particularly since exclusive breastfeeding and stay-at-home motherhood have the tendency to make me feel distinctly not free.
If the cost of that freedom is occasionally flashing a few innocent bystanders when I latch or when my daughter gets distracted and suddenly pops off, then so be it. As a frum woman, I feel confident in the amount of skin that’s visible — usually minimal to none — and I’m a pretty firm believer that it’s men’s job not to look, anyway!
Regardless of your gender, if you’re not comfortable with me feeding my child, that’s your problem and I invite you to exercise your right to look away. Besides, no matter what I’m doing with my baby, it’s generally more polite not to stare.
Now, hold on before you run to the comments and explain your multitude of (totally valid) reasons for not breastfeeding in public. I’m not saying that all breastfeeding mothers absolutely must or even should breastfeed in public. God knows how many expectations mothers already have thrust upon us and how guilty we already feel for not doing motherhood according to some absurd standard we and the internet hold us to. The very, very last thing I’m trying to do here is add even one more expectation or an ounce more guilt or a single new feeling of not being enough to any mother who reads this. If you’re reading this, you should know: however you feed your baby, as long as you’re not exclusively feeding her tequila, you are doing a great job. You are exactly what your baby needs and I know you’ve got this.
I’m not here to tell you that you should breastfeed in public, with or without a cover, or even that you should breastfeed at all. I’m here to show you that, if you want to, you absolutely can. I’m here to help lead the way for other women, just as another woman online led the way for me. I invite you to join me in making motherhood a little bit easier, while normalizing breastfeeding and showing the world that it’s no big deal. It’s just how we feed our babies, wherever, whenever, one latch at a time.
*Name has been changed.