Today, my baby girl is five months old.
Parenthood is full of paradoxes, no doubt, but on the occasion of this tiny birthday, I’m fixated on one in particular: how we choose to raise our young is such an intensely personal thing, and yet so many of those choices must be acted out in full view of others.
Like it or not, much of the work of parenting is done in public.
We discipline in public, we teach in public, we nag and warn and praise and prod in public, and, yes, we also sometimes feed our babes in public.
But humankind is nothing if not a large and rather querulous pack, headed up, always, by men, and the whole lot of us prone to opinionating and pontificating at length when one of the horde steps out of line. So as our choices play out, we must fend off an endless litany of glib remarks, disapproving glances, and clucking tongues.
It’s enough to to set even the most inscrutable and unflappable among us on edge. And I’ve always been a pretty easily flapped kind of woman. So when I decided to exclusively breastfeed my baby daughter, I thought long and hard about how I might defend the both of us against any potential detractors. I figured it was only a matter of time before I was taken to task for this decision. Turns out I was right. Because of course I was.
Baby G likes to nurse rather frequently (as in, 5-7 hours per day, not counting nighttime feeds), so when we venture out into the world anyplace further than the coffee shop down the street, I’m eventually confronted with the decision of whether to nurse her discreetly wherever we happen to be, to let her scream and gnaw at her balled-up little fists until we make it back to the safety of our bedroom, or to repair immediately to the nearest bathroom or car to feed her in semi-private.
I’m flappable, but I’m also indignant and stubborn, so I decided early on that I would not be spending the next two years of my existence shut away at interval atop some filthy toilet or in the baking-hot backseat of my hand-me-down Buick. And I certainly wasn’t going to let her starve to satisfy some ridiculous social conception of Female Modesty. Oh, no, not I, and the Haters could fuck right on off.
So I purchased a handful of nursing tank tops and stretchy V-necks and resolved to feed my babe on demand, in public, as quietly and confidently as I could manage.
But you know how people get about milk-filled tits, right? Of course you do. We’ve all seen the YouTube videos and the snarky cell phone pics, heard the horror stories of confrontations in shopping malls and food courts when some hick or other takes umbrage at the sight of a woman’s nipple peeking out from behind her suckling darling’s fuzzy mop and All Hell breaks loose.
I must have imagined a zillion different ways in which I might be chastised for nursing in view of others, and I’d carefully planned out exactly what I would say to defend myself and my baby should I encounter any breastfeeding shade.
But then it actually, you know, happened. And all my careful psychic fortifications fell pitifully, embarrassingly short.
Baby G was two months old, and I was tucked away in the corner of my pediatrician’s office waiting room, trying to placate her escalating whimpers with the offer of my milk-filled boob. It was working, kinda, though she was having some trouble latching on, so the whole affair was a bit noisy and awkward and involved plenty of head bobbing and grumbling on both our parts.
My detractors? Two teenage girls seated near the toy-strewn play corner, looking bored and angry. The scene went down pretty much how all interactions with sixteen-year-old girls tend to go: with bravado, illogic and an excessive portion of sass.
The instigator, a girl of about 16 with Very Angry Eyes, looked straight at me and hissed, “You are aware there are other people in this waiting room?”
Huh? I was thrown off, but I managed to quickly fling back one of my carefully prepared remarks: “Lucky for me it’s a free country!”
Without missing a beat, Angry Eyes told me I was “disgusting,” then ordered me to cover up my “nastiness.”
Her sidekick, who had three-shades-too-dark foundation smeared across her cheeks and chin, merely giggled and nodded like some pubescent bobble-head toy, goading her on.
“This is how mammals feed their young,” I advised them haughtily. In my pre-game day fantasies, such zingers stopped my detractors cold. In reality, they fell flat and sounded incredibly whiny.
In those same fantasies, some indignant motherly type rushed just then to my aid, angrily shushing the haters and perhaps offering to use her widened, maternal hips as a sight barrier so I could finish feeding my baby in relative calm and safety. In reality, the other parents in the waiting room merely buried their faces in old magazines and busied themselves with rearranging pony tails and shirt collars. Nobody said a goddamn word.
The girls proceeded to heckle me in all sorts of typically teenager-y ways for the full-half hour we sat awaiting our appointment. They made fun of my baby for her propensity to slurp noisily, they gagged and hissed, they cursed and snarled.
What else could I do? I was out of clever retorts. My heart racing, I bowed my head and continued nursing, cooing at Baby G and ignoring their mumbled threats to call someone named Tony so he could come and “see those tits.”
Eventually, the encounter concluded of its own accord. The girls busied themselves with text messaging, breaking occasionally to fling out additional muttered insults, and finally, a woman whom I can only assume was their mother emerged from the inner sanctum of the pediatrician’s office with a smallish, bandaged boy in tow.
I thought about saying something to this other woman, but what? Because what did it matter? Teenagers are inevitably awful and uptight. We all know this. I was awful at that age. And, though it pains me to admit it, Gabi will probably be awful, at least briefly, when she reaches that age, too.
I was still shaking when were finally called in for our appointment. I regaled a few sympathetic (and very angry) nurses with my tale of woe, then accepted a bit of succor from them.
“This is a baby-friendly hospital,” they cried.
“You should have called security!” they cried.
Should I really have? It seemed sorta ridiculous to let two teenagers get to me this deeply. And it seemed downright unbelievable that this long-feared public dressing down came not from some sexually repressed conceal-and-carry neo-conservative type or from some frumpy old maid with a modesty complex but from two young women in what I thought was a Safe Space.
And most depressing of all in hindsight was my decision not to say anything to the girls’ mother when she came out to collect them. But I guessed they might be merely aping things they’d heard her say herself in the past. That woman might well have felt the same way or worse about public nursing. Plenty of women do.
We females are taught to hate the sight of our bodies from a young age, and by extension, to hate the sight of other women’s bodies, too. We’re told to shut the fuck up, and when we do, we’re stomped on. So we rebel. We rage and rail at anyone in spitting distance for any reason at all, even if she’s just a breastfeeding mother in a doctor’s waiting room. We pick up the metallic scent of fear and weakness, and we pounce.
I get those impulses. I really, really do. I was a young girl myself not too very long ago, and a shy, anxious kid. I wasn’t exactly a target — I was merely a quiet oddball, my presence often overlooked — but I often found myself standing close enough to the genuine targets to take a bit of residual shrapnel. And it hurt.
By 13, however, I’d perfected my defense mechanism. I became petulant, saucy. I dressed in loud, colorful clothes and sassed my teachers. Oh, it worked well enough. Nobody dared pick on me, I made friends. But it never felt like the real me, deep down.
Real Me hated noisy parties and mosh pits and verbal confrontations. Real Me still secretly preferred a quiet park, a small gathering of friends, a book, a bit of fucking peace and quiet.
Come college, I kept the noisy wardrobe and the clever, eclectic friends and ditched the rest of the ruse. It felt relieving, and far more genuine, but in the ensuing two decades, over countless moves across five countries and a few dozen cities, I’ve not escaped my portion of loneliness. I’ve never gotten perfectly comfortable, or perfectly clear, with who I really am.
Pre-Mom, I bounced the poles between No Fucks to Give and Simpering Headcase. I was taken advantage of by lovers, bosses, and the occasional friend. I also hurtled drinks at crude men in bars (cup included). I learned to send back burnt plates of food at restaurants without apology.
And then came Baby G, and the revelation that that having a Personal Cosmology so unresolved and shot through with holes might be deeply problematic.
That day in the waiting room, I confronted my greatest fear: after so many years affecting personalities that didn’t quite fit, I’ve come to lack some essential reflex. In the face of social adversity, of judgment heaped atop myself or my daughter, what will I do? Will I freeze up? Or will I get nasty? And which one will be more authentically “me”???
Cause a big part of me still just doesn’t want to deal. A part of me wants to be passive and let the world roll right on over her and her baby girl because it’s just plain easier. What does it matter in the end if you eat burnt chicken or go three years without a raise or have your change thrown at you in the supermarket? What does it matter if some teenager you’ll never seen again laughs at your baby’s noisy latch? A classic introvert, I’d often rather feast on scraps than make a scene. Even when it leaves me feeling depleted and steamrolled.
But I have this daughter, now. Who, by all measures, appears to be developing into a rather insistent and demanding little lady. I love that about her! I want to nurture it. And I want to teach her … Oh, I don’t even know just what. How to be less afraid than I’ve been, maybe? How to be less reckless and quick to anger and easily silenced? How to slay the haters with a little more bravado and a little less hesitation?
To be clear: I recognize that Baby G is not act two of the fraught tragicomedy that is my own life. She’s going to write her own play, with its own villains and heroes and gruesome plot twists. She’s not my second chance at anything. She is a distinct creation of the creative and destructive universe, with her own unique treasure chest of fantastic gifts and fatal flaws. I get all that.
But I can’t stop thinking about those teenagers. I feel like they were the first test of my motherly mettle, and I earned a C-minus. I let them denigrate me, make fun of her. I froze. Being born with a vagina already means being forced to run an uphill race. Being born with a vagina and a shy, sensitive demeanor is like adding a pair of untied shoelaces to the mix. But I refuse to take all the blame.
Yes, I feel like I failed. But also, I feel like everybody else failed, too.
I’m angry that the other moms and dads in the waiting room didn’t stand up for me, like always happens in the viral cell phone videos depicting nursing moms being relentlessly harassed by some hillbilly or other. And I’m angry that those two girls had already learned, at such a tender and awful moment of life as adolescence, to revile the sight of the female body.
But of course they had. Female Loathing is a subtle social contract that gets resigned each time we tell a young girl to cover herself up so she won’t distract the boys in her class, to sit with her legs more daintily and modestly crossed. It’s reinforced every time we scorn women for being too slutty or dressing like tramps or just liking sex a little too much.
It’s reinforced every time we conflate a woman’s weight with her worth or demand that she take up just a little less physical or semantic space. It’s reinforced every time a rapist goes free with a slap on the hand. It’s reinforced every time we imply through action or failure to act that the onus is on them to cover up and dress down and not on their male counterparts to exercise control over their baser instincts when a member of the opposite sex dares to reveal an inch or two of skin. It’s reinforced every time we snarl at the mirror or pinch the roll of fat around our own waists and lament some imagined undesirability.
And it’s reinforced every time we clasp our hands to our mouths and feign shock or disgust at the sight of a publicly bared breast. It’s reinforced every time a woman recognizes anew that there are no Safe Spaces. Not really. Not in the ways that matter.
Today Baby G is five months old. She’s still so new and unformed, but already she’s listening. She’s watching. And I — all of us — ought to work much harder to ensure that our words and actions teach her — and all of our children — the worth and beauty of a woman’s body, and, by extension, the worth and beauty of their own bodies.
So shame on me, but also, shame on you. Shame on all of us. We owe ourselves far fucking better.