We were at my son's soccer game with Aspen, our new baby. I went to give Tristan his water, and when I came back, Mel was gone and so was the baby. My mother-in-law was there. She'd been watching Norah, our 4-year-old. I asked where Mel was, and she said, "She went to feed the baby in the car."
It was bullshit that she needed to do that.
Why did she need to go sit in a hot car and miss her son's soccer game, simply because she needed to feed the baby? On the drive to the game I'd seen half-exposed breasts on the side of a bus. They were probably selling beer or a cellphone or something. That was, apparently, socially acceptable. But using breasts for their intended purpose, feeding a baby, has become so socially unacceptable, that my wife felt compelled to shut herself away.
Keep in mind that this was obviously not our first child. It was our third. Mel tried to breastfeed with Tristan, but had to go back to work after her six-week maternity leave was up. She found it too difficult to keep up with her full-time job while trying to pump. She worked at a hardware store, and the thought of breaking out a breast pump every few hours and trying to find a good place to hook up didn't work well with her, or her employer. So we gave Tristan formula.
With Norah, Mel tried to breastfeed again, but about two months after Norah was born, doctors found a tumor in Mel's jaw. She had to have surgery, which required medication that ruined her milk. Once again, we ended up bottle-feeding.
This time, however, Mel was determined to do it. To breastfeed our baby for one year.
After the game, we talked about how Aspen had lost more than 10 percent of her birth weight. Mel and her mother had been driving Aspen to the hospital every other day to have her weighed, and every time, the nurses spoke to Mel as though she were intentionally starving her daughter.
"I'm so frustrated!" Mel said and mentioned how the hospital was 45 minutes from our home in Small Town Oregon. But that time is almost doubled if you count stops to feed the baby.
"I'm behind in one of my classes because it takes so long to bring her into the hospital. I'm probably missing feedings because of the commute." She went on, telling me about her struggles to find a secluded place to feed Aspen while driving to the hospital: parking in far corners of shopping centers, or feeding Aspen in restrooms at gas stations or McDonald's. As she described it, it sounded like she was doing something really wrong, something illegal, or flat out shameful. It reminded me of how difficult it was to find a secluded place to smoke pot when I was in high school.
I couldn't help but wonder if part of the reason she was having so much trouble getting Aspen to gain weight was because finding a place to feed her was so difficult.
As we talked about all this, I thought about how I was, at one time, part of the problem. When I was 22, just after I got married, I waited tables at the Olive Garden. I'd been working there about six months when a woman at my table put a blanket over her chest and fed her baby. This was the first time I'd been in close proximity to a woman breastfeeding. I was the youngest in my family, and obviously the world had sheltered me from this normal fact of life.
I went as far as to complain to some of my coworkers about it. Mostly men. And they all agreed how gross it was to have a woman breastfeeding out in the open. We discussed it like she was doing something wretched and wrong that should only be done in a dark place, away from human eyes.
I avoided her table until she was done.
When I got home, I mentioned what happened to Mel. I told her that I couldn't believe someone would do that in public, and how everyone at work was grossed out.
We'd been married less than a year, and Mel hadn't gotten comfortable speaking her mind yet. She didn't say anything, and at the time I assumed that her silence was her way of saying that I was right. Thinking back, however, I was sadly confirming a social frustration that she was already aware of.
I was reinforcing her fear that breastfeeding in public was something to be shunned.
Now, thinking back on this moment, and considering how Mel feels compelled to breastfeed in in secluded places, I feel like a complete asshole.
The day after Tristan's soccer game, I stumbled on an article in the Huffington Post titled, What You're Really Saying When You Tell Moms Not To Breastfeed In Public. It discussed the "When Nurture Calls" campaign. Art students at the University of North Texas created a series of ads for a class project that show mothers breastfeeding in unsanitary, cramped bathrooms. The point? To drive home the idea that nursing women, and their babies, deserve better.
I'd never seen my wife breastfeed in a bathroom. I'd only imagined it. However, looking at these photos really hit home. I felt terrible for her. I felt angry that she felt shamed into doing this to feed our baby.