Eventually, it comes. The awkward silence, the sideways glance, and then the question: “What’s breastfeeding like?”
I don’t know how to explain it. At times, I think I could easily grow to hate it–it’s a burden that’s solely on me. I have to adjust my diet to ensure that the kid doesn’t react poorly to something I ate, it means I’m the one who gets up for an hour in the middle of the night to feed him, it means I have to calculate my daily wardrobe to accommodate the act. If I want to take a night off or gorge myself on onion rings or drink more than two drinks in a three-hour period, I have to pump. I’m lucky enough to have insurance that covered most of the cost of the pump, so that freedom is not available to every mother, only the ones who are economically privileged enough to afford pumps.
Most of the time, however, I find breastfeeding to be amazing, both the concept and the act. My body not only managed to support this baby solely for nine months inside me, now that he’s out in the world, I am still his sole source of nutrition–in the first ten weeks of his life, he’s only eaten food that’s come from my body. For thirty minutes, eight to ten times a day, I am forced to be still, to give myself to him while he eats. (Within reason, there’s almost always a book or the Internet at hand.) We slow down and focus on each other: his world narrows to my boob and my arm in front of him, I watch him latch on and slowly relax into the moment, one hand absently grabbing my shirt, the other half-heartedly scrabbling around in my armpit or under-boob area. Were we to have nothing to eat, I would still be able to feed my child, my body designed to sacrifice itself for the sake of its offspring. My body automatically adjusts the makeup of my milk to be most beneficial to him. When it’s hot, I produce more watery “foremilk” to help keep him cool. He gained antibodies from me when he was a newborn. As he gets older, the nutritional balance changes to serve him, without a conscious thought from me. It’s a physical process divorced from my mind but one that occupies it for hours a day.
The physical act of breastfeeding, I’ve found, is not just a parental one, it’s also a social statement. The first time I breastfed in public, I had pulled up the state laws regarding breastfeeding on my phone, at the ready if I was harassed. I felt like I was doing something forbidden, when all I was doing was feeding my baby in the quickest and most convenient way possible, WHY ARE YOU GIVING ME THE STINKEYE? And oh, do I get the stinkeye. Even using a nursing cover, some people seem to see breastfeeding as a personal affront, an obscene gesture of nurturing. It doesn’t matter that my breast is never seen, the very fact that they know what’s going on underneath that fabric is enough for them to glare at me over their coffee. I’m not sure what they would prefer. Should my kid scream because he’s hungry and my breasts remain decently covered (or attractively displayed for the taste of others), or should I feed my child and force the point that breasts aren’t just sexual, they evolved to serve the purpose of supporting a small life?
It’s this breast conflict that’s led me to see breastfeeding as my own personal rebellion against society. How many times have we seen advertisements or media that depicts a woman’s headless, legless, faceless torso, limiting her to just her breasts and belly? Being pregnant and breastfeeding forced not only me, but my husband to re-consider these parts of my body. My stomach bears the stretch marks of pregnancy, my breasts are bared daily not for his pleasure but to feed our child. I am proud of what my body can do, these amazing acts that run counter to the common media portrayal of womens’ bodies as solely sexual objects. When I pop my boob out in public, it’s not a titillating act, it’s an act of rebellion. And more importantly, it’s feeding my child and heading off his screaming meltdown in your Panera Bread.