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Getting Off the Back Room Team

By Alicia Clemens Booksh
Kenner, Louisiana, USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 11 No. 2, March-April 1994, pp. 36-8

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time

Strange how motherhood changes us--body, priorities, ideas, beliefs, fears, and hopes are altered forever as the months pass. Caring for a child turns out to be more consuming than we ever imagined when we patted that growing stomach, made plans, and said things like "I will never..."or "My child will never..." Reality has a way of erasing all those pre-child theories as it indoctrinates us into the group of "Those who know what it's like because we've been there." That's why I found myself furious one morning when I read a letter in an advice column signed "Redfaced."

"Redfaced" wrote about a female relative who had embarrassed her by (gasp!) breastfeeding in public. "Redfaced" explained that they were eating at a fast food restaurant when this female relative just pulled out a breast and began to feed her baby. Other restaurant patrons were obviously horrified and "Redfaced" kept hoping the manager of the establishment would come out and ask the errant breastfeeder to stop--leave the restaurant, exit the premises, stash the breast--but to no avail. "Redfaced" was humiliated. She let us know that the guilty party was college-educated and should have known better. "Redfaced" admitted to having breastfed her own children, but only in private. She mentioned that she always went to the Back Room to breastfeed her children. She asked for a comment on this breastfeeding dilemma. The response was that this public breastfeeder could have been more discreet and ways that this discretion could be realized were mentioned. So far so good. Then the next statement read, "Breastfeeding is best done in private." Another point for the Back Room Team! It was my call to arms.

I was nursing my son Morgan, four months old at the time and exclusively breastfed, so I was right in the eye of the breastfeeding-in-public storm. In my pregnancy days I had been a dutiful believer in the Back Room Team. I understood the game plan--keep the breastfeeding out of public view for the comfort of mother, child, family members, and "The Public." In my pre-baby ignorance, I signed my husband up for the team. We'd read all the books and we knew everything there was to know about breastfeeding, except the actual practice of it. We were in complete agreement. I would never feed our child anywhere except a Back Room.

About two weeks of struggling to feed my baby on demand made me doubt my team loyalty. As the days passed, I began to realize that this team required a lot of dedication. I began to question the game plan each time I left the room and conversation, ostracizing myself so my child could eat. I began to doubt each time I crammed myself and my baby into a smelly, hot bathroom stall--hoping the stench wouldn't make either of us sick--just so he wouldn't be seen nursing in the restaurant. The ambivalence continued as the sweat poured down my face and popped up on the bridge of Morgan's nose while we nursed out in the car because the shopping mall had no place even remotely like a Back Room. I was a new mother in need of adult companionship and assurance that I was doing what was best for my new baby, yet this Back Room method of nursing gave me neither. A lot happened in the thirty to forty-five minutes I was gone looking for privacy--the conversation continued without me, my food got cold, or the sale ended. Sometimes the baby became increasingly hysterical as I searched for elusive Back Rooms.

One night when once again I was out in the car because the restaurant's bathroom was occupied, I realized that I was inflicting this staunch privacy rule on us for no good reason. If I had chosen to artificially feed my son, we would have been welcome inside. But because I had chosen what was best for my baby, we were suffering--needlessly. That night I decided to learn how to breastfeed in public discreetly, and let the public squirm a little.

I got out my roomy built-for-public-nursing shirts and worked on learning how to get Morgan to latch on quickly. I learned to unbutton shirts from the bottom so not much would be exposed and to carry a light diaper or blanket to use when he was latching on or switching sides. I learned that I could feed him discreetly and that we could stay where we were when he was hungry. We did not have to banish ourselves. We could both be comfortable, and I could enjoy spending time talking, visiting, and eating my food while it was hot. I gained confidence in my mothering abilities as I was able to meet Morgan's needs immediately and nurse him on demand. Feeding Morgan as soon as he was hungry kept him from getting upset, and people commented on his calm and happy demeanor.

"The Public," however, was often unkind, relentlessly trying to return me to the Back Room Team. People would smile at the sight of a mother and baby until they realized we were nursing. Then they would disappear as quickly as their embarrassed feet would carry them. My family, with the exception of my husband, offered little support. My mother-in-law would try to clear the room as soon as I held Morgan in a breastfeeding position. My father cringed and fidgeted whenever he heard the word "nurse." My sister would look at me with the disbelief, disdain, and embarrassment only an eighteen-year-old can deliver, and say, "You're not going to nurse here are you?" Smiling sweetly, my best friend told me that although she might breastfeed, she would "never do it with other people around."

Despite the challenges, I continued to discreetly nurse. I had no particular need to tell anyone Morgan's and my side of the story until one particularly horrible day when "The Public" delivered a crushing blow to my confidence. My mother, sister, and I were shopping at the mall when Morgan got hungry. I sat down on a bench to nurse him and my sister panicked and convinced my mother to take her far away from this breastfeeding spectacle. They hurried off to the other end of the mall and left Morgan and me alone on the bench. As I nursed him, a family approached our bench and glanced at us.

"Look, Mommy," said the little girl. "See the baby? There's a baby."

The mommy looked in the direction her little girl was pointing and smiled when she saw me and the baby. After looking at us for a few seconds, she realized Morgan was breastfeeding. Her expression changed. She gasped and grabbed her daughter's hand, pushed her husband and son ahead of her, and whispered loudly and furiously, "Don't look at her. She's breastfeeding."

I felt humiliated, embarrassed, sad, angry, and misunderstood. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to cry out, "I am just feeding my baby. I am doing what I believe to be best for him. It is not a disgusting or perverted thing--he is getting the best possible food for him right now, and we are forming a close bond in the process." I realized there were many people out there who didn't understand breastfeeding at all, people who didn't realize it was the best possible source of nutrition for a baby. I realized the Back Room Team had a lot of vocal players who may not have heard from the team of mothers and babies who were braving public outrage to do what they believed to be best. I realized I wanted our team to win.

Having gained this wealth of mothering and breastfeeding experience, I longed to educate all those people who were so set against nursing a baby in public. I wanted to tell them--all those mothers, mothers-in-law, fathers, fathers-in-law, and other assorted family members and friends--that I understood their discomfort and confusion. I wanted to tell them why I believed the "breastfeeding is best done in private" statement to be very narrow-minded. I wanted to tell them the Back Room isn't the best place for mothers and babies, that we need to be out there discreetly breastfeeding in public, not only for our own comfort and sanity, but to educate "The Public."

Recently, legislation was passed in Florida that made public breastfeeding permissible by law. One part of me cheered the accomplishment. Another part of me wondered why it had to be protected by law in the first place. Isn't a mother's right to feed her baby inalienable? Mothers should be able to breastfeed their babies anytime, any place.

Of course, "Redfaced" and people like her may continue to write letters about immodest female relatives. Their letters will be printed and publicized and the Back Room Team will cheer.

But the cheer won't be as loud as it used to be. After all, I've joined the opposition.

Tips for Breastfeeding Discreetly

  • Roomy shirts worn outside of skirts, slacks, or shorts give nursing mothers room to get baby latched on and nursing without exposing anything.
  • Unbutton shirts from the bottom.
  • Use a light blanket or large, cloth diaper to provide extra coverage when the baby is latching on or switching sides.
  • Ask your spouse or a friend to help while you get the baby latched on by standing in front of you or holding a covering for you until you and baby are settled.
  • Turn your back away from the group (if you are in a swivel chair, just swivel away) until baby is latched on, then cover up and join the group again.
  • A lightweight cotton T-shirt with holes cut out around the breasts adds both warmth and discretion when worn under regular day or night wear.
  • When complete privacy is desired, consider fitting rooms or bedrooms rather than bathrooms.
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