At the back of the Metro bus, we did something unusual: We talked to one another. Among us was a woman who had her toddler son with her — we smiled and waved at him as he asked his mom 20 questions about the world. Then, unexpectedly, he moved close to her, pulled on the collar of her shirt and pulled her boob out for a quick snack.
The three men we’d be talking with snapped their heads forward, their eyes aggressively turned away from the woman whose breast was out. The mood at the back of the bus changed in an instant. When we reached the Westlake stop in the downtown Seattle bus tunnel, we funneled off. I gave the mom a smile and told her she was amazing.
Four years later, I was at the back of another Metro bus, this time with my grunty, hungry newborn son. The idea of breastfeeding my son in public caused an intense physical reaction. My stomach tensed, my palms sweated and I reached for my shirt to, for the first time, expose my breast as casually as I could in front of a bunch of strangers.
We often don’t notice how engrained our cultural norms are until it comes time to break them. That as Americans we live this paradox, praising cleavage at every marketable opportunity while blushing when a woman breastfeeds, meant little to me at that moment. I was uncomfortable but determined to destroy the barrier that stood between what I believed in and what I would do.
I whipped out my boob.
The journey to my moment on the bus had been a long one. Less than an hour after my son was born, he was whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. He was born so quickly that fluid remained in his lungs. Blood tests revealed a high white blood cell count, indicative of infection. My fiancé Nick and I were in for the longest week of our lives with our baby in the hospital.
I was told that because my son was on a breathing machine, he wouldn’t have the strength to breastfeed in those critical first few days. I insisted, however, that he start on a bottle rather than an IV.
Days blended into nights as I tried to get him off the bottle and onto my breast. It was the second most painful experience of my life, next to the unmedicated childbirth that he and I had just survived, and I felt like we would never get it. I shouldn’t have given him a bottle, I chastised myself; nipple confusion had set in.
The physical pain of breasts transforming from highly sensitive areas to being strong enough to withstand a hungry baby was unbearable at times. But through lots of encouragement, patience and perseverance, we broke through, and he latched. It was the most joyful and painful experience of my life. To use my own body to sustain the life of my son is the closest I’ve felt to the essence of this life. Time stood still and absolutely nothing else mattered.
Leaving the safety of that tiny hospital room meant it was time to bring the most precious thing I’d ever known out into the world. And then, weeks later, we were on the back of a Metro bus. Doubt tugged at me as he nursed: Was I trying to be controversial? Why was I so adamant about this? Should I breastfeed in front of people I know? Or just in front of strangers? Is breastfeeding in front of family going too far? Maybe I should just buy one of those big bulky covers so I don’t have to worry about it.
Encouragement from my partner made a world of difference. Nick never allowed me to be too deterred by what other people thought. Friends had shared with me that their partner was their only reason for covering up. “I would breastfeed in the open,” they’d say, “but my kid’s dad isn’t comfortable with it. He says that men can’t help themselves but look.”
I had my own experience of shaming with a family member. After I declined the blanket she tried to put on me while nursing, she snapped back, "Well, do whatever you want, but you better not be breastfeeding in front of my man!" This was a reminder that not all of the fear was just in my head, and it also made me more determined than ever to do what I felt was right for me and my son.
Not so with Nick. He couldn’t care less who was watching. To him, making sure that our son was fed as quickly and effortlessly as possible was the only concern. Before becoming a mom I learned about the male gaze — the sociological idea that women are under constant watch by men and expected to make ourselves available to this surveillance. And then to bend ourselves to fit within what is acceptable or face scrutiny. Breastfeeding, I’ve learned, is one of the most objectionable acts a woman can do under the male gaze. We are taking part of our bodies that has been hypersexualized and using it for a purpose that has absolutely nothing to do with men. Nothing. In dismantling this cultural narrative, my partner has been my biggest supporter. It has made the whole process so much easier.
Today it is hard to believe that these challenging experiences are my experiences. All the fear, insecurity and self-doubt that plagued me those first months have melted away as I fall increasingly in love with being a mother. Other narratives — the value of stay-at-home moms, the stiff learning curve of parenthood and the sometimes isolating experience of motherhood — have become my new cultural hurdles. We are making great progress all the time.
I don’t think twice about feeding my son in public anymore. It has become a time of connection between us; other people are no longer welcome into this space. I know now that the evenings we spend together, nursing and singing quietly before bed, are those I will remember the rest of my life. These are the moments I can step back from and be proud that I didn’t allow anyone, with a stray comment or uncomfortable glance on the bus, convince me that feeding my son was anything short of wonderful.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. To submit a story or note one you've seen that deserves more notice, contact Isolde Raftery at email@example.com or 206.616.2035.