Shame From Within

Saw a video this evening. It hit me harder than I expected.

Here it is, for your reference:

A sad reality of the breastfeeder’s world, something I experienced more times than I can count.

At first, you think “oh it’s ok, I’m respecting their perspective”…

But at some point it hits you- no one ever has to respect yours.

Not ever.

It’s always going to be you who bends while they sit back and nod approvingly at your gracious decision to do “the right thing” to satisfy their comfort zones. They will never have to step one foot toward any sort of middle ground or be given that same choice, the one they give you which is:

Do what I think is right or leave. That is the choice they give you. It’s the only choice. There is no option b or c… just the one. And this is your family. The people who supposedly love and respect you, have your back and honor you…

But do they?

The reality of this question’s true answer hits you like a brick on the head and a stone in the gut.

When it comes to this… it’ll always be you and your sweet baby being given the side-eye, encouraged to cover and given hints like, “wouldn’t it be easier to do that in a private place?” Every action of others to *ahem* HELP you into another room or under a cover feels like they’re saying; “It will be so much easier when you are tucked away in another room and we don’t have to look at this.”

They will feel confident that they really are just ‘helping’ you somehow… like, maybe you didn’t know. They’ll feel good about themselves and their choice to speak out against the vulgarity of nourishing a young child while saving everyone from the uncomfortable experience of seeing a baby eat. The more confident they feel, the more unsure you feel. The more they force compliance for their comfort, the less you feel validated for wanting your own.

They’ll never have to accept that it is okay for you to feed your child as God intended in front of them or their children. It will ALWAYS be you who bends in order not to ruin an event for others.

I wasn’t brave enough to fight an entire room full of my loved ones to stand up for myself and my baby. I knew better. I’d have caved and cried and broken under the pressure. It would have caused family drama I didn’t need or want, so I just… I let them tell me what was “best” and I pretended to be okay with it.

For the record, I wasn’t. Not ever.

Nourishing my child or children (yes, both at once, even!) was never indecent. It was never inappropriate and shame on all of them for making me feel like it was.

To me… Breastfeeding is a sacred right. It’s the gift we have been given to give life to another being then nurture and nourish that being of our own bodies until they no longer ask for it. It’s our responsibility and our privilege to provide this gift of healing, health, immunity and comfort. For anyone to pervert the act of nursing a child by sexualizing it in any way is indecent in itself. Equating it to porn, or some other sexual act, promiscuous behavior or worse: comparing it to defecation by making comments like, “well, pooping is natural and I don’t do it on the street corner” is far more grotesque, degrading and insulting than the act of feeding a baby ever would have been.

But, like I said, I wasn’t that brave. As much as I wanted to, as much as I advocated for it and supported moms who did it, I nursed under a cover or in a quiet room with a locked door at family gatherings because they made it quite clear from the beginning they couldn’t handle it. I just wasn’t in a good enough place mentally to deal with the backlash, so I really felt like I had no choice.

Even in my own home, if company was over, I’d cover for their sake… feeling ashamed of myself as I did so. Remembering all those times I was told, “if you are in someone’s home, you respect their wishes” and waves of depression would wash over me as I realized… no one would respect my wishes, my truth, my perspective… anywhere. Not even in my own home. Someone once told me, “even in my own home, if a non-smoker came over, I would respect them enough not to do it”. This was their way of telling me I should be okay with having to excuse myself from my own living room or use a cover if I wanted to feed my child.

Breastfeeding isn’t like smoking. It doesn’t harm another person by exposing them to it with toxic fumes that cause cancer. All it does is enrich them, educate them, show them the peace and bonding power of unconditional love.

Part of me feels like I failed somehow by not standing up for MY beliefs, even while I try to convince myself I did it for my love of others around me who are more sensitive than I am. In a room full of people who claimed to love me with absolutely zero intention of respecting my perspectives but believed they were entitled to tell me I must satisfy theirs, I was left frozen, compliant, and silent.

Sure, both my babies survived being nursed under a cover. Of course it wasn’t that hard for me to get up and walk 20 feet into another room. It didn’t hurt my child to eat behind a closed door or on a toilet… And I was doing the loving, kind thing, the gracious thing, the sacrifice for others. I should feel good, right? It didn’t “hurt me”, physically, to have to do these things.

I attended countless family occasions over the course of 4 years where I spent 70% or more of that event in a back room nursing a baby by myself with my cell phone as my only company and even then, I was fully covered by a blanket or nursing cover. I didn’t even like to go to parties, because… why? Get myself dressed in uncomfortable clothes and pack to giant bags full of gear and diapers and clothes for the baby, get them ready and in the car… just so I can do exactly what I would be doing at home, by myself, just in a different house, also by myself? “Well, at least there’s cake, and I have that new baby outfit to put them in no one has seen yet, so I guess I’ll go” would eventually be the deciding factor.

The thing is, when you give up your right to parent your way to save another’s feelings over and over again, it stops feeling good after a while. It stops feeling like you are doing the right thing for others and eventually, it just feels like you are bending to appease someone else. Over and over again, you bend until it feels like you are going to break and then… it just feels hurtful. It’s lonely. And for a mom who had postpartum depression and anxiety, lonely isn’t safe. But lonely was easier for everyone else, so the choice was either lonely in a house full of people or lonely at home by myself.

Full disclosure here; not ALL my family made me feel uncomfortable feeding my babies without a cover, and not all the time. My parents were fine with it was just them. If we went over for dinner and no one else was there, I didn’t have to cover. If my sisters were there, just them… I didn’t get told to cover. But, if the sister’s children or husbands were there, it was an automatic expectation that I would. “Oh X is back, let me get your cover for you!”

When my first was about a year old, I was feeding him alone in a closed room while out of town with some of my family and their children. One of the nephews (around 10 years old) came in and was curious… he had questions. In a giant family and church with babies everywhere, he had never once seen a child breastfeeding. I answered his questions and he thought it was neat. It was a beautiful teaching moment. His mother noticed he was in the room and ushered him out quickly with words like, “private” and “inappropriate”. I came out of the room and no one said anything – like it never happened with that hushed tone making it clear we weren’t going to talk about what just happened. I spent the rest of the day feeling like I’d exposed him to something disgusting, vulgar even… it made me feel creepy and gross and then it just made me sad.

That Christmas, my baby was just over a year old and I attended an event in a church and the baby got fussy, so I pulled out my cover to feed him so as not to disturb others with his noises. A family member leaned over and said, “they have a really nice mother’s room with audio of the sanctuary, so you don’t have to do that here if it’s uncomfortable.” Without thinking I said, “I’m not uncomfortable, it’s fine”… then I realized that wasn’t what I was being told. What I was really being told was, “you need to do that in the mother’s room”. So, I got up, made a scene in the isles getting out with my self, my baby, the cover over my neck and the diaper bag, then left the sanctuary to go find this “mother’s room”. When I got there, it was a white walled space, little more than the size of a walk in closet. There was one, small picture on the wall, 2 small rocking chairs facing opposite corners with their backs to one another and an old speaker that quietly broadcasted the events in the sanctuary. I fed my baby without a cover, facing a white cinderblock wall in a room that felt like a prison. When it made me cry, I pushed it off as just part of “baby blues” and tried to recover myself so no one knew that it was upsetting me becuase I didn’t want them to ask. I didn’t want THEM to feel bad. I knew it wouldn’t matter if I did.

Now that my babies are four and six and breastfeeding in public is a thing of the past (milk is for bedtime only), I see things a little more clearly. We have to find a middle ground between respecting others’ needs and ALSO respecting the choices of mothers and the comfort of our babies. There shouldn’t be an automatic expectation that a mother MUST cover or be considered vulgar. There must be some way to bridge this gap.

Feeding a baby shouldn’t feel like you are exposing a stranger or family member to porn. It shouldn’t feel indecent to do it, but this is the culture we perpetuate when we make it uncomfortable for mothers to nurse in mixed company. I eventually learned to accept it. I learned not to allow it to deeply affect me emotionally by repeating how I was being kind to others by doing it. Never because I suddenly liked nursing with a cover or enjoyed forcing my hot toddler to stay under a blanket in the 100+ weather outside, but ONLY because I had no other choice and I was tired of being sad about it. It was easier to comply, so I did. They’d broken me and I realize that now. Like a wild horse, I was coaxed into complacency to make life easier for them, knowing they would never have to step one toe in my shoes to consider my feelings or perspectives.

Now, I understand many mothers prefer to cover. I respect that choice. I respect that for them, it IS a private thing – a sacred thing, not for everyone’s eyes. It’s even a little beautiful, really… but it’s the lack of choice that cannot and should not exist. It’s the outright denial of choice. The zero tolerance expectation of compliance or leave. Cover or you can go home. THAT is what is not okay.

I was once asked, “but… would you really want to nurse in front of your brother in law? Wouldn’t that be weird?” My answer was, “how could I possibly know? Nothing like that has ever been allowed to happen without the cloak of shame covering the entire situation”. I was met with a stunned silence and “well, I think it would be weird to flash my boob at my sister’s husband”. I wanted to say, “it’s not flashing your boob to feed a baby” but… I knew there was no point and maybe they wre right – maybe I’d choose to cover anyway… who knows? I wan’t given an option. Many mothers aren’t and will discontinue breastfeeding due to that lack of support. That shame they feel when trying to nourish their child in front of friends and family causes them to lose interest. To feel like in order to get their lives and family back, they must put their child down and make everyone else happy. The breastfeeding relationship is cut short becuase of others’ judgement.

This is why normalizing breastfeeding is SO important. It’s the need to feel honored, respected and encouraged that is so vital and lacking in our culture today. If a mother WANTAS to choose another option becuase she really want to choose another option, great. But if it’s because she feel shamed, shunned, made to feel like an inconvenience or feel like it’s all just too much trouble becuase of the hoops she must jump through to save everyone else’s tender sensitivities, then NO. No it is NOT okay.

I am so thankful for videos like this that shine a light upon these dark corners of the breastfeeding journey. I truly hope others will see it and realize just how harmful their shame and judgement is and can be for both mother and baby.

Do you have any experiences similar to this? I’d love to hear your stories… the more we express how we feel the more we can change the narrative from one of judgement to one of compassion.

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