I live in a small town with my partner. I work in a restaurant at night and she works a regular 9-to-5 that she happens to love. We have two kids and definitely plan on having more. My older child is a 2.5-year-old girl who needs to constantly be on the move.
So I’m always out and about with my kids. I’m exclusively breastfeeding my baby and have to nurse him in public several times a day. As you may be guessing, I also have to pump at work twice at night. Our busy restaurant has a small office where I can go to chug away, but I have to wash my pumping gear in the public sink and store my milk in the walk-in cooler (where it sits with the other dairy products).
I’m giving you all this set up because I want you to see that things are the way they have to be. And I’m content with my lovely life and all of the things in it. I don’t want to change anything and don’t think I should have to.
But when I nurse my baby in public, people will actually evacuate the area where I’m sitting. Sometimes I get the stink eye as they leave. A park bench, fast food place, a tiny table at the library, wherever! Sometimes I’m told I should go nurse in the bathroom.
Are they afraid, angry, grossed out, embarrassed?
The pumping is worse. When I wash my gear, everyone gives me a very wide berth (even though the prep space at the restaurant is tiny), curving their bodies away in the small space like I have toxic chemicals. Once a co-worker picked up a bag of my milk by accident, screamed eewwww! and ran to frantically wash their hands. And these people are like my family!
Why are people so grossed out by milk? I don’t want to pump and store milk, I have to. I don’t want to take my boobs out in public, I have to. Why are people not impressed by all my hard work and good milk supply? When people look at me they don’t see a happy mother providing for her child, they see a violation.
Should I toil along in silence? Should I say something? I refuse to believe this is wrong.
The Defiant Milk Wizard
Dear Defiant Milk Wizard,
Thanks for reaching out! I understand that you are having some issues with your friends’ and neighbors’ reactions to your breastfeeding and pumping. For your convenience, I have complied a list of Breastfeeding Facts that I hope you will find helpful and included them below.
Please feel free to keep them handy and pass them on to anyone who seems troubled by your lactation.
FACT: Breast milk is food. Although it might just seem like gross discharge that leaks out of women’s breasts, breast milk is actually an edible substance that can be fed to baby humans. If you would not like your food to be prepared in a bathroom, please don’t suggest a nursing mother prepare food for her infant in a bathroom.
FACT: The ability to lactate is neither airborne nor contagious. Lactation is caused by a chemical called prolactin, which causes the alveoli in a woman’s breast tissue to convert protein and sugar in the bloodstream into milk. Proximity to a lactating person is not a factor. Making eye contact with a breastfeeding woman will not cause you to spontaneously lactate. It is safe to be in the same space with a woman who is breastfeeding or pumping.
FACT: You cannot catch any blood-borne illnesses by touching a breast pump or picking up a cooler that has breast milk inside it. Breast milk, like other non-volatile liquids, cannot permeate glass or plastic containers. These provide a safe barrier between you and the milk. There’s no need to gasp and throw the cooler to the ground once you’ve determined its contents.
FACT: It is impossible to tell whether a woman is lactating by staring at her breasts through her clothes. Here’s a terrifying fact, lactating women look just like everyone else! When a woman mentions she’s breastfeeding and you immediately glance down at her chest for verification, it will be interpreted as rude, not diagnostic.
FACT: Rather than feeling shame, many women feel proud of the hard work they’re doing as breastfeeding mothers. Although it is, of course, shameful to possess breasts in a modern, civilized society such as ours, some woman manage to feel empowered by the decision to use their breasts to produce human food for their human babies. When you discover that a woman is breastfeeding, you do not need to become embarrassed on her behalf. A neutral response is appropriate. It’s OK to continue politely chatting with a lactating woman even after she has said the words “breast milk.”
FACT: Our bodies can do amazing things! Women have mammary glands that, when stimulated with the proper hormones, produce milk that she can feed to her baby. Your body is amazing, too! If watching a woman breastfeed disturbs you, you can use the infrahyoid muscles your neck to turn your face in a different direction, or you can use the sartorius, gastrocnemius, and adductor muscles in your legs to stand up and walk the fuck away.
Hope this helps!
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch