I was sorry to see I missed out on this blogging carnival about nursing in public (which isn't surprising, because lately I have very little time to keep up with my favorite blogs), but I decided I will share my perspective on nursing in public here anyway.
In Judaism, breastfeeding is given a lot of consideration, thought and importance. A woman's breasts, while generally considered an erotic body part (no, it is not a modern over-sexualized invention - breasts are not only for feeding babies) gain a special status while a woman is breastfeeding.
It is possible to explain that - in many cases only theoretically - breastfeeding while uncovered is immodest. And I say theoretically because if such concerns are expressed by someone who doesn't flinch upon seeing a woman in a bikini, that's hypocrisy. However, many people seem to have a problem with the fact that they know the woman who is sitting on a bench over there is nursing her baby. They will squirm just because of that knowledge, not because they have actually seen anything. So obviously the issue goes much deeper than modesty.
I do realize that for some mothers, it's difficult to cover up while nursing because the baby tends to be uncomfortable under the cover and/or yanks it off. For me, that was never an issue. I could cover up so that nothing would show, and still, I had huge hang-ups with breastfeeding in public for months after my daughter was born. I had this vague notion, though I never verbalized it, that I must both nurse on demand and never let people see I'm doing it, lest someone's feelings be offended by a baby's burp from underneath the cover.
Sometimes it is simply more comfortable to nurse in a private corner, for example if you are in a crowded noisy place and your baby is already a curious, active little one who is easily distracted by all the commotion. But it's lousy to feel you must hide out.
There was a time when I had to nurse pretty much constantly to boost my supply. It worked and we never had to give formula, but it meant that I hid out for a month and a half or so, without being able to go out for more than forty-five minutes. Very frustrating and totally unnecessary when I reflect on it. If I had been less committed to nursing, no doubt I would have given up.
When our daughter was seven months old, we were invited to a Shabbat chatan. It had been months since I’ve been to synagogue because I didn’t feel comfortable nursing in the (mostly nearly empty) women's section. This time I had to go. I nursed in the dusty and stifling geniza (a back room where old holy books and texts are kept). Not very comfortable but at least there was a chair and shadow. After that, we proceeded to the meal, which was a long one. She wanted to nurse again. The meal was in a dining hall and it was impractical to go back to our room, so I just went outside, crouched somewhere in a tiny spot of shade and nursed. The baby and I were stiflingly hot and I was crying because I felt so suffocated by always having to miss out on conversations and family celebrations. I felt as though I had spent the best part of the last months hidden away. I didn’t even dare to tell my in-laws, “I need to nurse the baby.” I would just disappear.
Anyway, when I came back, I saw another mother comfortably sitting on a mattress in that dining hall and nursing without even a cover. Her breast was hanging out, and no one was paying the least bit of attention. I could have hit myself over the head for how silly I’ve been! It was a wake-up call and since then I was much more comfortable with nursing in public. Surely if she could nurse during lunch without covering up, it would be alright for me to nurse while modestly covered up.
We also went to my husband’s high school reunion where most of the couples were Haredi; most had a baby (in addition to the 3-4 older children) and women just nursed their babies (covered up) during dinner without even thinking of leaving the room. They behaved in a very discreet and natural way. I later asked my husband whether he noticed they were nursing their babies and it turns out he had no clue. I’m sure that was true for most of the men.
This time around, I hope and plan to do things differently and nurse whenever the baby needs to and wherever both baby and I feel comfortable. I do intend to cover up, but not hide away. There's nothing more natural than feeding your child the way God intended, whenever the need arises. The more women do it, the less people will cringe and squirm when they see it being done.