I last spoke with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, the year before I had children. My grandmother, who had suffered from dementia for years, sat next to me on a couch as I explained to her who I was. Her eyes lit up as she recognized that I was Gina, the same girl with the dark brown eyes and long eyelashes, that she remembered as a baby. She asked about whether I was married and had any children. I introduced her to Jeff and told her, that we didn’t have any children yet but that they were definitely in our future. She recounted, proudly, to me the names of her own five children, adding softly “and one that was still born”. Then she added emphatically, “And I nursed all of them. You be sure you nurse your babies.”
I never realized how fortunate I was to come from an unbroken maternal line of mothers, grandmothers, and beyond who had nursed their babies. My mother breastfed all of us and being six years older than my sister I can distinctly recall my mother settling down on the couch to nurse rambunctious little baby Sara. I remember asking my mother how nursing worked, why she would switch the baby from one side to another and how she knew when the baby had had enough. My mother-in-law too spoke fondly of nursing her babies and expressed that the time went too quickly. Once we began to plan seriously for having children I researched the best place to give birth, what car seat to buy, infant and child brain development; but I never gave any thought to whether or not I would nurse and the benefits of breastfeeding. I didn’t need to. For me, nursing my babies wasn’t a decision I made consciously, but simply a normal part of being a mother.
Nursing in public has been a prominent topic in the media over the past few months. A mother in was kicked out of a Target store for nursing her infant. Locally, a mother at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was told to cover up or stop nursing her daughter. (The height of irony given that the museum displays multiple works of art depicting nudity.) And then there was the infamous magazine cover.
I might have grown up in a family where nursing was normal, but I still remember the stress of those first few times nursing a baby in public. One the first times was when Thomas was about three weeks old. I hadn’t been out of the house but twice in those three weeks and I was going crazy. Thomas – in the fine tradition of all Mendolo children – hated the car seat and I couldn’t bear to put him in it to go anywhere. After I dissolved into a flood of tears one afternoon, Jeff took charge of my hormonal self and said that we were going to walk to Target. We made the walk to and through the store without incident but on the way home the baby began to cry. A mile from our house, . surrounded by office buildings, a gas station, and a dry cleaners there was only one thing that would soothe my colicky baby when he cried. Suddenly nervous and flustered, hot and sweaty, I sat on a low concrete wall dividing a grocery store parking lot from the sidewalk and nursed at a very busy intersection – at rush hour. I was so anxious that I had trouble getting a good flow of milk which only made Thomas cry harder. I didn’t want to be there nursing for all of Pasadena to see, so I attempted put a blanket over myself but trying to cover up only added to our frustration. Parenthood requires you to do lots of things you don’t want to do and after nearly coming to tears myself, I womaned up, put my feet up on the stroller, handed the blanket to Jeff, and nursed my nearly inconsolable little baby. As I relaxed, he drank and drank, eventually falling into milk-drunk stupor, and all was well. Five and half years and three children later I have now, of course, nursed in public more times than I can keep track of: countless times in Target alone, all over the Happiest Place on Earth, walking around the grocery store, with a baby in a sling, on the beach, at the mall, at the park, sitting on various sidewalks throughout the city, in restaurants, during toddler music classes, while watching Theo do gymnastics, on trains and airplanes. And I while I always make an effort to nurse discretely, often wearing two shirts to expose the minimum amount of skin, I never, ever, nurse with a cover or a blanket. Not because I am an exhibitionist but because I am a mother with a hungry baby and a mother nursing her baby is normal.
I can’t decide whether or not to be pleased by all the media coverage of public nursing – hoping the coverage will remind more people that breastfeeding is normal and encourage more nursing mothers – or dismayed that it is even a newsworthy topic at all. To me it’s a little bit like having a debate on breathing in public. We should remember that in the absence of physical issues a new mother will produce milk and lactation will begin – nursing a baby is a normal, necessary function. When people grow up in an environment where they see mothers nursing tiny babies every hour, mothers nursing a hungry six month old who doesn’t yet eat anything else, mothers soothing a tired toddler – both at home and in public – we normalize nursing better than any media attention ever could. When people are exposed to the full spectrum of nursing they understand, intrinsically, that babies can’t be made to nurse only when “in private” and the debate about public nursing ceases to exist. I am lucky that I grew up and live in an environment where breastfeeding is normal and expected. I can’t give that environment to every new mother, but I can keep sitting down, putting my child to my breast, and feeding her – whenever and wherever she needs.