The Zen of Public Breastfeeding

Please welcome today’s guest post by Miriam Kresh.

Let it be said yet again: a woman can breastfeed in public with total modesty. Even in the middle of a bustling Middle-Eastern open-air market. Honest. I saw it myself last week in the local shuk. The scene was so modest as to be almost invisible.

Trundling along with my wheeled shopping cart, I stopped at a stand selling particularly beautiful tomatoes.  At the corner of my eye, I noticed a young Ethiopian woman settling down on some steps next to me. Strange place to take a rest, I thought. Right in front of a butcher’s. Not the cleanest or quietest place. Maybe she’s not feeling well.

She adjusted her big white shawl, an accessory worn by many Ethiopian women. Then I saw a pair of little brown feet wiggling around one side of the shawl. She had a baby in there, and what’s more, she was breastfeeding him, with all the tranquility in the world.

I took my time selecting tomatoes, curious to see if anyone else would notice. The men passing by hardly glanced at her. Two older women, probably wondering if she was all right like I had, looked hard at her, recognized what she was doing and walked on, smiling. Maybe they were reminded of their own babies and nursing days. I certainly was.

My own breastfeeding days are long over, but I treasure the memories. Most of the memories.

There were some fairly unpleasant times when I was desperately searching for privacy in order to feed my squalling little one. Like when I first got an Israeli passport, carrying my four-month-old firstborn in a Snugli front-pack.

Are Snuglis still around? They were revolutionary at the time. I’d get a lot of funny looks and even a certain amount of flak from strangers about my “kangaroo” baby.

The Ministry of the Interior was then housed in a decrepit, airless building. Lines were long. Everyone was hot and in a bad mood. My baby needed to nurse and get his diaper changed, and let me know it the best way he knew how: by crying loudly, then louder. I tried all the usual useless tricks – humming to him, jiggling him around. This being Israel, everyone had advice.

“Give him a pacifier,” said one woman.

“He’s choking, he’s not getting enough air inside that thing,” said another.

“Come back another day without the baby,” said an irascible old man. “Why does everybody have to listen to him screaming?”

I walked around, looking for a room to nurse in – maybe some secretary or clerk would let me use their office.

No go. Clerks in government offices were a sour, disobliging crew back then.  (The new generation of government workers is far nicer.)

Everyone was giving me dirty looks. Everyone seemed to be blaming me.

The door to the tiny, filthy toilet in the corridor opened and closed with a bang. That’s it! I jammed myself in there with my now-hysterical child and nursed him standing up in that evil-smelling cubicle. There was no room to change his diaper, but as long as I could feed him, I’d manage later, I thought, ignoring the bangs on the door and cries of  “Are you coming out of there already?”

Nobody was my friend by the time I had satisfied my baby. I got back in line and stood with my head down, embarrassed to meet anyone’s eye and taking silent comfort from feeling my son’s full little tummy against mine while he slept.

That lady in the shuk had a million percent more class than I had. She just naturally settled down, pulled a light, large cotton shawl over herself, and calmly gave her baby the breast the minute he gave a sign that he needed to nurse. She didn’t wait for him to cry; she didn’t wait for anything. All was right with the world.

I left the shuk and got on my bus, lurching into a seat. Looking up from my bags and packages, I saw the same woman get on. How ironic if she were to sit down next to me, I thought. And of course, she did. Her baby was blissfully asleep on her back, settled into some kind of sling under the shawl. He was breathing in time with her breath – I remembered that sweet feeling well.

Two other young mothers got on the bus at different times, each with her baby in a stroller. As soon as they were safely aboard and the strollers stood still, the babies woke up and began to cry. The Ethiopian baby, rocked against his mother’s body with every one of her movements, slept on.

When he did wake, he was a little startled, but didn’t make a peep. He looked around at me smiling down at him, wiggled a little, and stared around, getting adjusted to the surroundings. He was one of those solemn babies; no matter how much I cooed over him, he wouldn’t smile back, just gazed at me with enormous brown eyes. Adorable.  And confident.

The stroller babies wailed. Their mothers searched for pacifiers, pulled toys out to dangle in front of them, plugged bottles into their mouths.

The mother next to me didn’t give her baby much attention. She knew he was fine.

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Miriam Kresh is a freelance writer and food blogger. She’s lived in the US, Brazil and Venezuela, settling in Israel 35 years ago. She firmly believes that if you do all the cooking, you shouldn’t have to wash the dishes. 

For busy moms Miriam recommends Summer Bulgur Salad, a recipe requiring only boiling  water and a few minutes of chopping for a main-dish salad with unmistakable Middle Eastern flavor. View more recipes and travel posts at Israeli Kitchen.

Related:

Why Can’t Breastfeeding Mothers Just be Nice?

Young Families in Israel Pay Twice for Formula Marketing

The “Cringe” Factor

Check out the 2016 fashions at Hydrochic modest swimwear.

Comments

  1. Nice article! I nurse my baby all the time when I’m in public– she’s in the ergo carrier and I just put up the hood and put a scarf around my neck to cover the spots that might show. I’m pretty sure most people can’t tell what I’m doing, based on how regularly people ask me if she’s asleep (sometimes she is!) and how I sometimes have to stop people before they lean in to have a look at her. 🙂

  2. Beautiful post. If you had only had a regular old fashion wrap, you could have just shifted your baby to the side. But at least you knew that no matter how long you got stuck in that office, you would have enough food for your baby.

  3. Maya, it’s nice that people want to admire your baby – but I’d never thought of that complication! Yosefa, it was long ago, and now a married daughter has breastfed her own little tribe. But its amazing how you remember early motherhood, always.

  4. I don’t nurse mine in public as much now that she’s a toddler rather than a baby, but a large shawl definitely makes it easier. I agree with Maya on the Ergo, too. Of course, I’ve had one woman insist on looking at the baby even when I told her we were breastfeeding!

  5. What a lovely story, thank you for sharing it. I particularly liked the last line, the idea that he was saw and well on her back and she was able to get on with her daily life while meeting her baby’s needs. Made me smile at the image.

  6. BookishIma says:

    A wonderful story, especially the part on the bus. I can’t imagine choosing a stroller over a carrier for the bus. I will add, though, that most people who are opposed to public breastfeeding are opposed to “uncovered” women, not to those wearing a shawl. My baby wouldn’t tolerate being under a blanket/cover-up while eating (neither would I) and I didn’t like using one. It was more hassle and for me, less modest, because it was so fiddly and if it fell off or he removed it, I would be left feeling exposed. I really think that when you are experienced at breastfeeding and wear clothing appropriate for it, it is 100% possible to modestly breastfeed a baby without a cover. I did, into toddlerhood, just about anywhere, and not once did anyone give me any indication they noticed!

  7. I really enjoyed reading this post; I could just see the scenes.

    It seems like using a stroller in Israel is like trying to fit an American lifestyle into an Israeli life. When we visited Israel with my oldest (when he was 7 months old), he was in a wrap the whole time. But here in chutz l’aretz, my kids are frequently in strollers, and it really works for us.

    Anyways, thanks for the beautiful illustration of how public breastfeeding can indeed be extremely tznuah, and how wonderfully connected that mother was to her baby. May we all be so in tune!

    • Re: Strollers. When I lived in Jerusalem and didn’t have a car with my first, my stroller was my car. I had a big Phil and Teds with air filled tires and that’s the only way I could comfortably negotiate the very steep hills in my neighborhood. Bus service was spotty and it wouldn’t have helped me climb the four hills up to the supermarket, which was really only a 15 minute walk (would have been a 30 minute bus ride). Anyway, my point is strollers do come in handy in this country, as much as they do in the US. We just don’t keep our kids in them until age 5. (I gave away my P&T to an Oleh chadash when her double stroller was stolen. She still needed it to cart around her 5 year old on shabbat. :/ )

  8. Michal Levy says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post! This is the way I try to mother my babies.

  9. great story. There is no reason not to feed a child right away when they are hungry.

  10. Allan Katz says:

    we too often forget that the child’s needs are being met and focus on whether the mom is doing the right thing or not

  11. Good story. What’s glaring is the smoothness and naturalness of the Ethiopian mother’s”mothering” and the un-natural behavior of the ‘modern’ mothers. It’s as if a primitive, intuitive female knowledge had been lost over the centuries.

  12. Cristina Smith says:

    It’s of to do breastfeeding in a public place but make sure it isn’t too flagrant or gross for people seeing it. Just like what the cover of Time magazine. We can’t control the baby’s hunger.
    Thanks for this great post!

  13. Ilyse Ben Zagmi says:

    Brought tears to my eyes. beautiful writing, and loved this post. Thank you.

  14. Thank you for all the kind responses. It’s lovely to hear back from readers who enjoyed the post. And, just for the fun of it, let me tell you that my hungry little boy of then is now a handsome 31-year-old who likes to cook.

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