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.
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.