Why do you stare when I nurse my child?
When I was in New York, hounding the aisles at Buy Buy Baby and Babies R Us, my belly sticking out and my behind the size of two swollen water melons, I picked up everything that had a seal of approval from Parenting magazine. Sleep sacks. Check. Night-light. Check. Sleep sacks that glowed in the dark and eliminated the need for a night-light. Check. I’m not sure why I needed the glow-in-the-dark kind when I had the simple ones, but I convinced myself that when the night-light stopped working, the glow in the dark sacks would be put to good use. I picked up two.
Both baby stores had a huge section dedicated to feeding. All parenting magazines had been adamant that I should breast-feed my child, but I’d had no idea that the decision to do so came with a whole truckload of contraptions, ranging from electric breast pumps to breast-milk storage containers to somewhat technical looking braziers.
As I gazed at the varieties of pumps stretching in front of me, I caught sight of an innocent looking, brightly patterned fabric fluttering in a corner. It had large roses printed all over it and a pretty pink strap extending from one side. While the cheapest of the other paraphernalia cost more than a hundred dollars, the price tag on the cloth was only US$19.99.
It was called a nursing apron, and the picture attached showed a woman draped in a huge sheet, gazing lovingly inside. I purchased it because it looked cute and possibly useful. Little did I know that it would become my most indispensable companion – in my husband’s opinion, the “best $19.99 you spent during your three-month shopping spree.”
At Saint Lukes Roosevelt Hospital in NYC, the nurse pushed Keyaan’s hungry mouth onto my breast, muttering something about latching on, then rushed out of the room to attend to a real emergency. With his eyes closed and his mouth working furiously, Keyaan pulled and sucked for all he was worth before letting go and screaming. I frantically pulled at the call button until a nurse rushed in.
“Do something,” I wailed, pointing at my crying infant.
“You do something,” she encouraged, bringing him back into the crook of my arm and helping me try again.
Eventually I got the hang of it, and became expert at using the words latch and colostrums and “the football position”. But I still felt uncomfortable and would only breast-feed when my doors were securely locked, the curtains drawn, and the music switched on so that no one would figure out what was happening.
I refused to go out with Keyaan unless I had enough pumped milk in a bottle to hold him. If there was an emergency and I had to feed him, I would hide in a bathroom, sit on top of a WC, and pray to save him from the groaning faucets and pipes around us. It wasn’t exactly restful bliss.
On the flight back to Pakistan, I hid out in the aeroplane’s washroom for most of the journey, breaking out in tears, finally, with the frustration of feeding a howling infant in such a cramped place.
When Keyaan was about three months old, I had to rush to the hospital because my best friend had gone into labour. It was an emergency I hadn’t planned for so I had no supplies pumped or frozen. I simply picked up my sleeping infant, tucked my nursing apron into the baby bag, and prayed Keyaan wouldn’t wake up.
He did, just as our driver steered us into the parking lot of the hospital. Immediately, Keyaan began looking for his milk. My heart skipped a beat. The hospital’s bathroom would be brimming with germs; I didn’t want to expose him to that.
It was dark, and as I peered around I realised that there was no one parked next to me. I asked the driver to leave the radio on, and to leave the car. I wrapped my shawl and my duputta securely around me, then pulled out the nursing apron and got to work, arranging Keyaan across my chest. Staring around intently, I prayed that no one would come close.
But sure enough, a beggar began knocking on my window, furiously trying to get my attention. I shook my head incessantly wishing that Keyaan would fall asleep so that I could jump out of the car and run into the hospital.
The beggar was stubborn, knocking every minute or so and ignoring the shakes of my head. I reddened and pulled my shawl even more tightly around me, avoiding eye contact until, finally, he hobbled away.
I breathed a sigh of relief and closed my eyes, but in what seemed only half a minute, there was another loud knock on the window, and almost fainted to see my friend’s mother.
I wanted to hide under the seat, but she seemed to want to have a conversation. With both my hands occupied, I couldn’t even roll down the window.
Finally, she realised what was going on and, smiling, walked away.
Now a strange driver was giving me funny looks from afar. Enough was truly enough. I pulled Keyaan off my breast, fixed my clothing, burped him brusquely, and got out of the car, giving the staring driver a frown that made him blush and look away. As I caught up with my friend’s mother and kept vigil through the night on a safe birth, it dawned on me that all the shame of that parking-lot feeding was nonsense. From then on, I decided, I would no longer hide and steal around, breast-feeding as if it was a sin. Instead, I would do it, discretely but proudly, wherever and whenever it suited my child and me.
At restaurants, cafés, malls, and friend’s houses, I began confidently and stubbornly draping myself in the apron – which revealed nothing – and feeding my son. Surprisingly, the most stares and questions came from women.
“You shouldn’t feed in public,” said one of my closest friends, wrinkling her nose when she saw me taking out the apron.
And pray where in Pakistan, I wanted to ask, will I find private nursing rooms? But I kept silent, and kept nursing.
“It’s not decent,” said a cousin of mine.
To which I responded with a mini-lecture on the health-boosting qualities of mother’s milk.
“Just stay home till you are done feeding,” suggested my mother’s friend.
I didn’t bother to tell her that I planned to breast-feed Keyaan for a year. Was it possible she thought I should stay home for a year?
Or the most common suggestion: “Try the formula.”
My counter-attack on formula, which I considered the worst possible solution, didn’t seem to change anybody’s mind, and I eventually gave up, simply smiling and nodding.
The stares, nudges and whispers haven’t stopped, but I have realised that I can take it. No religious scholar has condemned me. No strange man has spit in my direction and no restaurant has thrown me out. I cause no more commotion than a woman wearing too-tight skinny jeans or too snug a top. And that’s not bad. It’s a small sacrifice in the interest of giving my son the essential antibodies.
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