When my first baby was born, I didn't have an iPhone. So I didn't take selfies. At least I thought I didn't. Recently I transferred an old iPhoto library and discovered a strip of Photo Booth selfies that I took of myself and my daughter as a newborn. There are numerous breastfeeding selfies of the back of my baby's head. I do not remember taking these, but I love that they remain. I'm wearing a repeating set of soft t-shirts and tank tops and I look slightly puffy and generally tired, like an always-awake new mother does. Other than me and my babe, and a snippet of the cat's tail here and there, we are alone. Who knows how many hours we spent like this, alone in the apartment, feeding her, alone together.
Alone together is how I remember the newborn experience, even if my husband was there, which he was, for six weeks, we were all alone together, living in a small world of three, of milk and discomfort, fatigue and incompetence. There were also adorable hiccups, yawns, and milk comas. There were long baths and afternoon naps and other new forms of entertainment/relaxation, but it was private world of soreness, one in which the new parent wonders, often, how in the world people accomplish this feat, this fattening of infants. You wonder if you should be alone with a baby so much, and you wonder why, being alone, it seems confusing and difficult. Sure we got outside, some. Sure we saw other people, some. But the bulk of the time was spent between us. Necessary contact with a bizarre and tiny little stranger. Who wasn't exactly getting fat.
I learned that not all babies get fat. But it was small comfort. We climbed out of the alone together phase, and we entered a new phase, one I hated: alone together while surrounded by people. At home, nursing felt right. It was quiet and peaceful and routine. Nursing out in public was a kind of nightmare. And it wasn't my baby that had issues. I really hated the fact that I was trying to be among people — I was trying to hang out, to socialize, to achieve a new normal — and yet whenever I needed to feed the baby, I had to leave the room. Or the table. Or the crowd on the lawn. I hated the forced isolation — from other adults — of breastfeeding. Now that she was older and we had more of a pattern, I wanted to be among friends again, I wanted to see the people I missed, who did not yet have infants.
So we went to dinners and parties. The baby was easy to tote. And yet mealtimes were completely different. Whenever I began to eat, the baby wanted to eat. She could be snoozing peacefully in her car seat, and the second I picked up a piece a food, she'd wake up. I remember feeling like whenever I sat down, starving, I was immediately reminded that I had a job to do. All I wanted to do was tuck into my meal without holding another person steady. I needed both hands for that giant cheeseburger. Because it seemed like I spent most of my time now holding my child, eating was one event during which I desperately wished to not hold her. I wanted to feed myself for once! And because I was nursing, I was always hungry. It reminded me of the times I'd trained to run a marathon and grown bored with eating, annoyed by the nuisance of constant hunger. Except this was different; the constant low-level hunger made eating an utter delight.
Then, if the baby cried, I carried her somewhere to nurse. A back bedroom or a hallway, a bathroom or a park bench. It was in those moments that I resented being separate, being other, being a person who fed a baby. I resented my husband for not having to go off and nurse somewhere, for not having to leave our group of friends, and I resented the baby for making it feel like a chore. It was a choice I made, not feeling comfortable around our friends — none of whom had children — but it was a choice that felt like something I had to do, and when I think back, I wish I had made a different choice. Perhaps I thought it was easier to feed her alone. Perhaps I thought that others might not enjoy seeing me or my baby nurse. But I never took the time to ask or try it out.
As she grew, I began to try social feeding more. We nursed on park benches and in cafes. We nursed on hiking trails and on the beach. Sometimes I tossed a blanket over her and sometimes I did not. Because it was nearly always breastfeeding weather in San Francisco, we ate outside, and I saw more mothers nursing their children in public. I began to look for them, nursing mothers. Because I'd missed something this whole time — I had not even noticed the other infants out there, that were always there, getting their meals in public. It was the beginning of the obvious — I saw that babies belonged in all the places I had seen as reserved for people, or the adults.
When people criticize women for openly nursing, they are essentially saying that these women do not belong, that we have no place in the larger culture. Women are not part of the baby and not real people. This Fall, I was at a large backyard party with a new mother. We all sat near the grill, and when the food was served, she began to eat. Naturally her baby woke up, and she pulled her dress aside to nurse and continued eating her bratwurst and talking to me. I was so pleased.