Watching People React to Breastfeeding: My New Favorite Hobby

As much as I love my brand new nephew, few things have brought me as much joy as watching people’s reactions to my sister openly breastfeeding him. This new parlor trick of my sister’s, clearing a room faster than a landing boot evicts a colony of ants from their home, has nearly overshadowed his arrival into existence.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I feel fortunate to live in an era when parents and babies alike are doing the arduous labor of de-sexualizing and de-shaming something as objectively not sexy and not shameful as breastfeeding a baby. But I often wonder what people are so squeamish about when it comes to seeing someone breastfeed. Do they think that if they detach sucking on a boob from whatever nipple-core fantasies they have in their head that boob play will forever be ruined for them? I am finding all sorts of opportunity to ponder and ask these questions, as my sister nurses her first born purposely unencumbered by office-place breastfeeding closets and fabric shrouds.

If there were ever going to be a champion of the movement, it would surely be my sister. She has always had a little exhibitionist in her. She gets it from our father, a person who spent the first 30 years of his life in Poland. The kind of man who was puzzled as to why people stared and snickered at him as he swanned around in his speedo on rural Pennsylvanian lake beaches and at gas stations. This inherited comfort being nude or nearly nude in public was compounded by my sister’s studying medicine in Poland. I remember her coming back on a holiday break and explaining her preference for European-style, all-nude spas. “You know, I’m very sporty right now, so what is the big deal, we get in a pool naked, maybe someone sees my sporty body and it’s like compliment. Who cares, ya know? It’s just, how do you say, bardzo sportowy.”

So it made perfect sense that once she started having children of her own, that she’d breastfeed in a way that preserves comfort for her and the baby as opposed to preserving the false sense of modesty of our co-citizens in the United States.

I spent a week with my sister and nephew right after she returned from the hospital. As someone who has committed themself to a life child free, I find myself feeling anxious as I try to put myself in the shoes of any expectant mother. For the nine months prior to my nephew’s birth, it was not at all uncommon for me to startle myself awake in the middle of the night and think, “Shit. There’s a person growing inside of my sister.” It was enough to conjure images of an episode of Monsters Inside Me depicting a parasite’s meteoric trajectory to an unwitting fisherman’s colon. It took me until actually meeting my nephew and seeing my sister seamlessly ease into her role as mom to finally be comforted by the fact that she still was 100 percent her same-old self. This was obvious when she arrived home from the hospital and walked in her back door like a cowboy kicking open saloon doors:

“Watch out for my moose knuckle,” she announced as she strode in bow legged across the living room to the couch.

It was refreshing to see my sister joking around like this, albeit still in pain, as she navigated the first few days of motherhood. But, as is usual for me, previously held anxieties never fully disappear. Rather, they shape-shift into new beasts that reveal themselves at the strangest of times. Case in point: my initial anxiety about my sister’s decision to breast feed sans shroud. Specifically, this has more to do with the yeehaw folks who like to insert their opinions exactly where they don’t belong than anything. Not only that, as much as I wish for common and necessary practices like breastfeeding a child to be desexualized, I don’t want folks to gawk. My sister has always been a chesty person. But after having my nephew (henceforth Steak Knife), her bra cup size has ascended to some low frequency letter of the alphabet, the kind that makes people say “I’m going to a picnic, and I am bringing a xylophone.”

When my sister said to my brother-in-law shortly before his family showed up to meet the baby, “I plan to just breast feed Steak Knife if he gets hungry and not on a toilet — will everyone be cool,” my head ballooned with possible reactions. Will someone grab the nearest dish towel and drape it over the baby’s head, only for my sister to then remove it, both parties descending into a perpetual ribbon dance? Perhaps someone, out of sheer discomfort and panic, will rip away the baby, causing the feeding boob to dance around like an errant fire hose, spraying milk all over the place.

“Yes, sweetie. It’s just a boob,” her husband responded. He was right. This was family, after all. No reaction would come close to the made-for-daytime-TV scenarios in my head relegating us to a fate of fighting in a kiddy pool full of breast milk on Jerry Springer.

Once everyone arrived, we sat around the living room and chatted. I had all but forgotten about my sister’s upcoming staged tit-in as we ate charcuterie, joked, and gushed over Grandma bonding with the baby. As time wore on, however, Steak Knife became fussy and started to do that thing with his mouth that resembles a cat about to dry heave. Without hesitation, my sister reached for Steak Knife and pulled him close to her chest, “Is it cool if I just feed him here? I don’t feel like hiding in my room.”

“Everyone’s mature here, honey,” my brother-in-law offered quickly.

No one said anything as my sister reached into her maternity sport brasier for pot roast. Steak Knife latched easily, and late lunch was served. I happened to glance over at my sister’s brother-in-law. I noticed something peculiar about his eyes. They shot up once to the ceiling, then down to the floor, once to his right, and across to the display of family photos to his left. His eyes traced this loosely pentagramic shape a few times until he pushed off the chair with both hands to briskely get up, “Allie, did you say there was more of that cheese in the kitchen?”

“Yup,” I instructed him as he was already exiting to the kitchen to eat an entire charcuterie tray himself while my nephew enjoyed his own in the living room. “You should really try the boob-a” I shouted to the kitchen.

“The what?!”

“The gouda, I said.”

On a FaceTime call later, we introduced the baby to our grandmother. We propped the baby up into the frame of the call, only to reveal that he was beginning to slobber all over his mom’s shirt, clumsily looking for a nipple like a drunk me tries to find the straw to my vodka soda. Without a moment’s hesitation, my sister rooted around in her shirt to fish out a steak this time.

“What’s that? I can’t see the baby. Help your sister out, Alexandra and move that thing out of his face so he doesn’t suffocate,” my grandmother said as she shifted her head around, trying to get a clear view of the baby.

“He’s feeding,” I informed her.

My grandmother (a mother of three herself) gasped with both hands on her face, “they really should go back to the old way of doing things.” Which I can only imagine was her referring to the old days of being given an anesthetic to deliver my twin aunts Kathy and Kim while my grandfather patiently sat in a waiting room watching the Lawrence Welk show, unwitting to the fact that a room full of medical professionals were kneading my grandma’s stomach like a pile of pierogi dough.

On my last night with my sister and nephew, we stayed up to watch a movie. She sat in their recliner adjacent to a giant picture window in the living room. The lights were on, it was dark out, and the blinds were up. She started to feed my nephew, and I instinctively rushed over to close the blinds.

“It doesn’t matter, Allie,” she said, not breaking eye contact with Steak Knife.

“Yeah, but like, you don’t know who is out there watching,” in my head citing the make-boobs-great-again crowd.

“If someone makes porn out of this, that’s their problem,” my sister deadpanned.

“I bet some people would pay good money for that. Call it OnlyMams,” this last bit was too much for my sister’s temporarily weakened pelvic floor, resulting in her peeing the recliner.

When I had previously envisioned myself as an aunt, I didn’t pay any mind to my sister’s breastfeeding routine, let alone other’s potential reactions to it. This is likely because I find it absurd that there needs to be any conversation in the present cultural moment around whether we should or should not be asking parents who want to breastfeed their children to cover up or to move to another room (usually one where people poop). Or that there are folks in this world who are so inept at separating the shame and sexy feelings they have for boobs that they find something like breastfeeding to be indecent. I am proud of my sister for her steadfastness to the cause, but more importantly, so very grateful for the reactionary content I will receive in the months to come.

I hope she becomes one of those people who breastfeeds their kid well into childhood. I look forward to the day where we go to brunch at a hip restaurant, and my nephew tugs on his mother’s shirt, “is it time for topless mam-osas?” After which the restaurant doesn’t clear out, but instead, becomes viscerally uncomfortable. And I can stand on a chair and shout in righteous indignation, “What’s wrong with you people, 10-year olds need to eat too!”

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