I Am Not Public Property

What is it about motherhood that makes you the property of anyone and everyone? From the moment your belly pops out, people – STRANGERS – are touching you, rubbing you, caressing you. My most distinct memory of this was after I had gotten a pedicure (at least I think I got a pedicure – I couldn’t actually see my toes). I stood up from the chair and the woman looked at me and exclaimed, “Ohhhhh! You are pregnant! I just thought you were fat!” And then she double-handed my belly like a Harlem Globetrotter.

I also remember people coming up to me in the supermarket and asking me what my birth plan was. Maybe this is the slightly hippie nature of the city I lived in at the time. I knew well ahead of time that I’d have to have a planned C-section (long story), and when I told people this, their faces inevitably fell. Responses ranged from “I’m so sorry!” to “Why???” to “Are you sure you HAVE to do that?” – but all were negative.

The way I see it, it’s gonna be hard and weird and painful no matter how that baby gets out of there; the important part is having a healthy baby and mom on the other end. But I got so tired of these comments that I eventually came up with a fake response. “What’s your birth plan?” some lady would ask me in line at the pharmacy. “Oh,” I’d reply, “I’m having my husband dig me a pond in the backyard. He’s going to stock it with baby seahorses and I’ll give birth back there.” The stunned silence could make me smile for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, this communal ownership of a mother and her choices does not end with these birth plan interrogations. Once the baby is born, it actually ramps up. Sample intrusions include:

  • He’s too hot!
  • She’s too cold!
  • She needs a hat.
  • Where are his socks?
  • She’s hungry.
  • He can’t be in the sun.
  • He’s too big!
  • She’s SO small!
  • Did you circumcise him?
  • …and of course, everyone’s favorite: “Are you breastfeeding?” (I am not going to go into this one today…I just do not have the energy.)

Most women just put up with these shenanigans – me included. I was too tired to deal with it, and part of me thinks maybe this is just human nature – the tribe gathering around to protect and nurture the baby.

But there’s overbearing interest in the pregnancy, the new mother, the baby – and then there’s a totally screwed up thing going on with public shaming of breastfeeding women.. And as someone who pays attention to how women are treated in our culture, and to how breastfeeding women are treated, I’m starting to get really pissed off. Today, a friend shared an article about a woman who breastfed her hungry child in a restaurant. Another patron (a woman) snapped a photo of the mom and posted it on facebook with a negative comment, where it quickly went viral.

This is not the first such instance of public photographing and shaming of a breastfeeding mother. A new mother in the UK suffered a similar fate earlier this year. She stopped on a doorstep to feed her baby, and a patron in a pub across the street took a photo and posted it online, calling the woman a “tramp”. A TRAMP.

Of all the weird intrusions on pregnant women and new mothers, this, to me, is the worst. The belly-touching and birth-plan-asking, I think that’s people just drawn so strongly, almost magnetically, to a pregnant woman and the beauty and promise of new life (I’ve also possibly been binge-watching too much Call the Midwife). They mean well. Even the “she’s too cold” people are trying to help.

But those who go out of their way to photograph and publicly shame women who are feeding their hungry children – I just can’t. I KNOW it is going to take a long time to re-familiarize an entire culture with the concept that breastfeeding is normal and natural. It’s been at least a whole generation where that was not the norm, so most of us did not grow up seeing it around us. I get it. So, fine. Here’s my message to you, would-be photo-taker of a lady feeding her baby the way God/evolution/Superman/Barack Obama intended:

Go ahead, be annoyed/disgusted/freaked out. But don’t go out of your way to take and show pictures to your friends. The lady is feeding her baby. She is probably exhausted and her schedule is all screwed up today and she’s doing the best she can. She might have a cover, or she might have forgotten it, or the baby might not tolerate it (my second would have NOTHING to do with a cover), or…imagine this…she might just choose not to use one. Because she’s allowed to do that, and your discomfort is not her problem.

No matter what, she almost definitely does NOT want to take her boob out in front of you – especially if you’re the kind of total creepazoid who takes photos of strangers nursing their babies. But she is doing the job of FEEDING A HUMAN, while you are playing Candy Crush on your phone while stuffing Chik-Fil-A in your gob. So, my revolutionary coping strategy for you is as follows: in order to avoid the horror of the 1 square inch of visible flesh that is dwarfed in comparison to total X-rated-ness of the the nearby Victoria’s Secret billboard, don’t look at her. Eyes down, go for a new personal best on Candy Crush, french fries into gob. You can do this.



P.S. Want more posts and content about the journey through modern motherhood? Join me at www.facebook.com/JessicaShortallWrites.


2 thoughts on “I Am Not Public Property

  1. Hi Jessica,

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    Samantha Padgett | Associate
    Washington Speakers Bureau
    1663 Prince Street | Alexandria, Virginia 22314
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