Calling out disrespect can be a good thing for everyone involved.
I was the library with my two children recently, and one was occupied at the craft table when the baby started to get restless. No problem — there was a chair in the corner of the room and even though the library was crowded, I figured it would be a discreet place to nurse her.
I’m good at this, and I was dressed for it; nobody could see skin from any angle. Still, it was totally obvious what we were doing, and it didn’t escape the attention of a couple of young teenagers in the vicinity. I didn’t see them, but my husband did — they were snickering, mimicking the baby, and craning their necks to get a look. He caught their eye and they immediately cut it out.
He pointed them out to me, and it was hard to be angry. Fourteen-year-olds are really just kids, even though they don’t know it. They probably hadn’t seen a woman breastfeeding a baby before; you can’t tell what formation somebody’s been given. Maybe they didn’t have anyone in their life to tell them that breastfeeding is normal, and that really, that’s what breasts are for.
I was finished nursing anyway, so I brushed it off. But I ran into a problem later, when the baby got hungry again, because the only nearby room that wasn’t packed to the gills with people had those same two kids in it. I walked up them, and they froze up, clearly trying to figure out what I knew.
I said, “Hey, my daughter is really hungry. I need a room to feed her in where nobody’s going to be making fun of me. It’s really difficult to nurse the baby when people are laughing at you, so I need you guys to leave.”
Basically, I was a teenager’s worst nightmare. They couldn’t believe this was happening to them. The sheer awkwardness of it all — I was the last person they wanted to have to look in the eye. Actually, one of them acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about, and the other didn’t even bother. They left, I fed the baby, and that was that.
Later on, I wondered whether I should feel bad. Was what I said really necessary? Was I just trying to get them back for embarrassing me? But honestly, I wasn’t. I wasn’t even trying to make them feel bad, although that was a predictable outcome.
Here’s the thing — mockery is impersonal. You’re using a person as a source of entertainment, but you’re ignoring their personhood and dignity. That all changes when you have to talk to the person you were making fun of. When you have to make eye contact, when you see that a baby is affected by the consequences of your actions, it’s not a game anymore. The point wasn’t to make the kids feel bad, it was to show them that people are people, even when it’s more fun to ignore that fact.
And when you realize you live in a world where the people you’re making fun of might just come over and talk to you about it, you might think twice next time. That’s good for nursing mothers, but it’s good for them, too.
My breastfeeding wasn’t the problem. The problem was people who respond to it disrespectfully. If I change my own behavior every time somebody decides to treat me badly, life gets complicated really quickly. This time, I thought, I’d let the people making the trouble get inconvenienced by its consequences. I didn’t want to let their choices determine whether or not I was going to respond to my baby’s needs.
Confrontation isn’t fun, and it’s not always the right choice. You have to have the emotional energy and the confidence to do it right, and it helps to have a clear head. But I’m glad I walked up to them that day, and I hope I’d do it again.
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