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The Nursing Burkha

Two weeks ago, I purchased a Bebe au Lait nursing cover-up. I like to call it the nursing burkha, and I can’t believe it’s come to this.

If you have been pregnant or know anyone who has been pregnant in the past decade or so, I’m sure you are aware that right now breastfeeding is hot. “Breast is best” is the message clearly provided by books, OBGYNs, pediatricians, magazine articles, obnoxious billboards if you live in New York City, and random strangers if you live in Berkeley.

What complicates this, however, is the lack of a widespread acceptance of women nursing in public. You’ve probably read about women being kicked off planes, cited for indecency on beaches, or just being leered and jeered in public places if they nurse. The general rule in my part of the country is that nursing is mostly OK so long as you are discrete. “Discrete” in this usage means covering yourself so that no part of the breast is visible at any time and usually entails placing a shawl over yourself.

This shawl bit is much trickier than it looks, especially if you have a young baby who needs help or handling while nursing. I have yet to figure out how I can rearrange my clothing, adjust my nursing bra, hold my baby, get him latched on and keep a shawl in place all at once. I can’t do it. To make matters even more complicated, I have a baby that interrupts his nursing once or twice per session to spit up all over himself.

I bought nursing camisoles thinking they would solve my problem. If you double them with a cardigan, nursing is quite discrete. There’s no conspicuous shirt lifting, and other than the few seconds it takes to get baby latched, nothing can be seen at any time. Perfect, right?

Wrong. I tried this approach in front of my brothers and they both froze in terror and discomfort. I felt like Medusa. These are grown men. They are married. They are fathers. They have seen rated R movies. However, the possibility that they might see part of their sister’s breast for a nanosecond was so terrifying to them that they stammered like adolescents on a first date, kept their eyes firmly over my head, and backed out of any room I was in. They are not alone in their reaction.

So, it seems I had several choices. For one, I could accommodate people’s sensitivities and go into a separate room every time Simon needed to eat. I call this nursing purdah. It’s an approach I used early on that got old and lonely in a hurry. At the other extreme, I could simply nurse in front of whomever and let them leave the room if they became uncomfortable. This in-your-face approach is kinda tempting, but not very kind. Frankly, it’s an approach that plays better in San Francisco or Berkeley than Louisville Kentucky. It’s also an approach that only works if other people’s embarrassment won’t make you feel self conscious yourself. So not for me.

Enter the Bebe au Lait. It ties around your neck like an apron, fans across the baby and your lap like a shawl, and has a curved rigid neckline that stands away from your body and allows you to see and position your baby.

It’s perfect. It’s ridiculous. It’s perfectly ridiculous and ridiculously perfect. For about $35, it has allowed me to stay in the room during several family meals without turning anyone into stone. No doubt money well spent. And more than anything else I can think of, it captures the zeitgeist of motherhood in early twenty-first century America.

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