Of course there is a vocal minority of women committed to breastfeeding, and the South Africa La Leche League facebook page has over 10,000 members. But mainstream urban Southern Africa seems to be where America was 30 or 40 years ago on the issue, and you are definitely charting some new territory if you want to give your nursling an al fresco snack.
Nonetheless, I charged forward. I nursed Cy (with the light help of a linen blanket) in the courtyard of the Hout Bay shopping centre, at the border post after crossing back into Botswana, in front of a nicely placed space heater at Spyro’s Greek restaurant, at an ice cream shop while Lila picked out her flavor, and of course, in the endless line at the Department of Home Affairs while I myself snacked on chocolate-covered pretzel sticks to keep my blood sugar up. Either I was a brave trailblazer charting the way for proud breastfeeding mothers to follow, or just one more example of a brazen American who can’t conform to local custom. I’d like to believe the former of course.
If public breastfeeding in southern Africa is complicated, things only got more dicey when I went back to work and started pumping. There’s no privacy in the office, so I race home at lunch every day to pump, feeling like I’m about to pop. When my colleagues get stuck in a too-long work meeting, they get a little bored. I get leaky and sore. The other day I waited too long. Picture me, one hand on the wheel and the other on my shirt all the way home, silk blouse be damned. I passed groups of schoolkids in uniform, teenage boys in hip-hop outfits, and ladies selling lollipops on the side of the road, all while squeezing myself in an unintentionally lewd act of desperation. Sorry, Botswana.
Considering that scenario, public nursing seems downright decorous. If you are going for it, I have some tips. In the spirit of anyone else brave enough to breastfeed in public overseas or anywhere else, here are ten things that will help.
A small sampling of the many varieties of formula popular in Gabs
My Top Ten Tips for Nursing in Public:
1, Eat fast. No matter the time of day or how carefully I plan things, the baby always wakes up hungry right when my own plate hits the restaurant table. You’ll have only a few minutes to inhale your meal before a full protest breaks out, so do it quickly. Forget big salads or meat that requires two hands for cutting: I recommend soft things you can swallow without chewing.
2, Go bold. Invariably when my baby wants to nurse in public, I am sitting directly across from a distinguished older gentleman who I’m sure will be horrified when I whip it out. Don’t hem and haw: go right for it and if baby cooperates, no one will even notice.
3. Don’t be cowed into using the restroom stall. If anyone suggests it, say “Would YOU like your next meal in there?”
4. Remember to keep the exit path clear: if there’s no easy way to lift your breast out of your shirt, the whole situation will quickly devolve into a tangle of blouse, blanket and flailing baby. Low-cut necklines are your friend.
5. Ditch the nursing cover. Nothing screams “I’m baring my breasts now!!!” like mounting a multi-colored floral-patterned hoopskirt around your neck.
6. Be whimsical. I like to order a steamed milk for myself while I get down to the business of feeding my baby.
7. Scan the room for allies. You’re looking for the sympathetic older woman who smiles at you in nostalgia for her own breastfeeding days. She is the one who will pick up the sock that fell unnoticed from your baby’s foot or unstrap the back of your Ergo when you can’t quite reach.
8. Pick your seat with care. Barstool = fail. Park bench with armrest = score.
9. Keep snacks on hand. It’s hard to think of something that creates immediate, urgent hunger pains more than nonstop breastfeeding. If you forget to stash nuts or dried fruit in your purse, you will find yourself digging a very old sample packet of Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food out of your desk that was designed for distribution to malnourished African children. It doesn’t feel good to do this (or taste good).
10. And finally: drop your assumptions. That distinguished older gentleman who looks like he wants to enjoy his coffee in a breastmilk-free zone? He’ll be the one to stop on his way out, newspaper in hand, to tell you what a good mother you are for feeding your baby when she is hungry. It’s okay to well up a little bit when he does this. You can blame it on the hormones.