At four months and change, our new little guy is going strong. He likes to smile at strangers, grab for toys, roll over from back to tummy, and remind mommy to turn on the hot water geyser before bathtime since we normally leave it off to save electricity. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do this last one. But he really should. When is he going to start pulling his own weight around here?
I slipped into the babycare routine like you would an old shoe: the rhythm of interrupted sleep and constant breastfeeding came right back as if the last three years hadn’t passed. But of course I was far from home this time. When my daughter was born in 2011, I was living in crunchy Santa Barbara, California: land of organic food, hemp overalls, and a baby psychology clinic. if you didn’t tote your baby to the farmers’ market in a sling, you were the oddball.
Things in South Africa are a little different. There are plenty of health food stores, and I was surprised how easy it was to find almond flour for my homemade nursing cookies or witch-y dried herbs for my after birth soothing bath. But there was one area where I immediately felt like the hippie outlier: nursing in public.
When my daughter was a baby, she considered a discreet nursing cover or blanket a personal enemy that needed to be batted away and, once we were both exposed to open air, she found the hustle and bustle of the world much more interesting than eating anyway. But with baby #2, hopped up on second-time-around confidence and too lazy to pump extra bottles, I figured I could try public breastfeeding again.
The first way that I shocked the local populace was by bringing my new baby out at all. Our nanny told us that mothers are discouraged from leaving the house with their boy babies until the child is a month old, while three months is considered the decent interval of seclusion for girl babies. (Sexism! Starting early.) From the Woolworths cafe to World of Birds to a Camps Bay cafe on the beach, people looked askance at my (healthy, strapping) infant and exclaimed their fears aloud.
“It’s too windy!”
“It’s too bright!”
“Your baby is so tiny!” (He was 8 1/2 pounds at birth).
I found myself resorting to the only line that would usually end the conversation: “In America we like to toughen our babies up.”
We never saw another new infant out in public during our entire two-month stay in South Africa except once, at the Department of Home Affairs where we waited in line for four hours to register our son’s birth (baby attendance required). Picture a DMV but less cozy and welcoming. The other ten babies in line were swaddled in woolen caps and enough layers of flannel blankets to shelter a Clydesdale even though it was 80 degrees outside.
There aren’t any laws against public breastfeeding in South Africa that I could find (“No Hooting” in the photo above actually refers to honking in South African parlance, as in no honking your car horn). But nursing out and about is not the norm. The only time I saw it during my entire visit was at a dusty truck stop outside Beaufort West, South Africa, on our 1,500 kilometer drive back to Botswana. An African woman who looked about 60 sat on the concrete steps in front of a decrepit convenience store feeding a baby: I imagine she was a wet nurse. She didn’t bother with a cover. Or with shoes, for that matter.
I know most people have a different impression of nursing in Africa, picturing a breastfeeding free-for-all of the National Geographic variety. I’m sure that may be true of some parts of the continent or in rural villages, but in the cities of Southern Africa I feel like a lone wolf. (Do wolves breastfeed in public? I suppose not.) For the affluent citizens of Botswana’s capitol city Gaborone, formula seems to be firmly in fashion, and it is hard to find anyone nursing their baby longer than a few months.
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.
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.