If you’re a nursing mama, this scenario may be familiar to you: You’re at the park with your toddler when she paws at your shoulder for some goodness from the mommy chuckwagon. You find a bench and position your child, discreetly pull up your shirt, and voilà! Mealtime. No potential oglers or hecklers that you can see, and besides, it’s your right! Right?
We may take for granted that we can breastfeed in public in the Puget Sound area, but did you know this legal right was only recently granted to women in all 50 states? Idaho and Utah were the last states to fully clarify their respective breastfeeding laws, in 2018; the former exempting nursing in public from indecent exposure and obscenity laws, and the latter better defining protections for mothers choosing to nurse in public. Wouldn’t it be nice if — now that these laws are in place across the nation — the shaming of nursing mothers, whether in public or private, might stop?
Artist-photographer Ana Alvarez-Errecalde, whose dramatic documentary-style photographs address the injustices mothers and women face in everyday life, sees society’s imposition to make invisible the care of a child as a negation of mothers. Her most recent work, entitled “COVER UP,” confronts the breastfeeding shamers directly, with overt irony: A textile and photographic installation, the series shows nursing mothers wearing custom photo-printed cover-ups emblazoned with larger-than-life areolas punctuated by — what else— nipples!
Alvarez-Errecalde writes of the body of work: “This project emerges as an ironic and critical response to the daily imposition inflicted on mothers to make tasks of childrearing invisible. This imposition is mostly the result of puritanical and hypocritical social posturing that seeks to avoid the baring of breasts that nourish children, even though publicity campaigns fill our cities with female breasts used to sell products and ideas.”
Lindsae Kroeger of the Broadview neighborhood of Seattle laughs when I describe the “Cover Up” photographs to her. She doesn’t use a cover-up when nursing her 1-year-old daughter. “It frustrates her and makes me hot,” she explains.
But Kroeger does experience judgment about breastfeeding in her own home, from her in-laws and parents, who ask her to cover up or go into another room to nurse when they are visiting. “I do it out of respect for them but in my mind, I am saying to myself, ‘You don’t have to stare at my body; look at my face!’”
Mei Shih of North Seattle also felt judgment from family, specifically her mother. “My mom is very traditional,” she says. “She grew up in China and came to the States in her 20s. She told me my milk was ‘expired’ after my son turned 1! She also said my still-nursing son was stealing nutrition from my growing baby when I was pregnant with my second.”
The comments are funny now, with both children weaned, but at the time they felt like pressure to stop something because of someone else’s discomfort.
Funnily enough, many mothers may feel less judgment when nursing in public than they do from their own family members. Some moms, motivated by a sense of righteousness about societal acceptance, go to heroic lengths to nurse in public. I once observed a professional photographer at a wedding (she was a close friend of the couple, as well) holding her nursing son with one arm while snapping candid shots with a large camera in her other hand.
Or take Shonda Ballard of Shoreline, an events and video producer who manages corporate shows in huge arenas. “When I went back to work, my then-husband would travel with me and care for my daughter during the day. He’d bring her to me and I’d steal away to a dark corner of the arena to nurse her,” she says. Though essentially anonymous in a setting crowded with thousands of strangers, Ballard still felt the pressure to nurse away from potentially judgmental eyes.
The point of nursing is to feed your child, and the right to do so anywhere she pleases now protects a mother across the land. Whether they choose to use a cover-up (with a cheeky nipple print) or not, at least mothers are now supported by law for the eventual normalization of openly, obviously nursing.