Before I became a mother, I called a friend who was expecting her first child. "What do you need?" I asked her. "I want to get you a baby present that you'll use. Not stupid baby shoes."
My friend, a successful attorney in New York City, asked for something so unbelievable that I thought I'd heard wrong. "A nursing drape?" I asked.
"Yeah, you know, they fasten around your neck and over the baby so no one has to see you nursing them," she said. "I don't want to freak people out." She freaked them out all the time as a hard-hitting lawyer, so my confusion only grew.
It was my first realization that there are insanely sensitive people out for whom the mere sight of nursing, that act of species survival for which God or Gaia or evolution has exquisitely designed the female human body, causes mental anguish beyond all proportion.
People will eat a Carl's Junior burger while sitting in traffic in their car, they'll slurp a 24 - oz caramel soy half-caff macchiato as they walk down the city sidewalk yammering on their cell phone, they'll eat a fried butter stick at the Texas State Fair. But when a mother discreetly, carefully, lifts up her shirt and unsnaps her super-expensive specially purchased nursing bra to provide nourishment, not to mention strengthen her baby's immune system, provide protection against SIDS, and perhaps even boost baby's IQ, that's the act we decide needs to be screened off from the general public?
When my first child was only a few months old, I flew cross country with her to visit my family. Seated next to me on the plane was a friendly young man who immediately began oohing and aahing over the baby. "I LOVE children," he gushed. "I only have sisters, and I have so much respect for all they do for their families," he continued. "It's the most beautiful bond in the world." A little estro, maybe, but he seemed sincere.
That is, until the plane started taxiing down the runway. If you don't want the baby next to you on a plane to scream bloody murder during takeoff, you better hope her mom has something for her to drink; the swallowing will unblock her ears. Accordingly, I carefully maneuvered to place my baby on my breast discreetly, on the side away from my neighbor.
(An aside here - any mother who has been nursing for more than a month knows how to deliver baby to boob in a straight line, with minimal whoop-de-doo. If it's a second child, chances are she can push a grocery cart and balance her checkbook at the same time. Nursing mothers are no more interested in being mistaken for Vegas showgirls than you are in having that happen. )
That's when the chanting started. I turned back to my left to behold Mr. "Family Values / I Love Women And Children" rocking back and forth, crooning frantically to himself as he pressed his face into a Bible he'd retrieved from his carry-on bag, rivulets of sweat coursing down his cheeks. Every once in a while his eyes would flicker my way, flashing white, and then the volume of his chanting climbed another notch and he'd bury his head deeper in the Good Book. Having a more than passing familiarity with the contents of that publication, I am quite certain there is no chapter entitled "How to Stave Off a Full Body Freakout at 32,000 Feet." Maybe he was praying for the flight attendant to throw a blanket over me.
But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot be a generalist supporter of women and children, only to get squeamish with the reality, whether it's breastfeeding or providing prenatal care or paid maternity leave or free early childhood education.
And if that's too hard to get comfortable with, feel free to pull on the nursing drape over your own face.