How I Became A Lactivist

When my sister was a baby, I became fascinated with breastfeeding. My mother told me breast milk was all she needed, and I didn’t believe her at first. But I watched my sister grow, and it thrilled me. I started placing dolls at my chest. I couldn’t wait to be a mother.

Once, my mother let me try a drop. We were in bed, and my sister was having her “milkies.” My mother squeezed a drop onto her finger. “Maybe you’ll remember,” she said. And I did. It was tart, familiar. My mother.

I gave birth to my son 20 years later, in our living room. At first, breastfeeding was the farthest thing from my mind. I delivered the afterbirth, the midwives examined the baby and me, we chatted and diapered the baby. Finally, one of the midwives said, “It’s time to nurse the baby.”

As I took Ben from her, I heard a creak. “Did I break something?” I asked. “When he opens his mouth, you’ve got to seize the moment,” she said, guiding his face to my breast. For the next day and a half, I couldn’t get Ben to latch on properly. I stood in the shower, hormones racing, tears flowing down my face and body, thinking “I can’t nurse my baby, oh my God, I can’t nurse my baby.”

The next morning, my doulas, labor assistants, came over and gave me some hands-on help. By the end of the day, Ben was nursing every two hours, like the milk-happy boy he is today.

I was lucky. I didn’t have cracked nipples, inverted nipples, low supply issues, or any of the difficulties women may encounter. I had a group of support people who understood the importance of establishing a strong breastfeeding relationship from the start. I wasn’t in a hospital, where formula samples are often given as a send-off gift. And there was no way I wasn’t going to nurse. It was in my blood.

We left the house for the first time when Ben was four days old, to have him checked by a pediatrician. We’d chosen this doctor because he wasn’t fazed when we said we were planning a homebirth, he was close to our home, and he said he was supportive of breastfeeding.

The nurse lay Ben on the scale, and his weight — eight ounces less than his birth weight — appeared in hazy black letters before me. I turned to my husband, Danny, in a panic: “That’s normal, right? They’re supposed to lose some at first?” “Yes,” he reassured me, “We read that yesterday.”

The doctor seemed happy with Ben’s weight. “Totally normal,” he said, “He could have lost two more ounces and been within range.” After he finished examining Ben, he sat us down for a talk. “So,” he said, “you can introduce the bottle anytime you want. I’d do it sooner than later.” I shot Danny a look — here was something else we’d read about. “Well,” Danny said, “we heard that we should wait at least six weeks for the breastfeeding relationship to be firmly established. We want to avoid nipple confusion.” The doctor smirked, “Yeah, I wouldn’t worry about that.”

Ben had just learned to latch on properly. It seemed like an absurd idea to introduce something else for him to suck! I politely held my tongue.

But I wasn’t prepared for what came out of his mouth next. “I want you to make an appointment for two days from now,” he said. “If the baby isn’t gaining, we’ll discuss supplementing with formula.”

We were shocked. Hadn’t he just said that Ben’s weight loss was normal? How much gain did he want to see over the next two days? And most importantly, didn’t he know that I wanted to breastfeed? Why was he suggesting formula?

We made the appointment, unsure of what to do. As much as we’d been independent thinkers when it came to how and where to birth, we were intimidated by this doctor. He was a doctor: what would the consequences be if we defied him?

That night, I talked to one of my midwives. She could hear the worry in my voice as I recounted our discussion with the doctor. “You know,” she said, “you don’t have to go back.” It sounded so simple, so obvious when she said it.

We didn’t go back.

Over the next few months, I was astonished by how frequently I encountered mothers who were subtly and not so subtly discouraged from breastfeeding. One mother had a daughter who was given bottles all night long in the hospital and refused to nurse. Another mother had a doctor who said her milk wasn’t coming in fast enough and told her to supplement with formula even though her baby wasn’t losing weight. And yet the Academy of American Pediatrics recommends that infants breastfeed for at least a year, comparing the benefits of breastfeeding to those of vaccinations and the use of car seats. The World Health Organization goes further, recommending a minimum of two years. There is extensive support for breastfeeding within Jewish law and tradition: the Talmud assumes a duration of at least 24 months (Ketuvot, 60a, b); the Shulkhan Arukh mandates breastfeeding for two to five years (Even Haezer 143:8, Yore Deah 81:7).

Something is happening to these mothers between birth and three months. I knew from experience that breastfeeding isn’t always easy. Would I have given up if I didn’t have a dedicated group of caretakers in the crucial days after the birth? Could doctors discourage that many women?

The workplace surely plays a role. Roughly half of all women return to work within three months of giving birth. I met several women who were successfully working and breastfeeding; these women were my heroes, pumping under their desks, in cars, in the lunchroom. But just as many had given up, their babies unable to transition successfully between breast and bottle, their workplaces not offering comfortable places to pump.

I’ll never forget the mom I met at a “Mommy and Me” class. She was on the verge of tears when she told me she would be returning to work in a month. She was already in the process of weaning her son from the breast at night, and substituting other feedings with bottles so he would get used to drinking from a bottle at daycare. “I just feel like he still needs me, you know?” she said. “It’s not just about the milk, it’s comfort too. He’s just a baby.”

I wasn’t surprised to learn that there is a direct relationship between maternity leave and breastfeeding duration. In Norway, for example, where women are guaranteed 42 weeks of paid maternity leave, 80% of babies are breastfeeding by three months. U.S. law, on the other hand, only guarantees 12 weeks of maternity leave, unpaid.

I felt lucky that I was able to stay at home with Ben and nurse him on demand for so many months. This was not without financial hardship, of course, but my husband and I had made sacrifices and found a way to make it work. I was even finding time to do a little writing. But I knew that many women simply could not take off time from work.

By the time Ben was six months old, I had breastfed just about everywhere: on the train; at the library; walking down the street on a beautiful spring day, the baby snuggled against me in a baby carrier; hunched over the car seat as we zoomed down the highway; and at just about every restaurant we’d taken him to.

Then it was summer. Ben was seven months old. We were in upstate New York, our first family vacation. We’d been walking up and down the street of a small town looking for a place to eat. We found a Subway restaurant — not our first choice, but we were too hungry to keep looking.

As soon as we sat down to eat, Ben started to complain. He was hungry too. I took him out of the high chair and started to nurse. Across the restaurant, I heard a voice: “Excuse me, ma’am, you can’t breastfeed here.”

The woman behind the counter was standing there, staring at us. Ben unlatched and looked at her. I slid my shirt over my breasts. I felt exposed.

“You can’t breastfeed in here,” she repeated. “You can go to the bathroom, or leave.”

I searched for the words one would use in a situation like this. My mind went blank. My heart began to race. Ben squirmed in my lap.

I remembered. There was a law. I’d read it somewhere, hadn’t I?

“It’s legal for me to nurse here,” I said. That’s all I knew. I’m allowed to. It’s legal.

“You can’t do that here. You’re committing indecent exposure,” she said.

I looked around the restaurant. There were a few people there, all of whom were trying to ignore us. I tried to remember how many times Ben had unlatched so far, how much skin I’d shown.

I tried again: “It’s legal for me to nurse here.”

“I nursed my babies,” she said. “But this is a public place, and you’re committing indecent exposure.”

Those words stung the most: “indecent exposure.” Those words stung the most. Indecent exposure, as if my breasts, which nature had designed to nourish and soothe my child, were obscene, pornographic. I felt angry, disgusted, humiliated, and afraid, but I couldn’t voice any of this, not here, not while my shirt was raised, not while little Ben was nursing. My mother’s instincts took over. I held him close.

“Let’s go,” I said to Danny.

Then I called across the restaurant: “My baby’s hungry. You’re going to make him cry.”

I unlatched Ben. He cried on cue. “Good boy,” I murmured as we left.

That night, Danny and I wrote a letter to Subway. We looked up the New York State law. There is was, what I’d been searching for: “a mother may breast feed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether or not the nipple of the mother’s breast is covered during or incidental to the breast feeding.”

I felt some relief after we wrote the letter. But I was still sickened by the fact that it happened in the first place. I knew then how naïve I’d been nursing my baby in public all these months in New York City. It even crossed my mind that I should have known better than to nurse my baby in such a closed-minded town. And Subway was such a huge corporation; I doubted I’d receive the apology I asked for in my letter.

When we returned home, I recounted the story to my friend Rachel. The first words out of her mouth were: “I’m so proud of you! You’re a lactivist!”

I’d heard of “lactivism” before, meaning to advocate for the rights of breastfeeding women. I’d always chuckled at the word’s clever blend of lactation and activism, but now it took on a different meaning.

All over the Internet were stories of women who’d experienced different versions of my story. And it didn’t just happen in small towns. I emailed with Chelsi Meyerson, who was asked to stop nursing her baby in a Toys “R” Us in New York City. She refused to leave the store, security was called, and the incident made national headlines. She received a formal apology from Toys “R” Us. My feelings of anger and self-doubt were replaced with a deep sense of power and camaraderie.

Lactivism was about mothers helping mothers on a global scale, as in the “nurse-ins” that are periodically planned across the country. It was about boycotting companies and media outlets that portray breastfeeding in a negative light. But it was also about mothers helping mothers on a smaller scale: giving every expectant mother the number for her local La Leche League, offering encouragement and hands-on help to mothers struggling with breastfeeding, and sharing one’s own stories of struggle and joy.

The call from Subway, a few weeks later, caught me by surprise. David Stimmler, the owner of the Subway where I was harassed, began by apologizing for not calling me sooner, he’d been on vacation, he was very sorry, he felt that this incident should have been addressed immediately.

He told me his wife had nursed all their children, and she was appalled, too. Then he said, “All guests should be treated as if they were guests in our own homes.” It sounded like salesman lingo, but I appreciated it. He was truly sorry.

“This is what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m going to update the training manual so that all employees know how to treat breastfeeding mothers,” he said. Then he paused. “I would have had it in there the whole time, but I just never expected something like this to happen in this day and age.”

“Me neither,” I said.

I found out at the end of our conversation that he only owned 40 Subway franchises and his updates would affect just these stores. I was disappointed at first. I knew there were Subways all over the country, at virtually every rest stop off the highway. But 40 was better than none, and I was proud of what I’d done.

A few weeks later, Danny, Ben and I went to a “nurse-in” in Manhattan. At an Applebee’s restaurant in Kentucky, a woman had been asked to cover herself and her baby with a blanket while she nursed. It was the middle of summer, and her seven-month-old baby would not have tolerated nursing under a blanket. This woman had a laminated copy of the Kentucky law concerning breastfeeding in public (similar to New York State’s law), but the management didn’t budge. Neither did corporate headquarters when they were informed of the incident. So that weekend, hundred of mothers were staging “nurse-ins” at Applebee’s all over the country.

It was a bright September day, and it was heartwarming to stand outside with a group of mothers, casually nursing while taking a stand for our civil rights. It seemed to me that this was part of our calling as mothers — not only to nurture our young, but to nurture each other, to change the way the world views and treats breastfeeding women.

Prayer to be Said When She Nurses for the First Time

By Dr. Giuseppe Cohen, translated by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

From an Italian collection of 18th century prayers for married women written by Dr. Giuseppe Cohen and presented to his bride as a wedding gift.

May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my forebears, that you provide nourishment for Your humble creation, this tiny child, plenty of milk, as much as he needs.

Give me the disposition and inclination to find the time to nurse him patiently until he is satisfied.

Cause me to sleep lightly so that the moment he cries I will hear and respond.

Spare me the horror of accidentally smothering my child while I sleep. God forbid.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, my Rock and my Redeemer.

From Out Of The Depths I Call To You: A Book Of Prayers For The Married Jewish Woman, edited and translated by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin. Copyright 1995, 1992 by Nina Beth Cardin. Reprinted by permission of Jason Aronson Inc.


Prayer for Nursing

By Elisheva S. Urbas

God of our mothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah, You remembered me when I longed for this child and in the pain of labor, and You have brought me, rejoicing, to hold this infant in my arms. Now I turn to You again, hoping to feed this child as You feed all living creatures, out of Your boundless lovingkindness; and I trust in you, that in Your goodness You surely will not let my child lack sustenance, neither now nor ever, for the sake of Your great Name. Let any pain that I may feel as I nurse this child be submerged in my joy as I watch the miracle of my flourishing baby; and keep us from any misfortune that may cause suffering to my child or to me between now and the time that my child is safely weaned. May Your goodness teach me to help my child grow both now in my arms and in all the years You grant us together. For you are the God who has always given me good things. Blessed are You, God, who sustains all.

Used by permission of the author, from