While I was pregnant we went on holiday to Portugal. It was Christmas time and the markets were full of tiny Nativity figurines. One thing that really struck me was the number of miniature breastfeeding Marys. They were everywhere and perfectly detailed complete with tiny nipples and a milk-drunk baby Jesus.
There were real life 'Marys' everywhere as well. Women breastfeeding on public transport, park benches, sitting outside cafés sipping coffee and having loud animated conversations with their companions. They were not using shawls and blankets or hiding in special breastfeeding rooms. Why would they? They were occupying the star tables in the restaurants and the front seats at events. As I was pregnant and intending to breastfeed all this positivity really buoyed me up.
But that was Portugal. Almost three years of breastfeeding later I've lost count of the number of stories I've read in the media or heard anecdotally, in Ireland and the UK, about women being asked to feed 'somewhere more private' or 'do that in the toilets'. At this stage I've fed my daughter in many places. Beaches, playgrounds, restaurants, shopping centres, churches, garden centres..... A good eclectic mix of locations (but I'm sure others could offer up many more exotic or unusual!). Some by choice, others by necessity. I've never fed her in a toilet nor would I ever. But once she grew from baby to toddler I have to admit that I felt awkward and embarrassed about feeding her in public. Often retreating to my car instead. That Mediterranean positivity had left me.
But how do you think a Portuguese woman would react if she was asked to feed her baby in a toilet? Or a Norwegian, or an Italian, or a Dane? I bet the person asking would be told in no uncertain terms where to go. So when I read yet another story this week about a Mayo fan being told to use the toilets when she needed to breastfeed her baby at a GAA match, I felt angry. Not just angry with the steward who had asked her but angry with myself. What was I doing allowing other people (with dysfunctional ideas about breastfeeding) make me feel awkward or embarrassed?
I'm sure there are a myriad of reasons why some people still hold those dysfunctional ideas. Religion maybe, lack of education, lack of experience? The truth is, I'm tired of making excuses for these archaic attitudes. But if I want my country to have the same positive attitude towards breastfeeding as other Europeans then it's time for me, and all breastfeeding women, to step up to the plate.
Yes, we may feel a bit awkward, a bit shy, a bit embarrassed or exposed but we have to just do it anyway. We owe it to each other and to our daughters, our nieces, sisters and every woman who makes the choice to breastfeed. If there are more of us out there publicly breastfeeding then WE can make it far too embarrassing for THEM to send us to the toilets.
So, while I was out this week late one evening my daughter, over-tired and cranky, asked to be fed. We were in a public place surrounded by people I didn't know very well. Ordinarily I would try to fob her off until we got home but this time I channelled my inner Portuguese 'Mary' and fed her there and then.
And you know what? Nobody batted an eyelid.