Earlier this week I was making a trip to the bank with my boys, and while I was trying to navigate my car into the drive-thru ATM, I noticed something I hadn’t seen there before. A woman was standing there, just a few feet from the ATMs with a cardboard sign asking for money. This was a little out of the ordinary at a bank (smart move, though) and here in Downey (we don’t see a lot of that), but what was really extraordinary was the fact that she was not alone. She was standing there nursing a sleeping baby at her breast. I would say the babe was probably about 3-4 months old. She was not using a shawl or even wearing nursing attire. She simply had the neckline of her shirt pulled down and baby was asleep, nursing away, as mine often do. The only “cover up” she has was the cardboard sign she was holding and her baby.
I was extremely moved by this encounter. Allow me to explain.
First, I should say that I’m really interested in the politics of breastfeeding and I love following the Lactivist blogs and facebook pages to learn what’s going on. Because of this I know that in this country women are thrown out of establishments, harassed, and shamed quite often for exposing far less than what this poor woman was exposing.
In addition, we are the city of Downey. Now I love Downey, but we are a very conservative, right-wing sorta town. There are probably many people who do not take kindly to seeing people camped out at banks with cardboard signs. Maybe freeway exits, but no further. Now on top of that, we have fairly poor breastfeeding rates. Our hospital does not have a Lactation Consultant, and I think a woman was even thrown out of the library a few years back for breastfeeding in the children’s area. Sadly, we are not a very breastfeeding-friendly city.
I don’t think this courageous and loving mother really realized what a ballsy thing she was doing. (“ballsy”? No, bad choice of words. Let’s use “busty.” And in this case, “busty” can mean feminine courage–courage that only mothers possess) Judging from her accent and limited English, she didn’t seem have been in this country very long. And usually the American poor– at least in southern CA– do not breastfeed. I imagine in her country it is normal for a woman to breastfeed, and to do so publicly. She probably didn’t realize what a novelty–dare I say taboo– it is here. Here she was, begging for money in a public place, pulling down her shirt to do what’s necessary to care for her child, all the while hoping that a few people will collectively do half as much for her. All in a place where breastfeeding isn’t very visible, and where many would like to believe that homeless people are lazy, or worse: con artists.
Is it possible she brought her infant to elicit sympathy? Sure. But she was still nursing a baby while begging for money for food. You can’t fake that. And you know what’s beautiful? As hungry as she may have been, her baby wasn’t. What a beautiful testament to everyone around her that God through nature provides a way for even the most destitute to nourish their babies. And in my opinion, it also sends the message that sometimes people fall on hard times, and they are unable to restore their financial situation, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, because they are caring for the very real needs of others.
I find this mother’s courage admirable. Although I doubt she felt courageous. In fact, I imagine she probably wasn’t trying to be courageous at all. She must have been feeling very vulnerable and desperate. This must have been a sort of rock-bottom for her. She probably did this because she had to, because she felt she had no other choice. And that’s what feminine courage is. We parents are given the task to care for our children in the best way we can, regardless of our circumstances. And this mother did what she had to do. Pop that baby on the boob and see if anyone will help you with the rest. Multi-tasking at its best.
When I have a friend who has a baby, I usually try to help her with breastfeeding, if she wants help. I have long phone conversations, write lengthy emails, send them books and articles and buy them supplies. I pray for their milk supply and for their adjustment and their perseverance. I cry with them when things are tough. These are my middle-class friends, all whom have homes and three meals a day. I wish I could have helped this woman more, although she certainly didn’t seem to need any help breastfeeding. But a little money and some gift cards were all I had to give. I did cry a little for her, and ask God to bless her. I only hope that if hard times should fall on me, that I would possess the courage she had.