When I decided to breastfeed my baby, I knew that I might face some challenges, but I wasn’t sure what they would be. In order to prepare, I did a lot of research about what to expect, what sort of issues might arise, and the tips and tricks other women had found to make it work. I was excited about bonding with my baby and working hard to give her the best, but I worried a little bit about whether it would all work out, and spent a lot of time thinking about the "what ifs" of breastfeeding. One thing I never considered or worried about was whether someone would challenge my right to breastfeed my baby in my own home. But that’s exactly what happened when, last month, I got a truly unexpected phone call from my landlord. She told me my neighbor had complained about her husband watching me breastfeed through my open window, and because of that I would need to close the blinds whenever I nursed my baby.
My first reaction to being told I needed to close my blinds before breastfeeding was shock and embarrassment: I couldn't believe that someone had been watching me nurse through my windows. I was embarrassed that someone had seen me nursing my baby and, instead of moving on with their day, had decided to pause and watch. That it had happened enough for that person’s wife to notice, and be bothered by the intensity with which they were watching me made my cheeks burn.
Within a few minutes, though, I realized how wrong it was that someone was looking into my home (and that their wife was blaming me) and my embarrassment quickly turned to anger at how deeply my privacy had been invaded. I knew that the man who was watching me breastfeed, his wife, and my landlord were in the wrong, and I was sure that I wanted to keep nursing my baby without having to worry about whether the blinds were open or closed, but I didn’t know what my next steps should be. That’s when I decided to turn to one of my favorite Facebook groups, a private group dedicated to supporting breastfeeding mothers on their nursing journeys.
I got online and posted about my situation right away, hoping for a few responses and suggestions for what I should do next. Within a few hours, I was overwhelmed to realize that hundreds of moms from across the country and the world had my back. They offered lots of ideas and suggestions — and a ton of “oh HELL nos” — and almost more importantly, they validated my feelings that I had done nothing wrong and that my landlord and neighbors were way out of line.
With this encouragement, I became determined to make sure that all the hard work I’d put into breastfeeding wasn’t for nothing: I would continue to nurse however and wherever I wanted.
While women have been breastfeeding their babies since the beginning of time, it’s not uncommon for them to be shamed for breastfeeding in public, or to face pushback from friends and family for nursing their babies whenever and wherever they might be hungry. Mila Kunis once said “I literally breastfed everywhere,” according to Vanity Fair. “There were many times where I didn’t bring a cover with me, and so I just did it in a restaurant, in the subway, in the park, at airports, and in planes. Why did I do it in public? Because I had to feed my child.” And supermodel Candice Swanepoel pointed out the double standard of people supporting her topless editorials, while shaming her for “revealing” her breasts to feed her baby.
Obvious hypocrisy and sexism aside, there are no laws that protect a mother from shaming stares or being made to feel uncomfortable while they nurse. But there are laws on the books in all 50 states that protect a woman’s right to breastfeed. In Ohio, where I live, women have had the legal right to breastfeed in public since 2005. Their right to breastfeed in the privacy of their own home has never been legally questioned.
One important thing that mothers in the group made me aware of, though, is that in Ohio, and in other states, there are laws against voyeurism. Voyeurism is the act of “of gaining sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked,” and, as many moms in my Facebook group pointed out, this was exactly what my neighbor, the one who demanded that I close my blinds, admitted her husband had been doing. Armed with that information, I started to make a plan that would let my neighbors, and my landlord, know that I would continue to breastfeed my baby whenever and wherever she was hungry, and that it was their responsibility to not peer into my home while I did so.
First, with links provided by other moms, I found and printed out copies of Ohio’s relevant breastfeeding laws. After that I gave my landlord two copies of the printed laws, one for her and one for her to pass along to the neighbors. My landlord was really surprised at first; she didn’t know there were any laws that protected breastfeeding. While I was ready to keep advocating, the conversation went better than I expected. My landlord understood why I was upset, and she said she would handle it.
I was glad to hear that my landlord was supportive but I was still concerned about my neighbor peering into my home. Because so many moms in the group shared laws around voyeurism, I knew I had enough reason to contact the local authorities. I reached out to a friend in law enforcement, who reassured me that they would send someone over to my neighbor’s house to explain to my neighbors the relevant breastfeeding laws and, most importantly, the voyeurism laws they had been breaking.
Right now, I’m looking forward to putting this situation behind me and continuing to nurse my baby as she grows, but I’ll always be grateful to the online group that didn’t just have my back as a mom out in the world, but armed me with legal information, and a plan of action to take. Legal support can be instrumental in helping women reach their breastfeeding goals (i.e. having a space to pump at work, being allowed by law to nurse in public), I now know firsthand that it’s often the support of other women, both in-person and online, that gives us the extra push we need to nourish our babies, through the unexpected hardships that come with it. And as for those neighbors, I suspect they’ll be closing their blinds for the time being.
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