No one should feel uncomfortable while breastfeeding, but infuriatingly, there's still a stigma when it comes to moms nursing in public. Some people think breastfeeding is unnatural or even sexual — when most mothers know this couldn't be further from the truth.
Take it from Tabitha Rickard, a mom from Australia who was shamed so badly for nursing her 2-year-old out in the open that she ran away in tears after a stranger started to get aggressive with her. The mom is now speaking out about her experience and says she hopes that by sharing her story, no one will ever be intimidated in the same way she was ever again.
According to the mom, the drama started when she was trying to nurse her son Caleb and a stranger came over with a "request."
Speaking with CafeMom, Rickard explains that she was volunteering on an "extremely hot day" when her toddler asked her for a feeding. "So, like I always do, I just stopped what I was doing, found the closest chair, and paused to breastfeed him," she says. "Minding our own business, he was playing with my face and having a snuggle while I was playing with his hair when an older woman came and tapped me on the shoulder."
The stranger asked Rickard if she had a T-shirt or shawl to cover up with.
"Instantly shocked, I responded, 'Excuse me?' She continued to tell me that there were men around and men find it sexually arousing and I should cover up or go elsewhere."
But Rickard knows her rights and told the stranger that legally she was allowed to nurse her son as she sees fit.
Instead of changing anything, Rickard told the stranger that it's illegal for her to be forced to cover up. "If there are men that find it sexually arousing to see a child breastfeeding, then that is their problem not mine and they need to seek help," she told her. "She screwed up her face and then started to argue and insist what I was doing was erotic and I could feel the tension rise and like this woman wasn’t going to leave me alone until I did what she wanted," Rickard says.
Worst of all, the mom says, her son was still nursing throughout the altercation and witnessed his mother as she was being harassed.
Rickard says that at the time she didn't want to create a scene, so she fled the room the two of them were in and ran into the back offices of the building to hide. "In that moment, tears begun to flood out."
"I felt ashamed, confused, sick, scared ... it had never crossed my mind that anyone would consider me breastfeeding a sexual act," she says. "I felt like I had done something wrong. Like I was flaunting my breast about when I was actually just feeding my son discreetly."
Eventually, staff who were running the event found Rickard and encouraged her to come back to the room where she had been volunteering by reminding her that she had done nothing wrong. The mom agreed to return to her work station. "However later that day I found myself flooded with anxiety and fear and discomfort when I had to feed my son again," she says. "Something I've never ever felt before."
For the rest of the day, Rickard felt conflicted. She felt self-conscious about trying to nurse again but she didn't want to the stranger to "win" and make her feel shame for doing something completely normal.
"I ended up trying to avoid feeding Caleb by offering anything and everything other than what he wanted," she says. But her son wanted to be nurse, so with her last ounce of confidence she decided to feed him anyway — even though the woman who had harassed her sat only feet away.
"She was encouraged by staff to apologize, which she did do later that day," the mom remembers. But then the woman launched right back into the conversation that had upset Rickard in the first place. She tried to "explain how she covered up and why I should and why men are turned on by it, which felt like a second blow of discouragement."
So Rickard decided to share her story on social media to help process what happened to her but also raise awareness. The mom eventually posted on her Facebook page, Kangatraining Ballarat, sharing a poem she wrote about her traumatic experience. In an excerpt of the poem she wrote:
"Being creative like that is how I process and deal with big emotions and moments in my life," she says. Rickard added that she never expected her post to go viral, but now many online are celebrating the mom for being truthful about her experience.
"I wanted to empower other moms, raise awareness that this is still happening, educate people around their rights as mothers, and normalize breastfeeding," she says. Rickard says she never wants another mother to feel the shame that she did and points out that with the growing rates of postpartum depression, the risk is just too great for new mothers to hide away and be isolated while they nurse. "Let’s face it, being isolated at home is not ideal for any new mother," she says.
"I've had a lot of conversations with other mothers and many have also received harsh comments for bottle-feeding, so it seems that no matter what we do people feel inclined to force their opinion with little thought around how hard it was for the mother to get out of the house in the first place!" she adds. "And how their words can shatter a mother's confidence in herself."
Rickard is not only taking a stand for herself as a breastfeeding mama, but she is also working toward empowering other women.
Rickard says she plans to start selling a business card that mothers can carry around and hand out to bystanders who don't know how to mind their own business. On one side the card will say "Thanks for your opinion, but I know my rights. I can feed my child however, wherever, I like." And on the back, it will have an excerpt of the Sex Discrimination Act.
Rickard says she hopes these cards will be a useful tool to help moms who are having a hard time standing up for themselves.
"Breastfeeding is natural and not sexual," she says. "My body is a vehicle, not an ornament."
This post was originally published on Mom.me sister site CafeMom.