Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Breastfeeding? Enter the Gulag

We are merrily rolling our bags down the corridor in Terminal B, LaGuardia Airport. There are cafés and shops and kiosks of all colours, some empty space, then…what’s this sinister-looking white structure, off to the side as if it’s in quarantine? We go closer to investigate.

“Mamava," says the sign on the side. The graphic is a smiling mouth under two eyes that look suspiciously like—breasts! It’s a lactation station! The grinning breasts on the door declare that it provides “privacy for pumping and breastfeeding".

It’s a cupboard—hermetically sealed, with no windows or view. It’s 32 sq. ft. You can lock yourself in the cupboard (sort of the opposite of coming out of the closet), and feed your baby or use a breast pump.

One of the most humiliating moments of my life was in an aeroplane toilet, above the clouds somewhere over Afghanistan. Someone opened the door while I was using my breast pump. There I was in my full mortified glory, one plastic clamp stuck on each side of my chest, painfully contorted, trying to adjust my shirt and the pump and the bottle, while the machine mooed like an electric cow.

You never heard a door close so fast in your life.

There was no reason for me to be embarrassed—I was making food for my baby—but I just wanted the clouds outside to swallow me. A pumping cupboard on that plane would have been most welcome.

So I know this is progress, but oh Mamava! Why does it have to look like a time-out in the corner?

Why do we need privacy? Ride on any state transport bus in Maharashtra and you’re sure to see women breastfeeding their babies under their saris. Nobody stares, and nobody cares. Maybe it’s a class thing—I never saw any of my uptight relatives nursing in public. It’s become shameful to show your breasts if they’re doing what they were made to do. I read about a funny experiment where a small-breasted woman fed her baby, exposing nothing, and sat next to a well-endowed friend who simply wore a low-cut blouse. Men yelled at the nursing mother but not at the friend, who was actually exposing much more flesh.

So it’s not about exposure. Maybe it’s scary to see babies feeding? Maybe men and non-nursing women feel left out?

I have an idea! In fact, I have several ideas. My first idea is, let other people use the cupboard. If someone is breastfeeding and you feel upset or shaky or traumatized by this in any way, well, by all means lock yourself in the cupboard until the baby has finished feeding. Alternatively, airport personnel could circulate with blinders or eye-masks for those sensitive souls who cannot bear to witness public breastfeeding (in fact, I would like blinders so I don’t accidentally see men coming out of the bathroom with their hands on their crotches. What’s up with that, fellows? Couldn’t you adjust the goods before coming out?).

I’m all for public breastfeeding. We’ve been doing it since before we got up and walked on two legs. It’s really okay. Pumping is another story, though—I don’t know a single woman who would feel comfortable doing that in public. If you’ve ever used a breast pump, you know what I’m talking about, sister. So the cupboards are certainly good for that. And of course for anyone who wants to breastfeed in private, simply because she prefers it and not because she feels shunned by society. But why should the cupboards look like cupboards? That brings us to my next idea.

There’s really no reason for breastfeeding pods to look like prisons when nail salons look festive. Just look at all the other spaces at the airport—the express market with the horrible plastic food is full of light and action, but the place where mother’s milk—neither horrible nor plastic, but, au contraire, full of magical antibiotics and your very own microbiome—is dispensed looks all morose and sad. Even the smiling nipples look secretly depressed. It all smacks of being punished and made to face the wall.

That sad cupboard is a wasted opportunity. It needs some frou-frou, some masala and some bling. Neon! Definitely some neon. Come on, can you think of anything more deserving? Why look like a lonely cell when it is symbolic of the continuation of the human race? Install a throne with a one-way mirror. Bring on the symphony orchestra and the carpet of rose petals, I say, for anyone brave enough to be zooming around the world with a nursing baby. Yeah, yeah, I know, you have to be pretty privileged to even be in an airport, but let me assure you that when you’re 35,000 ft high, the baby’s howling, and everybody hates you and gives you the evil eye for 10 hours non-stop, privileged is not how you feel.

Maybe there could be a breastfeeding pod, all jazzed out with garlands and flags and such, and a breastfeeding throne in the middle of the terminal for those who like to let it all hang out. Women who wish to breastfeed without being banished into the corner could climb up the red-carpeted stairs, settle themselves in, open their blouses, and have at it.

I know I’m ranting. I know women deserve their privacy even if the reasons they seek it are idiotic. In the balance, the option to breastfeed in private is good. But would a little bling, a little colour, a little less of a Gulag-like cell and a little more of a room with a view kill anyone?

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read: Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

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