We decided to drive to Florida to see my ailing 95-year old grandmother. The prospect of a 21-hour car ride seemed grueling, but the alternative – the baby having a meltdown for two hours at 30,000 feet — was just untenable. I couldn’t bear to have people hate me for that long.
I also liked the idea of breastfeeding the child in the car every two-and-a-half hours as we drove down I-95. I’m someone who likes ticking off items on a to-do list. The idea of covering a distance in the car and feeding, which at home is half an hour of dead time in which I can do nothing else, satisfied my sense of accomplishment — until a friend delicately reminded me I could not have the baby out of the car seat while we drove.
“Don’t make me call child services,” she said.
We left at 4:30 a.m. and didn’t stop until about 10 a.m. With the trip being so long, we didn’t want to have to keep stopping to feed Eddie and then feed us so we combined the two. First we tried a Waffle House restaurant, but that was too small. Then we tried a Cracker Barrel restaurant, but that was too large. I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks and the three bears, except I knew I wasn’t going to find a place to breastfeed that was just right. That’s because the problem wasn’t the venue. It was me. Up to that point, I’d never breastfed in public. I just wished my initiation wasn’t at a Cracker Barrel in Virginia, but that’s what we settled on. It felt like a redneck truck stop filled with religious zealots who would probably spit out their coffee at the sight of my breasts. At least that’s what I feared. What made it worse was that I’m old enough to be the child’s grandmother. I took the barrette out of my hair and let my curls hang down on my shoulders to conceal the gray.
I asked the hostess for a table in the corner against a wall. I sat down and slid over to the window only to find it was overlooking Cracker Barrel’s signature porch, with its 25 rocking chairs. If someone sat in one of the chairs nearest my window, they’d be closer to me than my husband, who was sitting across the table.
After the waitress handed us our menus and left, I pulled up my tank top, unbuttoned my bra, pulled out my breast and began to feed the baby, holding the child in one arm and my breast in the other. My husband, Bruce, walked over and draped a blanket over my shoulder to conceal my breast and the baby’s head, but as soon as he sat back down, the blanket slid off my shoulder. My hands were full so there was nothing I could do. Bruce got up and again draped the blanket across my shoulder and breast and sat back down. It stayed there for a couple of minutes until the baby began to fuss, and I had to switch him to my other breast. He does that a lot lately: falls off my nipple, pushes my breast away and then cries and won’t let me put the nipple back in his mouth. And all the while, he’s pinching my breasts with his razor-sharp talons. I have to keep switching him from side to side, again and again, like flipping a hamburger over and over again because it doesn’t seem to be cooking.
“Ouch!” I said, pulling one of the baby’s nails off my breast. “This sucks. I was already uncomfortable enough–”
When the waitress came with our coffees, Bruce asked her, “Do people breastfeed in here?”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said in a thick southern accent. But her voice was so soft and sweet, like Pebbles from The Flintstones, she would probably have responded similarly if I’d asked if it was alright to immolate myself.
By the time I got to my food, it was cold, though it didn’t stop me from eating two eggs, two pancakes, half a bowl of grits, two strips of bacon and a bite of Bruce’s biscuit and gravy. I eat a lot lately.
When the meal was done, I slung the diaper bag over my shoulder so that the strap crossed my chest like a school crossing guard, and I picked up the baby and took him into the bathroom to change his diaper before we got back on the road. I’d never used the flip-down changing stations found in public restrooms, but I always imagined they were filthy, dotted with the feces of babies whose hygiene I knew nothing about. I didn’t want to put the baby down directly on the changing table. I had a mat in the diaper bag, but I couldn’t reach it because I’d slung the diaper bag over my head and couldn’t get it off of me without putting the baby down. But I didn’t want to put the baby down on the changing table without first putting down a mat. It was a catch 22. So I stood there trying to jiggle the diaper bag strap off of my shoulder so that it would slide off and the bag would fall to my feet, like a game of ring toss where I was the peg and the diaper bag was the ring. The bag eventually fell to the floor, and I bent down and plucked out a mat.
I changed Eddie’s diaper and then carried him over to the sink and stood him on the countertop in front of the mirror, keeping my hands under his armpits to hold him up. I began to sing the theme of Hawaii Five-O, and after each stanza, I would lift him about a quarter of an inch off the counter and then place him back down in a slightly different spot so that with his arms akimbo, it looked like he was trying to keep his balance on a surfboard as he rode a wave. He looked in the mirror, first at himself and then at me, and we both laughed. And I could see standing behind us was a woman from the restaurant, and she was smiling, too.