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Parenting opinion: Moms know the judgmental glares you get

It’s spring, and the air is filled with the melodies of mating songbirds.

But when I walk down a tidy street near my suburban Virginia home, the jarring memory of another sound echoes in my mind: my daughter’s piercing screams.

Those desperate cries jolted me out of a daydream as I pushed her stroller down this very sidewalk back in December 2022. My daughter was home sick from daycare, and I’d taken her on a walk hoping the cooler air would calm her cough. It seemed to be working, until suddenly, it clearly wasn’t.

There are so many moments as a parent when you find yourself doing something you vowed you’d never do — especially when your child is having a meltdown in public. This was one of those moments for me, but that alone is not why it’s seared in my mind.

I will never forget that day, not because of what my child did, or even how I handled it, but because of the surprising way a stranger responded.

On that December afternoon, my usually sweet 17-month-old was erupting into a full-blown meltdown.

As her face reddened with rage, I tried handing her the bottle I’d brought. She swatted it to the ground and kicked her feet so hard one of her shoes flew off.

Even though she was still learning her first words, she had no trouble expressing herself. She didn’t want milk from a bottle. She wanted it direct from the source: me.

The way I saw it, that was simply impossible here — and the idea of it was mortifying. I hadn’t brought my nursing cover, the tasteful shawl I made a point of wearing while feeding her in public. Whenever she needed to nurse, I tried to cover up politely or slip away out of view. On this street, we were exposed. There was nowhere to hide.

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It’s only as I describe it now that I realize how bizarre that sounds. There are so many parts of the world where women and children truly need to take cover to survive. I was lucky to be somewhere safe. And besides, I was proud to be a mom and loved feeding my daughter, so why was I acting so ashamed?

Long before I ever had a child of my own, I’d heard comments from TV personalities who’d slammed breastfeeding in public, I’d read news stories about women who were told to cover up, and I’d even heard some snide remarks from members of my own family about the way moms nursed their kids. Of course, I’d also read about celebrities and seen friends who defied these antiquated expectations.

And once I started breastfeeding in public myself, most people didn’t really notice — or at least, they acted like they didn’t.

But still, whenever I fed my daughter outside our home, part of me felt anxious about whether anyone was going to be offended. The years of comments I’d heard sent a message so clear that I’d developed a sense of shame around my body, and around feeding my child, without even realizing it.

So even as my daughter’s cries grew louder on that December afternoon, breastfeeding her seemed out of the question. In every direction I looked, there were blocks of houses and nicely manicured lawns, with no benches or parks in sight. Plopping down in the middle of the sidewalk and lifting up my shirt was something I’d NEVER do. Returning home was the only escape route I could see.

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I did a quick calculation. If I walked fast, we could probably get home in 10 minutes. Imagining the large number of houses we’d have to pass with her screaming at the top of her lungs, I plowed ahead.

But the meltdown only intensified with each step. And as I saw my daughter gasping to catch her breath with tears streaming down her face, and as I thought about how hard the past few nights had been, with coughing fits keeping her up for hours, I realized that giving her what she needed was the only thing that mattered.

So suddenly, there I was — after months of trying to be discreet so I wouldn’t make anyone else uncomfortable while I fed my child — sitting cross-legged in the middle of a sidewalk, lifting up my shirt and praying no one would notice us.

I was relieved to see how quickly she relaxed, but I braced myself every time I heard a car engine rumbling or the jangle of a dog’s leash. Someone was going to see us and say something. I wished I could sink into the ground and hide.

In the distance, I saw a woman walking brusquely in our direction.

I steeled myself for the criticism I knew had to be coming.

Why was I blocking the sidewalk?

Why was I flashing the neighbors rather than feeding my daughter at home?

Why couldn’t I get it together and control my child?

But once she reached our stretch of the sidewalk, this stranger didn’t ask any of those questions.

Her words were kind and compassionate.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

I was stunned. I’d been so certain she would judge me.

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“Yes,” I said a bit sheepishly. “She just melted down, and I had to feed her.”

The woman didn’t glare. She smiled.

Then she told me how beautiful my daughter and I looked sitting there together, paired with the classical music piping through her headphones.

She was standing a few feet away, but her words were an embrace I hadn’t even realized I needed.

In a matter of moments, I started to see the same beauty she did. I let go of the pressure and shame that had been weighing on me and found myself opening up.

It’s been more than a year since our paths crossed, and I can no longer remember this woman’s face, but I can still feel her warmth.

That day, I told her that we’d been on a peaceful walk when suddenly the situation turned. My daughter had been home sick all week, I explained, and she was simply exhausted.

The stranger nodded knowingly. She could see I was exhausted, too. She asked me how I was holding up.

Tears welled up in my eyes.

I told her I was OK, because thanks to her, I was.

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