I caught a glimpse of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" in the Rijksmuseum just before I was asked to leave for breastfeeding in public.
The guard described a hidden room for lactation. "It will be private," she added reassuringly. "You'll be more comfortable there."
"Can't I just stay here?" I said. I had a scarf over the baby and my offending breast.
"There are people here from all over the world," she said, "from all different cultures. It is important that they feel comfortable."
My baby was crying hungrily, tangled in the scarf. We fought our way through the guidebook-toting crowds and stood with the stroller behind a line of wheelchairs, waiting and waiting for the tiny elevator. The museum map didn't reveal where exactly this special milking room was, so we ended up in the restroom, but there was nowhere to sit.
Back on the street, nudity was everywhere. We passed a poster of what appeared at first to be an oddly composed face, but was soon revealed to be a close-up photo of a woman's genitalia, with eyes painted on either spread thigh.
Walking along a picturesque canal, far from the red-light district, a woman wearing only shiny leather lingerie displayed herself, breast implants upthrust dramatically, in a lower window.
Another, similarly attired, opened a door for a customer. I couldn't help but think, "If you're worried about seeing some boobs, then maybe you shouldn't come to Amsterdam."
Until I had my baby, I didn't take the time to think that anyone would care how she received her nourishment.
But the sometimes palpable awkwardness of breastfeeding in public, even when attempting to do it as modestly as possible, is only the beginning of the problem.
Iin the United States, I have been asked on more occasions than I can count if maybe I'd "like some privacy," as though it would be more convenient for me to hide in the dark basement of a church, behind a stack of metal folding chairs (as I was once asked repeatedly to do).
What I would like, actually, is for everyone to stop acting so weird about this.
I would like to breastfeed my baby without being given the impression that I am doing something scandalous.
An argument can be made that we can't change the way everyone feels, even if that would be nicer or easier.
The museum official made this point. We should be respectful of cultural differences, even when we don't understand or agree with them. I definitely don't want to be disrespectful of people from other cultures. But I do want to point out that it is also important that people be respectful of nursing mothers.
And I'm a little confused about how culturally sensitive displays are prioritised. Certain people from certain cultures (many cultures, sadly -- including my own, to a very real extent) are offended by open displays of gay love and/or affection. Would a happy gay couple, like the one kissing in the seats in front of ours on the plane home, be asked to please leave? What about a woman in pants?
To some people, this, too, might be considered offensive. Where should the line be drawn in a city that purports to be as accepting and non-judgmental as Amsterdam? Where should it be drawn everywhere?
Just before we left Amsterdam, we visited the Jewish Historical Museum. Somewhere in the middle of the Great Synagogue's sanctuary, my baby had had enough. She was tired and hungry. I sat down at the top of a marble staircase, concealed at the end of an empty corridor, and nursed her. Suddenly, an enormous school group poured in, surrounding me.
"I'm so sorry," I said, beginning to get up.
"No, no," the tour guide said, waving me back down. "The baby needs to eat! It's fine for us to see a baby eating!" And with that, she launched into her explanation of the space, in Dutch.
"Thank you," I whispered, perhaps disproportionately moved.
Amsterdam's museums can't agree with one another on exactly how offensive a nursing mother is. Allow me to clarify: Not at all.
I don't have an axe to grind. I don't feel that this is my "cause." It's strange to me that such a simple, obvious, basic act merits any defending at all. But I want to say something.
Because underneath the discomfort with exposed nipples, there is something deeply hurtful and uncompassionate in the wrongful categorisation of nursing mothers as inappropriate. It suggests a basic misunderstanding of our bodies, and a strange dismissal of our collective infants' needs.
It is a rejection of women as mothers.
And this is not a problem of culture clash, it's a problem of culture in general. We need to fix this. We need to fix it so that no one is excluded from admiring Rembrandt's work. So that no one mother is made to feel that she is doing something wrong by feeding her baby.
A confession: I did end up nursing my baby in the Rijksmuseum, even after I'd been caught.
Finally, after I'd carried the stroller down several flights of stairs, I found a seat shielded by a pillar and gave up. Hunched over, scarf secure, I fed my baby, glancing furtively around.
A few moments later, another woman, speaking in Italian, approached with her own crying baby in a stroller and sat down beside me. She began breastfeeding, too. We exchanged a quick, grateful smile. It felt like a little meeting of cultures.
This story first appeared on Huffington Post. Republished with permission.
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