When my parents moved to Amman, Jordan to teach at the American School, my daughter was just over a year old and I was pregnant with our second child. Even though my parents encouraged us to visit them once the baby was born, traveling to the Middle East with two infants (one breastfeeding) was not high on my list of fun family vacations. Yet, as my parents’ stories of warm, friendly people, beautiful country and layers of history trickled back to us via email, I began to imagine that we might be able to make the journey. It depended partly, of course, on this new baby.
Our son, Nolan, was born with an easygoing disposition and a healthy appetite. Eventually, we decided to make the trek. As we packed up most of the house and set off on a trip halfway around the world with a toddler whose favorite word was “no” and a 19-pound, four-month-old who wanted to nurse every two hours around the clock, I began to wonder if we had inched over the line from adventurous to insane.
I anticipated that breastfeeding in public would be a problem in a country where the Muslim women routinely covered their heads and exposed very little flesh. I knew that I could nurse discreetly, but feared that even the idea of a breastfeeding baby in public could cause problems. A Lebanese-born nurse in my pediatrician’s office suggested that I use a breast pump and feed Nolan from a bottle when in public. Although I knew a breast pump could be my best shot at cultural sensitivity, I was not too excited about this option.
My first foray into the world of breastfeeding in public in Jordan was not exactly “public,” as Nolan and I ended up in a toilet stall. I wasn’t up to pushing the cultural envelope at a quaint little village restaurant, so I retreated to the toilet. I was amazed at the reception Nolan and I received. The universality of a breastfeeding mother far outweighed the difference in nationalities, and women came over to watch, converse and tickle the baby. It was a heartening ex,perience.
Emboldened, I began to nurse in more public places. I tried to take my cues from other breastfeeding mothers, but alas, I saw none. Apparently it is customary for children to be kept indoors for much of their first year, and though there were many older children, infants were not in evidence.
Without any role models, I continued to nurse discreetly. I turned my back when possible and I always wore suitable clothing. Not once was I made to feel out of place. What’s more, I was always treated with respect and given privacy.
By our third and final week in Jordan, I behaved much like I do at home. I hadn’t caused any international incidents and felt comfortable nursing Nolan discreetly in public. Curious about breastfeeding customs, I began asking around. One woman I met told me that breastfeeding is encouraged in the Arab world. Where she had lived in Dubai, it is an actual law, though difficult to enforce, that women breastfeed their infants during the first three months of life. I also read that Queen Rania of Jordan arranged her full schedule around the breastfeeding needs of her infant daughter.
It wasn’t until we were boarding the plane to leave that my questions were more fully answered. There sat a veiled woman, dressed head to toe in black, with one breast fully exposed in order to nurse her baby. On the surface, this woman and I were separated by culture, language, customs and dress, yet we were connected by the same intimate bond that has joined women since the beginning. We were breastfeeding mothers.