I recently had occasion to visit a mosque, and it was a wonderful experience. The building was beautiful, the people were welcoming and the education I received was fascinating. I walked in with my 22 month-old in my arms and my 2-month-baby in a stroller and accidentally steered the whole family right into the men’s section.
Regardless of my mistake, I was greeted with a sea of smiles, and a man asked if he could help me with my stroller to get to a seat. I accepted the help and he wheeled my little one to the other side of the room where a woman was bringing out more chairs (we were a few minutes late because…babies) and it wasn’t until after I was settled in that I realized my initial mistake.
Then my toddler asked for “boobie.” Oh.
I don’t nurse her publicly much these days, but I was getting nervous about her getting loud and making a scene in this holy space. So we nursed, she cuddled close and I don’t think anyone even noticed. Moments after we were done, the little baby started to whimper and a woman with a couple of little girls of her own asked me if I needed anything.
She recognized my struggle and her offer was genuine. The toddler was done, so I took her by the hand and walked into the lobby so I could get my tiny baby latched in a baby carrier, so my hands could free.
When the baby nurses in the carrier, most people don’t even seem to notice that the baby is eating. However, the few moments it takes to get the baby in and latched, especially while also maintaining a semblance of control with a toddler in a new place, aren’t quite as discreet. Again, I felt self-conscious, and when a man approached me, I was very nervous. He smiled, asked me if I was okay, and told me that if I wanted to sit in more private area, there was a space available. It felt like an invitation, not a command. We got latched a few moments later and I wore the baby nursing baby back into the main event with my toddler in tow.
Not only did we make it through the event, but I felt like I was in a space where people truly “got it.”
This wasn’t the first time, either. Months ago, before baby #2 was in the picture, I wanted to get out of the house on a Sunday morning but it was too hot to go outside and I didn’t feel like paying to attend a class. So I impulsively decided, with baby #1, to check out a church near my house. In my work, I’m constantly trying to brainstorm new and better ways to engage young families in the Jewish community, and I think this particular church is doing a good job (I often see families wearing matching shirts with the church’s name on it).
When I arrived, a lady approached me to introduce herself and tell me about her family, then let me know that I could a) drop my baby off in child care, b) take my baby with me to the service or c) go to a special room for moms and babies. The service was fascinating, but when baby started to indicate hunger, I left to check out the mom’s room. Walking out of the sanctuary and through the lobby, I stopped for snacks (since they don’t make you wait for oneg or kiddush at most churches). I grabbed a granola bar, poured myself an iced tea then promptly dropped the cup, splattering ice and tea all over their polished floor. Embarrassed, I tried to grab a few napkins to clean it up, but literally within seconds, there were four or five people helping me.
One teenager gently stopped me. “We have this, don’t worry!” he said. “I’m sorry, and I can’t even blame this on the baby…this was just me being clumsy…” I said. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “Please, don’t worry about it,” he said. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve.” I finally made it into the nursing room, which easily fit a couch, 2 rocking chairs, 2 changing tables, a table with marketing materials and a basket with toys plus more snacks. A large TV was mounted to the wall with a live feed of the service from the other room. Once I settled in and baby began to feed, a woman came in and asked if I needed anything, then handed me a remote to control the room’s light and sound.
Of course, I’ve also visited many different synagogues in the past two years as a nursing mom, and I’m thrilled to report that I’ve never gotten so much as a sideways look when I feed my babies. People are kind and supportive. I can attest that I think our community is doing pretty well, supporting mothers with babies—but I think my experience with other faith communities can inspire us to do even better.
The absence of mom-shaming isn’t enough. Many Jewish communities are working hard to attract young families and they can do this by creating space, literally. I don’t think a semi-private room with a chair, a table for diaper changes, a (baby proofed) electrical outlet, and even a few bottles of water and kid’s books is too much to ask. Maybe there is a bride’s room or a corner of a library that can be multi-functional designated space, with a sign on the door indicating its use at any given moment.
I don’t think for a moment that the lack of a designated space or the slightly less glowing reception my breastfeeding babies and I received visiting synagogues compared to the church and mosque are an indicator that Jews are less eager to welcome us. But I do think we have much to learn from one another. Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship differently but we all want babies to be fed and moms to feel good. So if you feel like your own place of worship or community center isn’t making nursing moms welcome, tell your Rabbi, email your kid’s teacher or anyone else who works or volunteers at synagogue, and start a conversation.