tail between my legs

Sticks and stones.

"I hope you live long enough to forget half the stuff they taught you."— Alejandro Escovedo, "Down in the Bowery," a song he wrote for his teenage son

On Monday morning, I was in Lincoln Square, land of the NPR breeders and beautiful babies, camped out at Starbucks. Working. Checking my e-mail and reading Twitter.

A woman brought her two children in and had set up shop in the corner, on a bright-colored plastic picnic table. Her baby boy had the biggest blue eyes I've ever seen. We were flirting. We were in love. Mom and I had a moment, too: I was happy she was there, happy she'd brought her children. If I didn't adore children, I'd hang out somewhere else. Because they're everywhere in Lincoln Square. Seeing is believing. Minutes later, that soul-mate baby had disappeared under a little green coverlet, pressed to his mother's chest; she was feeding him, in the middle of the café.

I'd never seen this before, breastfeeding in public. (Which is odd, given that this neighborhood is practically the epicenter of liberal parenting in Chicago.)

And I was weirded out. Okay? I was weirded out.

I didn't say anything to her. Just cast my eyes downward and tried to focus on my screen. In an attempt to quietly diffuse my own discomfort, I tweeted this: "Really happy we're sharing this moment together, nursing mother FIVE FEET FROM ME. #gross" Oh, mistake of mistakes.

Those 76 characters set off a firestorm of backlash that honestly made me wish I'd never opened a Twitter account in the first place.

And I have become infamous in the past three days among a group of Chicago mothers and their supporters. They wrongfully assume — though possibly rightfully, if based solely on those tweets — that I don't support their right to breastfeed in public. That I'm part of the problem, part of the intolerance that makes their already difficult lives even harder. And that is just not the case.

For my first tweet, I will not apologize. The fact that it made me uncomfortable that a woman was breastfeeding not five feet from me at Starbucks, while I was trying to get my work done, is not something anyone can fault me for. That was a gut reaction. As was my tweet.

There were some hilarious lactating-at-Starbucks jokes — "Venti breast milk chai" entered the arena, for example — but for the most part, it got ugly. And fast.

What I am sorry for: letting that conversation spiral out of control. It turned into a shouting match, with me doing most of the shouting. I ended up looking ridiculous and childish. Most of what I said was, in retrospect — retrospect, meaning three seconds after I hit "send" — mean-spirited and ignorant. None of those are actually words I'd ever use to describe myself.

My instinct when someone attacks me is to fight back. And my responses became more irrational as I went. But after a certain point, I almost felt like I couldn't turn around, couldn't retreat. I regret this. Wholeheartedly.

My biggest gaffe that day: "If it's too tough to walk to a private place or make a bottle before you go for your caffeine fix, maybe you're not cut out for motherhood." Jesus. Did you hear that? That was me snapping. That was my snarky sense of humor rearing its ugly head, completely out of context, completely un…funnily. A response to someone else who refused to hear my side of things. Stupid, stupid, stupid Paige.

The first woman to unfollow me on Twitter was a woman named Claire, who I hadn't interacted with much at all until she got angry enough to delete me (without attempting to educate me where the debate was taking place), then wrote a blog entry on her site that called me out publicly. Linked to my site and quoted my tweets. I actually really appreciated what she said in that entry, even though she made a point of making me look like an asshole in the process, so I'll link to it here. (Please, if you go there and feel compelled to comment, be constructive. As I wrote this, she e-mailed me to let me know she'd removed all the links to my tweets and blog, but the damage had already been done. I have a lot of respect for her, even more so now than I did when I began writing this.)

Reading the comments there make me want to cry. Maybe I deserve it. But the person vilified in all those comments is not me. I know this, but it still hurts to read. (And for the record, my remorse began about five minutes after that Twitter dialogue ended. I've been embarrassed for three days now.) I'm afraid to log into my Twitter account for fear of more of the same. I wrote those things a few days ago. Off-handedly. In the heat of the moment. And I'm sorry.

What I wrote hurt a lot of people — I had no idea it would — and apparently now it's my turn to be hurt. On purpose. By a lot of people who, if they took the time to read through other things I've said, would understand that's not who I am. After reading Claire's post, one woman took it upon herself to find my e-mail through my site and put me in my place.


"We are a nation that is so intolerant of public breastfeeding that it's imperative we educate, encourage and support each other," wrote that "Proud Breastfeeding Momma." "Are you proud of shaming women? For making us feel bad about feeding our children when people are around? You and others like yourself only continue this unwarranted response. It is very mean and very wrong!"

I didn't understand what I was saying that morning. I have no idea what it's like to be a mom. And maybe one person actually attempted to educate me as it happened. Everyone else had a pretty similar knee-jerk reaction to mine, albeit in the other direction. Anger fed anger, and shit got out of control.

Out. Of. Control.

So these proud breastfeeding mommas, instead of taking the time to educate a single woman with 1,700 Twitter followers and a pretty healthy blog following herself — a hopeful future mother, who could be a wonderful ally if she were properly educated in a sympathetic, nurturing manner — chose to alienate and further polarize me. Unfollow me instead of engaging me. Call me out in public instead of reaching out to me in private. Shame me for shaming them. We live in a first-world country; "eye for an eye" isn't really the way we do things here, is it?

Is this how you're going to raise your children?

To be combative and hyper-defensive, racing to judgment on anyone whose opinion differs from yours? All that healthy breast milk, suckled defiantly in public for all the world to see, won't do a lick of good (so to speak) if you poison them with the negativity I've seen in the past few days.

I'm a proud feminist. I've written about it on several occasions: here and here, for example.

And I'm very supportive of mothers. I hold doors. I pick up dropped binkies and cast-off blankets and run after a fast-departing Maclaren. I understand babies cry. I understand little girls are going to play their tiny pink harmonicas and little boys are going to get uncomfortably close to me with food all over their faces. And I understand that most parents don't feel the need to apologize for that, because their children are perfect in their eyes; after all, kids will be kids.

And I think they should be able to feed their children.

I may not have understood where feminism applied to breastfeeding on Monday, but I do now. I'm all for public breastfeeding. If it makes me uncomfortable the next few times I see it happen, maybe I'll just keep quiet about it. I'm going to be in this position myself at some point. I want to have children, and they will need to be fed. Possibly at Starbucks. I don't know what choices I'll make at that juncture (though I can say I'm already looking forward to a big, fat epidural, and I won't apologize for that either). These women have given me an inkling of the challenges I could face — though, who knows what the climate will be like in 10 years, or whenever I finally grow up enough to be able to take care of a puppy, let alone a child — but I hope I choose kindness and tolerance, education and support, when confronted with people who challenge me. And I hope I can remember how I felt as a single woman who was a total outsider to the difficulties of motherhood. Because that's important, too.

Mothers, don't forget what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. You have your rights, yes, but a little patience with people who don't understand where you're coming from wouldn't hurt. Self-righteousness doesn't look good on anyone. Not me and not you.

Nothing happens in a vacuum these days. In a world where we live out huge parts of our existences online — and some people choose to hide anonymously behind their computer screens and smart phones — words become our sticks and stones, and they do hurt. A lot. And they're frozen in time to haunt us for as long as we'll let them.

Will anyone who read Claire's post read this and try to understand me as a person? As JQ, the Proud Lactating Momma, wrote, I won't hold my breath. But it's not like me to back down from something like this without saying my piece, and I'll end that piece by saying I hope I can approach situations like these with a bit more empathy — and maybe fewer tweets — in the future.

Maybe you will, too.