My brain chants this, over and over, as I sit in the backseat of my minivan, next to the car seat where my two-month-old daughter, Blair, is supposed to be, all strapped in and safe. But she is not. She is, instead, lying across my lap. My tank top is pulled up, my left boob is hanging out, and Blair is latched on. None of this would be a problem, except for one thing. My mother is in the front seat, driving the car.
Oddly, less than two hours ago, I thought Blair and I were having a good day. I actually said this out loud to my husband, talking to him on my cell as Blair and I drove to the Philadelphia airport to pick up my mother, who was flying in to help out for a week.
“We’re having a good day,” I said.
“You are?” he answered, clearly surprised. This was the first official “good day” we’d had since Blair was born. The jaundice, the colic and the relentless crying, the two minutes of sleep, the impulse to kill the dog and anything else that made noise, and the madness of figuring out how to breastfeed another human being (who just, kind of, appeared) had all left me feeling entirely out of control.
But, today? Blair woke up from a nap at two p.m., giving me precisely enough time to nurse her, get us both in the minivan, drive to the airport, pick up my mother and drive back home before she’d need to nurse again at five. All was going well. Until, on the way home, I missed the exit. And we ended up in rush-hour traffic. Crawling. On a four-lane highway. With no way to pull over. For two-and-a-half hours . . . so far.
For the past hour of it, Blair has been screaming.
My mother is in the seat next to her, rocking the car seat, which isn’t working. Neither is the air conditioning I turned on full-blast to create a “shushing” sound. We both know she’s hungry. And that, because she’s hungry, we’re screwed.
I try not to look in the rear view mirror, where I can see Blair’s face, all contorted into a massive black hole of a mouth, reflected in the mirror hanging on the headrest above her. My boobs are throbbing, but not as much as my temples are. From that sound. That yelping, alien baby sound.
“Mom,” I say, as if this is a sudden, new idea, and not something that I’ve been trying to grow the cajones to do for the past hour. “Mom, I am going to put the car in park. You are going to crawl up to the driver’s seat and take over.”
“Vicki, I can’t drive in this . . . ” she starts to say. But I’ve already opened my door and am trotting around the front of the minivan to the sliding door. In the amount of time it takes for me to get in and close the door, for my mother to stop saying, “Oh my God. Oh my GOD!” the traffic doesn’t move an inch. I pull Blair out of her seat.
This is bad, I think as I calculate the likelihood that the guy in the car next to us can see through the tinted windows, that this guy will dial 911, that 911 will call child services. Because this is illegal. I’m well aware of this. All states have mandatory child restraint laws for babies. This is very bad. I’m so going to jail.
Here’s what I’m not aware of:
If a cop pulls us over, I probably won’t get arrested, just slapped with a $100 fine. Though the punishment in each state varies, this is the max for the offense here in Pennsylvania. This is bad, I think. (Of course, there was that Ohio woman who was sentenced in 2003 to three months of house arrest and a $300 fine when a trucker saw her breastfeeding in her car. But she was driving.) If we get in an accident and, God forbid, the baby dies, I could be charged with involuntary manslaughter (if a prosecutor doesn’t think that losing a child is punishment enough) for “the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner . . . [that] causes the death of another person,” which, in Pennsylvania, could mean up to ten years in prison.
Here’s what I’m also not aware of:
Even though breastfeeding in public isn’t illegal anywhere in the country, the guy in the car next to us could look over, see my boob, call 911 and claim I’m indecently exposing myself in public. And, depending on the cop who arrives on the scene, I could be charged. In Pennsylvania at the time, there were no laws protecting me or, for that matter, the woman who made headlines early last year when, while nursing her son at a local mall, a security guard asked her to cover herself. (In 2007, Pennsylvania enacted its first law exempting public breastfeeding from criminal laws pertaining to “indecent exposure,” “lewdness,” “obscene and sexual conduct” and “a nuisance,” though no breastfeeding mother in PA has ever been charged with any of these offenses).
States like Washington, though, exempt breastfeeding from “indecent exposure” only. So my friend in Seattle, Sarah, could have been fined for breaking the car seat law and cited with, say, obscenity when she followed her half-mile rule – as in, “a half-mile from home is okay.” “When we were a few blocks from home,” Sarah explains, “I’d sometimes give in, take my screaming son out of his seat, and let him nurse.”
Most states protect the right to breastfeed anywhere the mother and the child have a right to be, but don’t provide women with a way to enforce their right. That’s why when my friend Nancy was on vacation at Disney World, slouching in the backseat of her car while nursing her three-month-old daughter as her husband drove around a parking lot, she could only have been fined for violating the car-seat law. If the Florida cop also tried to charge her for being “lewd,” the charge wouldn’t have held, but Nancy also wouldn’t have been able to bring legal action against the cop for interfering with her right.
Luckily for Lisa, a woman I know in Ohio, that state and six others do give moms recourse, so she was perfectly safe when she was in the car and her three-month-old son was crying and her husband was “about to lose it,” and she did “the hover”: gymnastically positioning herself so she was half-lying over her son’s infant seat so she could nurse him while he, and she, were still buckled in. “I was turned in such a way that I was staring out his window,” Lisa says. “A female passenger in a neighboring car made eye contact with me and smiled.” Of course, if the woman had called the cops instead, Lisa could have filed a complaint against her. And that’s exactly what Emily Gillette did in Vermont in 2006 after Freedom Airlines forced her to get off her flight before it took off because she refused to cover up while nursing.
But . . . no. I’m not aware of any of this as I sit in the backseat of the minivan. She did “the hover”: gymnastically positioning herself so she was half-lying over her son’s infant seat so she could nurse. I am only aware that it is time to switch Blair from the left boob to the right boob. A better parent probably would have checked into the laws. A better parent would certainly have considered the risk of us getting in an accident. I know that’s what the cop will say when he pulls us over: “What if you got in an accident? What if something happened to the baby?” Which is why, as a slink down a little in the seat, I plot the baby-freaking-out defense I’ll spout in response. “But, officer . . . she was crying.”
Meanwhile: “Mom!” I screech. “Don’t let him into our lane, Mom. Pull up!” I know my mother thinks that the fact that I’m making her drive the minivan during Philadelphia rush hour is a far worse offense than what I’m doing in the backseat. She knows nothing about what I’m going through. She didn’t nurse me: her doctor instructed her not to. And, considering that old car seat she showed me last summer at a yard sale, the laundry basket with lace on the ends that was “exactly like the one we had for you,” she also knows nothing about safely restraining children in moving vehicles.
“MOM!” I yell again, focusing entirely now on getting home, since Blair is nursing. And happy. And quiet. “Pull UP!”
I realize then that there is something about this experience that my mother and I have in common, that crosses the generational boundary in this car. And it might have made me laugh, had I not still been squinting through the windows, on the look-out for Johnny Law. We both now know what it’s like to be driving a car while your daughter screams at you from the backseat.
Photo by Rachel Valley