It was a hot, busy day in a London shopping centre when I looked around in desperation for somewhere to feed my screaming three-month-old daughter. I’d had a difficult labour and suffered badly with postnatal anxiety, so it was one of the first times I had ventured out of the house since giving birth.
I hadn’t had much experience of breastfeeding in public and felt nervous, but my daughter’s loud wailing made me feel I had little choice. I told my husband I would find somewhere to feed her, while he picked up the last things on our shopping list. There was no space in any of the cafes, and no signs to suggest there might be a quiet room, so in the end I sat down on a bench and simply got on with it.
I hadn’t been feeding long when I heard a soft, repetitive noise. I looked up and straight into the eyes of a much older man, sitting on another bench nearby, his hand in his pocket moving up and down furiously, staring intently at me, very clearly masturbating while watching me breastfeed. Even to this day, I remember him vividly: his glasses, his scruffy, greying hair, his beige trousers and jacket. But most of all his expression, utterly devoid of embarrassment or shame. It was like he felt he had a complete right to use my body for his own pleasure in that way.
I was scared and angry. I didn’t know what to do. It was an incredibly vulnerable moment. I wanted to get away, but I was scared he might become aggressive, or follow me. I wanted to leave, but my hungry baby had only just started to feed. I wanted to scream at him, but I was frozen in shock and fear. In the end, I phoned my husband, loudly speaking into the phone and asking him to come straight over. As he approached, the man got up and ran. Numbly, I finished feeding my daughter.
I told my husband what had happened, and felt like I needed to report it to the shopping centre. Not because I thought there was much chance the man would be caught, but because I felt a responsibility to try and stop any other women from going through the same thing. I was struck by the idea that that was the only spot you could really go to in the mall if you needed to breastfeed, and sickened to think that it might be a regular hunting ground for this man.
But when we found the information desk, there was a huge queue, it was unbearably hot, the baby had started to cry again, and my feelings of disgust and sadness were just starting to sink in. Defeated, I just didn’t feel able to stay, and went home.
It was only in the days and weeks that followed that the true impact of the experience really hit home. I hated the idea that even afterwards the man might still be thinking of me breastfeeding while he pleasured himself. I felt dirty and violated, and worst of all, I felt that he had somehow sullied what had been a very precious and tender experience I had been sharing with my new baby.
Given my postnatal struggles, which had made bonding with the baby harder than usual, that was a particular blow. It didn’t stop me breastfeeding, but it definitely made an already very difficult time even harder, and it meant that I experienced very heightened anxiety and nerves about feeding in public afterwards.
When I first started breastfeeding, the midwife encouraged me to look into my baby’s eyes to help with bonding. But after that I was always looking over my shoulder instead.