I was one of the first to board the 14-row plane to Charlotte. The aisle had only two seats on either side. It wasn’t the smallest plane I had been on, but it still required a fair bit of awkward crouching and maneuvering to get into one’s row.
As I sat in my aisle seat waiting for the arrival of my eventual window seatmate, I tried to avoid accidental eye contact with everybody who walked down the aisle. In my head asking over and over again, “Is it you? Is it YOU?”
Eventually, my attention waned and I turned my focus to the magazine in the seatback pocket. That’s when I heard:
“Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m in the window.”
I stood up and moved into the aisle to make way for a dark-haired woman in her 30s in a tank top with a black backpack to scoot into her seat. As I stood there I thought how strange it was that she apologized for wanting to get to the seat she paid for. As if sitting first meant I was entitled to some sort of lordship over our row.
Once seated, she stowed her rather full backpack, turned to me and started another sentence with an apology:
“I’m sorry but once we are in the air I’m going to be pumping.”
I said no worries at all and proceeded to make conversation, discussing a woman recently removed from a Spirit Airlines flight who had asked to finish breastfeeding her son before takeoff on her already delayed flight.
While we chatted I couldn’t help but feel sad that this woman felt the need to apologize to me in advance for doing something biologically natural, which she had to do, to feed the child her job had flown her away from. Looking back now I wonder if she would have said the same thing to me if we were on a bus, or if I were a woman.
Now, my in-person experience with women pumping breast milk to feed their children is exactly 0. I know it happens. I have seen women breastfeeding their children in public. I’ve worked in an office with a pumping room. I’ve even texted with some of my friends while they were pumping. (This was not something I intended to do, but they volunteered this information.) I know this is something that is a challenge for women. We as a society do not provide the necessary resources for it to be a comfortable experience. And I knew it was important for this to be a comfortable experience.
Once our conversation ended, I put my noise canceling headphones on and closed my eyes to return to my audiobook, dampening the many stress-inducing noises of the aircraft. Sometime after takeoff, I could feel her rustling around next to me, taking her bag out from under the seat in front of her, and presumably her breast pump.
I wasn’t sure the most appropriate way to behave. I can’t imagine that pumping in a cramped seat, in a pressurized flying germ tube, 30,000 feet in the air, exactly 0 inches from a strange man is any woman’s ideal scenario. I knew there was a large scarf in my bag and I thought about offering that to her in case she wanted to cover her shoulders to stay warm, but then thought the better of it, thinking she might perceive that as me wanting to cover her up. I then realized she probably was prepared enough. It felt inappropriate to ask questions or make conversation with her in that moment.
So I just sat there, facing forward, eyes closed, half paying attention to my audiobook, and thinking how if I hadn’t known she was pumping I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. The airplane was so loud her activity went essentially unnoticed.
Eventually, I stood up to go to the bathroom, and when I returned I saw she had finished. I made some casual comment along the lines of.
“Everything work out OK?”
I probably sounded like a moron, but I wanted her to know I was supportive of her, that I wasn’t some closed-minded sexist silently criticizing her. Of course, she didn’t need my approval but it felt important to acknowledge the normalcy of the situation, that this wasn’t an anomaly, merely a part of life… even if it was new to me.
Yes as a man, it can be uncomfortable to witness the many things women go through that we will never experience. That discomfort should not be avoided, it should be embraced. Any first interaction can feel confusing. Most of us haven’t been told how to act, certainly, we haven’t been given any sort of handbook. But those uncomfortable interactions are necessary to help us as men understand how natural these human behaviors are. Women don’t need our approval to do what they need to do, but they do need our compassion.
We have created this weird standard for behavior in this country that we now apologize for things that mandate no apology; getting to your seat on an airplane, pumping to feed your child, and don’t apologize for things we feel entitled to do (an endless list).
That woman on the plane was extremely considerate. She didn’t need to preface what she was about to do, though I greatly appreciated her concern that pumping might make me feel uncomfortable.
It is fair to say men understand so very little of what it is to be a woman. At a biological level alone, we have much to learn. Some of those things will come naturally with marriage and fatherhood. Some of those things we might never be exposed to. Either way, we must remember we are human beings and roughly half of us are responsible for birthing and keeping our species alive.
If we get better at acknowledging and honoring that, the next time a woman has to breastfeed on a plane, she won’t feel the need to preface with “I’m sorry.”
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