Leah McLaren: The joy (and politics) of breastfeeding someone else’s baby

(Reprinted without permission after being deleted by the Globe and Mail on March 22, 2017)

Watching the dispiriting moral fumbling match that passes for a Conservative Party leadership campaign this spring, I’ve often found myself reminded of the time I tried to breastfeed Michael Chong’s baby.

To be fair, at the time I didn’t know it was Mr. Chong’s baby. I didn’t even know Mr. Chong — who is now, as he was then, the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, and currently the best pick of an otherwise sad litter for CPC leader.

The breastfeeding incident occurred at a Toronto house party. It was an in-between sort of evening, neither a rager nor a formal dinner party — the sort of casual and expensively lubricated early-evening-into-night gathering that exhausted people in their 30s with small children tend to favour.

I was about 25 and did not have a baby — or even a boyfriend — at the time.

And I was broody in the way that young women in their late 20s often are, before they realize that turning 30 is just the beginning of something rather than a vertiginous cliff off of which unlucky young women fall to die alone and be forgotten.

I was feeling a bit glum and distracted, so I’d wandered upstairs in search of a bathroom in which to reapply my lipstick and check my phone for random texts from inappropriate men (this was before Tinder). I walked into a bedroom with coats piled high on the bed and noticed that in the corner, sitting wide awake in a little portable car seat, was the cutest baby I’d ever seen. On the table beside him was a monitor. I smiled at the baby, the baby smiled back. Now this was a connection.

I leaned over and gingerly picked him up and then sat down in a chair to give him a cuddle. He felt gorgeous in my arms, all warm and lumpy and milky-smelling in the way small babies are. Somehow, my pinky finger ended up in his mouth and I was astonished at strength of his sucking reflex. “C’mon lady,” said his eyes. And I suddenly knew what he wanted. And I of course wanted to give him what he wanted. The only problem was, I had no milk. But would it be so bad, I wondered, if I just tried it out — just for a minute — just to see what it felt like?

I looked at the baby monitor as if it might be watching me, but thankfully this was before monitors had cameras.

Then slowly, carefully so as not to jostle the infant, I began to unbutton my blouse. Just as I was reaching into my bra, a shortish man with in a navy suit walked into the room.

“Oh um, hello!” he said, in a friendly, upbeat tone that could not entirely conceal the fact that he was flummoxed to see me sitting there with my top half unbuttoned holding his baby.

“I see you’ve met my son. May I take him now?”

The man, of course, was Michael Chong. I never caught the baby’s name. Mr. Chong took his son, bade me a swift and polite goodbye and I didn’t see him again for the rest of the party — probably because he left sensibly with his family an hour later while I no doubt hung around talking nonsense until after midnight.

I realize now that it was wrong and rude and frankly a bit weird of me to think I could breastfeed a stranger’s baby just for kicks. I hate to think what would have happened if Mr. Chong — or worse, his wife — had walked in while I was in the act.

I think if I found a strange woman — one who was both childless and milkless — nursing my baby at a party I’d be inclined to give her a swift smack upside the head and then call the police.

Having said that, in the years since having my own babies, I have two or three times breastfed my friends’ babies and let my babies in turn be fed by them.

And here’s the odd thing I found about breastfeeding another mother’s infant: It doesn’t actually feel odd at all. Feeding my friend Kiki’s son Diego and my friend Rosie’s daughter Delilah I had the same thought: Yep, I could keep this baby — or any baby — alive with my body if I really needed to. And the babies were equally blasé about the whole thing. “You’ll do, in a pinch,” they seemed to be saying as they burrowed down for a snack of un-mother’s milk. It was heartening actually and even a little bit moving — like that viral video a few years back of the actress Salma Hayek breastfeeding an orphaned baby in Sierre Leone. She was astonished at how easy and normal it felt and so was I.

My fleeting co-feeding experiences made me wonder why, with all the fuss that’s made over the health benefits of breastfeeding, wet nurses (i.e., lactating nannies) aren’t more of a thing. I mean, if you could afford it, why not have an extra pair of lactating boobs around for the crucial first year? Those 18th-century aristocrats had one thing right.

In any case, this is all to say that breastfeeding is a lovely and marvellous thing, as is co-feeding and everyone should do it. Just don’t try it with a strangers baby in a bedroom at a party if you are 25 and stupid.

Apologies to Mr. and Mrs. Chong.

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