About a hundred mothers in Montreal staged a "nurse-in" protest at a downtown shopping complex last week, breast-feeding simultaneously before a curious crowd of reporters, mall security guards and passers-by. The event was retribution, they said, for a store that had thrown out a mother for breast-feeding earlier this month. This week, they began a petition drive to protect the rights of women to breast-feed in public in the Quebec province.
She said she was surprised and upset when a female employee of the store, Orchestra, came over and told her to stop.
Smith left humiliated. But her embarrassment quickly turned to anger, so the next day she created a blog, breastfortheweary.com.
"I'm pissed," she wrote. "My older kids were sitting in their stroller watching the movie when my youngest got hungry. So I fed her. She's 5 months old, and she eats breast milk. From my actual breast. Shocking, I know!"
With just the one post, the blog quickly started gathering hits -- almost 7,000 so far. A day later, a Facebook group had been created to organize the nurse-in for Jan. 19. Newspapers and blogs across Canada and the United States soon picked up the story, creating a national debate over whether Smith or the employee had been right.
Many commentators compared breast-feeding to eating lunch and even urinating, even saying it should happen in bathrooms. Parents fought back, arguing that babies deserve to eat whenever and wherever they are hungry, and that breast-feeding is convenient and healthy.
At 1 p.m., the appointed time for the nurse-in, managers at Montreal's Complexe Les Ailes shopping mall waited anxiously for the promised pack of mothers and babies to appear. They arrived en masse, like a nursery school flash mob, and the babies quickly got down to business as cameras clicked and mall employees handed out juice boxes and goody bags. Most mothers said they had heard about the event through Facebook or friends.
"I think that, basically, you should be able to do it anytime and anywhere," said Frances Moxant, 40, as she fed the youngest of her four children. "Even my parish priest tells us to go ahead and do it in church. Jesus was breast-fed -- he wasn't bottle-fed. So it's definitely all right."
Smith said she was happy with the turnout, especially with the many dads and grandparents who stood nearby. She said she had been shocked by the frenzied response to her blog, but tried not to read too much into the negative comments.
"I figure a lot of people just don't care," she said, shrugging. "A lot of people are pro-breast-feeding, and they don't talk about it because they just think it's normal."
The clothing store has apologized to Smith, blaming the mistake on a poorly trained new employee. So has the general manager of Complexe Les Ailes, Johanne Marcotte, who breast-fed her own two children in malls and has long instituted a pro-breast-feeding policy. In fact, Complexe Les Ailes has two dedicated rooms for nursing moms, which Marcotte said have been used by 20,000 moms in the past eight months -- something she knows because the rooms have traffic counters.
Rebecca Coughlin, 30, who came to the nurse-in with her 6-month-old twin daughters, said she likes the breast-feeding rooms but thinks it's unreasonable to expect women to pack up their children and walk across the mall with a screaming baby.
"I don't think there's any reason women should be relegated to a room," Coughlin said. "It's something that we should be encouraging women to do. The last thing we should do is create a stigma around it."
Most Canadian provinces, including Quebec, do not have laws explicitly allowing mothers to breast-feed in public, although courts looking at specific cases like Smith's have generally ruled in favor of nursing moms.
Shoppers at the mall last week looked amazed at the sea of nursing babies. But when asked if they felt uncomfortable having to walk by so many breasts on their lunch break, they said no.
"I don't have a problem with that," said Ulysses Montero, 34.
Moms who read Smith's blog vented about being called exhibitionists.
"Maybe we need to find something else for society to obsess about/sensationalize/demonize, instead of breasts," wrote a commenter named Sheila. "Preferably something that isn't part of my body. Oranges, maybe? 'Hey, lady, you can't eat that orange in here -- this is a respectable business ...'"