We're moving! Get our latest gender and identity coverage on washingtonpost.com.

Since giving birth to her son, Roman, in April, Stephanie Buchanan has breast-fed whenever and wherever she needed — whether she was hanging at the park, shopping at Walmart or grabbing a bite at Wendy’s.

So when her baby started to fuss during a recent trip to a community pool in her hometown of Mora, Minn., the 27-year-old mom didn’t think twice about nursing as she watched her 4-year-old stepson and his young cousin splash around in the shallow water. Her sister-in-law, also mother to an infant, had done the same shortly before.

“We had brought our kids swimming and all of them are fairly young so we were all in the kiddie pool,” Buchanan says. “My son got hungry, and I was wearing a one piece so I slipped my strap down and fed him.”

Stephanie Buchanan, right, and her sister-in-law Mary. (Courtesy of Britany McIalwain)
Stephanie Buchanan, right, and her sister-in-law Mary. (Courtesy of Britany McIalwain)

But soon after, another pool-goer came over and asked the two moms to cover up, arguing that the scene wasn’t appropriate for her own young boys playing in the pool.

“Taken aback and shocked,” Buchanan says she declined.

A pool employee came and asked the pair to be more discreet or go to the locker room. Buchanan stood her ground, citing state law protecting a woman’s right to breast-feed in public. Eventually, an officer was called to the scene. Buchanan said while they were planning on leaving anyway by the time the police arrived, the situation ruined the outing for the mothers and the children.

“We did our walk of shame with our kids in front of the entire pool, completely humiliated,” Buchanan says.

The Minnesota mom isn’t alone in experiencing breast-feeding backlash. While all 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books that specifically allow a person to breastfeed in any public or private location, many mothers still report facing discrimination and stigma because of the basic act.

In recent years, stories of women being asked to stop nursing in churches, gyms and restaurants have made headlines. Reports of breast-feeding discrimination at work have been on the rise in recent years, too.

But public support for breast-feeding mothers, especially online, is also growing.

After a Facebook post Buchanan wrote about the incident went viral, members of an online group for breast-feeding parents decided to stage a “nurse-in” to stand in solidarity with the moms. In late July, dozens of mothers — some coming from as far as 90 miles away — brought their babies to a park near the pool to take part in a peaceful protest.

Mora aquatic center lost my business forever, today. Today they called the police on me and my sister in law for nursing...

Posted by Stephanie Ellingson-Buchanan on Wednesday, July 18, 2018

To Buchanan, the show of support was “very emotional” and “uplifting”

“I didn’t know it was that big of a controversy anymore, but lots of moms have [experienced] this situation, not just at pools but everywhere,” she says. “People feel the need to approach a mother who is breast-feeding and tell her that she needs to cover or go somewhere else. Motherhood is hard enough the way it is without anybody’s opinion and I would hope that if anyone sees a mother breast-feeding and they don’t like it, [they] not bring any attention to it. That mom is probably just as worried about feeding her baby as about anybody coming up and approaching her.”

Given the high interest in the first nurse-in, they’re already planning a second event for early August. Supporters say the aim is not to shame the pool staff, but to spread awareness about the need to provide more support for breastfeeding women.

Shanna Lundberg, a founder of the Minnesota Breastfeeding Mamas Facebook group, sees the demonstrations as part of the group’s broader mission to normalize breast-feeding, whether that’s through education or standing up for the right to nurse covered or uncovered.

“Two things that we take very seriously are our children and our rights. If you back us into a corner with both those things at stake, we will bite back. The ‘nurse-ins’ were planned to educate those who may not be familiar with our legal rights (even if they should be),” Lundberg wrote in an email.

“They were also planned to show that if you poke a mama bear, she will have plenty of other mama bears willing to take a stand alongside her,” she continued. “I’m very proud to have created a platform where this mindset can thrive. “

In a statement released to the press, the city of Mora and the pool said that while the entities “strive to create an environment comfortable for all” and “have always supported nursing mothers,” the situation with Buchanan and her sister-in-law “made many patrons uncomfortable.”

The statement went on to say that after the women declined to relocate “it created an untenable situation and our public safety team was brought in to assist the [Mora Aquatic Center] staff,” the statement reads.

The statement adds that policies and procedures related to breast-feeding “will be reviewed and revised as deemed necessary,” and apologizes to the mothers “if they were offended by how they were treated.”

Stephanie Buchanan, second from left, and her sister-in-law Mary with their families. (Courtesy of Britany McIalwain)
Stephanie Buchanan, second from left, and her sister-in-law Mary with their families. (Courtesy of Britany McIalwain)

Buchanan says that response isn’t enough. The pool has likely lost her business for good. On top of that, she and her sister-in-law are planning on filing a discrimination lawsuit. Regardless of the outcome, she says she hopes sharing her story will inspire others to let mothers breast-feed in peace, wherever they may be.

“Our entire goal out of all of this is to bring awareness to the issue and break the stigma that surrounds public breast-feeding,” Buchanan says. “I just don’t want another mom to ever have to feel shamed or insecure about feeding her baby.”

Caucusing in Iowa can take hours. What are you supposed to do with your kids?

It’s not as simple as hiring a babysitter

How baking shows changed my relationship with my daughter

Our cake-making days are all the more precious now

Learning that I’m a ‘highly sensitive person’ helped explain my struggles as a parent

I make my daughter feel safe and loved, even though I’m dying to be alone