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Get out of the pool, Dia Michels was told.
She was wading in the shallow end in the summer of 1999, she says, when a lifeguard accused her of breaking a posted rule: No food in the water.
Not that Michels was eating at the time. But her infant daughter was.
According to the lifeguard, by baring her breast in the pool and letting the child suckle, Michels had violated Prince George’s County health code.
Michels thought his legal interpretation was ridiculous: “The irony was,” she says, “even if I weren’t nursing, there would’ve been food in the water, because you couldn’t, say, cut my breasts off.” Michels emerged from the pool, then called up county health officials and directors of the Cheverly Swim and Racquet Club.The pool’s official policy has since been changed: Moms nursing babies are now welcome.
Michels says she’s used to hearing a whole array of complaints against breast-feeding. That’s because she’s made a habit of breast-feeding in a whole array of places.
Her daughter, Mira, whom Michels was nursing in the swimming pool, turned 5 this week. And she’s kept on suckling all this time—from the aisles at Safeway to the foot of the Capitol building.
On Capitol Hill, where Michels, 45, lives with her husband and three children, witnesses report numerous public displays of lactation. “We on the Hill just call them ‘Dia’s Breast Stories,’” says Gina Arlotto, who’s known Michels for years. “Pretty much everyone on the Hill has got one.”
Michels sees herself as not just a mother, but an activist for moms’ rights. An author, editor, self-publisher, and lecturer, Michels says she’s best known for co-writing the 1995 book Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding, which won a prize from the American Medical Writers Association.
But it’s her own public demonstrations, aimed at breaking taboos associated with the mother-milking act, that draw the most attention.
“If you read Dear Abby or Miss Manners,” Michels says, “they will tell you that if you’re gonna breast-feed in public, make sure you have an extra cloth to cover your body and make sure you divert your eyes. If you look discreet, then it won’t be an issue.”
“I say quite the opposite,” she says. “Wear nothing to cover up, and you look straight at people, because there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Reaction to Michels’ brand of activism is often negative, she says. Not only do people often stare and make snide remarks, she’s also been told to keep her breast-feedings out of her kids’ classrooms, she says. Once she was booted from her local CVS.
“My policy is, if my kid’s hungry, I feed them,” she says. “I mean, otherwise, what’s the point of carrying around a portable milk supply?”
CVS has no specific policy barring breast-feeding mothers, leaving the issue up to manager discretion, says Aponique Fangou, who manages a branch of the drug store at 661 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.
“I’m not gonna kick a mother out of the store just because she’s nursing,” Fangou says. “But if another customer complains, I’ll take her into the break room.”
Michels, however, scoffs at the idea of being relegated to back rooms and hallways. “This notion that you’re supposed to try to be invisible is part of the myth that somehow you shouldn’t be doing this,” she says.
“Ew, that’s disgusting,” is a common complaint, Michels says. Another remark she often overhears: “Isn’t that child too old to be nursing?”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, about 60 percent of mothers breast-feed their babies after birth, but only 22 percent continue to do so after six months. The academy recommends breast-feeding for at least 12 months and thereafter for as long as both mother and child desire.
For Michels, the desire always exceeded the recommendation. She has breast-fed each of her three children well past the second birthday.
People might find it odd, but Michels says there’s nothing wrong with it. “People think it’s not normal to nurse a 4-year-old,” she says. “The reality is, it’s not typical to nurse a 4-year-old. What I’m doing is not typical. That doesn’t mean it’s not the best thing for the kids.”
She’s quick to discuss the health benefits of breast milk—“a living formula,” she says, packed with hormones and antibodies to ward off illness and infection. Formula-fed babies have higher rates of illness, hospitalization, and death than breast-fed babies, she argues. Her recent book, Breastfeeding Facts for Fathers, suggests that mother’s milk is “good for grown-ups, too,” and offers a recipe for a homemade coffee drink called “Lactuccino”: “1/2 cup breastmilk, 3/4 cup fresh-brewed coffee, 2 tablespoons sugar…garnish with cinnamon.”
Michels realizes, however, that her breast-feeding days are numbered. Mira turns 5 this week, and her interest in mother’s milk is waning.
Michels weaned her two older children, Akeala, 14, and Zaydek, 11, off breast milk when they were 2-and-a-half and 5 years old, respectively. Adhering to the concept of child-led weaning, she plans to let Mira keep on suckling until she stops on her own.
“The joke,” Michels says, “has always been that Mira would nurse until she goes to college.”
But the cutoff date is rapidly approaching. “Nowadays, she’s only nursing maybe three times a week,” Michels says, “usually around bedtime”—away from the public eye.
Michels says she’s not sad to see it end. “For years, it was something I dreaded,” she says. “But I’ve nursed for much of the last 14 years, and I think it’s time to be OK with it.”
“Pretty soon,” she adds, “we’re gonna be getting driver’s licenses.” CP