I am a breastfeeder. I fed my first daughter for nearly 11 months and I'm currently feeding my second daughter who is nearly eight months. I have always breastfed on demand, as and when required. Whether I'm in a restaurant, a shop or the theatre, I've simply fed my baby because she's hungry and needs feeding.
Generally my feeding so publicly and without shame has been met with positivity, or for the most part not been noticed. Until now.
There is a misconception amongst those who argue vehemently against public feeding that breastfeeding involves some dramatic wafting of a bare breast with milk spraying. In reality, in my own case and the case of breastfeeders I have been around, it would be easy not to know the baby is having a feed at all. You can't see anything as there's a baby head in the way. It simply looks like a cuddle. There's no wafting breasts or spraying nipples because the breast is behind a baby and the nipple and milk are both in their mouth. On any Saturday night you'll see more exposed breast flesh for fashion than you'll see from a breastfeeding mother.
This weekend we went on a big family reunion to a remote area. There were aunts and cousins, grandparents and grandchildren. On Sunday we headed en masse to a local pub for a traditional Sunday lunch.
The pub had an isolated charm. The wind whipped and the rain fell, but we hurried inside and it was warm and cosy. Targeted at families, offering children's meals and with over the top décor, it seemed the perfect location.
I was sniffy about the word "damsels" being on the ladies' toilets whilst the men got to be knights, but I put it aside as it was just part of a theme.
With nearly 30 people in our party we took over the majority of the restaurant area. Those of us with children stationed ourselves at a back table behind a wooden partition, it seemed sensible given the likelihood of strange noises from tablets and games. and I took a seat in a high backed booth style bench with good back support for feeding. The rest of the family filled the subsequent tables.
In due course Baby Boo required feeding so, as usual, I cradled her in my lap, slipped a boob out of my nursing dress and latched her on, then continued chatting.
"You need to cover up," cut through a voice. I looked up in surprise and saw the woman who had previously seated us.
I looked down at myself in confusion, had I accidentally exposed myself? No.
I looked back at her and she pointed a finger at Boo.
"There are other people here," she said crossly. "You'll need to cover that up."
Incredulously I said, "No!"
I was furious.
Besides the fact I was tucked in a corner and surrounded by family, besides the fact I am legally entitled to breastfeed in public without harassment or discrimination, besides the fact that even businesses as well respected as Claridges have publicly apologised and admitted fault for similar incidents, I was furious because I was embarrassed. I was humiliated. I lost my appetite, gathered up my children, and we left.
As defiantly as I refused to give in to her unacceptable demand, I felt ashamed. As strong as I felt for continuing to feed, I felt weakened. I felt betrayed. This woman had seen me doing something legal, normal, natural, which her establishment is required by law to respect my right to do, and instead of behaving appropriately had turned her back on both the law and the history of women's rights.
One look on TripAdvisor confirmed I am not alone in this experience and other nursing mothers had been similarly harassed there.
I chose not to make a scene out of embarrassment and the desire not to negatively impact the experience of an extended family I am only just getting to know, but part of me wishes I had. Part of me wishes I had challenged her on it. Wishes I had alerted the matriarch of the family who, she later assured me on learning about the incident, would have defended me passionately.
I should have fought at the time, but I am choosing to fight now. No woman should be made to feel that way. Had I been alone or a first time mother the experience could easily have put me off breastfeeding for life. I'm a defiant, proud feminist with an established history of feeding and a loyal family at my side and it still made me feel crap. Other circumstances could have been far harder and nobody has the right to that power.
I didn't fight immediately but one thing I can assure you is that I am no damsel. I can fight the dragon myself, and I beg of any other nursing mothers who find themselves in a similar situation to brace yourself, then proudly fight that dragon too.
We will not be bullied, intimidated or shamed. We are not damsels. We will fight.
You can check out all my contact info and links on www.jjbarnes.co.uk, I'm on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so you can get in touch on there, as well as find links to all my work. There's also www.sirenstories.co.uk where you'll find other work from Siren Stories and extra information. My first novel, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, is out now and available on Amazon.
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