Anthropology Professor Adrienne Pine has been tossed into a controversy she never intended to create. The scenario was simple, as she describes in an essay on Counter Punch:
So here’s the story, internet: I fed my sick baby during feminist anthropology class without disrupting the lecture so as to not have to cancel the first day of class. I doubt anyone saw my nipple, because I’m pretty good at covering it. But if they did, they now know that I too, a university professor, like them, have nipples. Or at least that I have one.
She wasn’t trying to make a statement or create a “teachable moment.” In fact, she has always distanced herself from lactivism and tried to keep her family and professional life as separate as possible. She simply had a dilemma — her baby had a fever and couldn’t go to daycare, but cancelling the first day of class to stay home with her sick baby could have professional consequences.
Unfortunately, some students in the class and a reporter from the student newspaper decided to label Pine’s choice as an “incident” that is “uncomfortable” and “delicate.” All of a sudden Pine, who had always simply breastfed her baby without giving it much thought, felt she needed to defend herself from an anti-woman attitude and potentially hostile work environment.
Pine is Not the First, Not the Only
The fact that the student newspaper wanted to make a story out of Pine’s choice is indicative of how rare it is to see breastfeeding in the workplace and other public places. However, many mothers simply breastfeed their babies anytime, anywhere without giving it a second thought, just as Pine had always done. To be sure, Pine wasn’t the first woman to breastfeed in public, at work, or even in front of a classroom.
Kasey Powers, who teaches Introductory Psychology as an Adjunct Professor at College of Staten Island, the City University of New York (CUNY), went back to work about six weeks after her son was born. She took her son to work with her and had another graduate student watch him during class. For the most part, that arrangement worked, except one time when he needed to be fed before class was over. “There were only a few minutes left in class when I heard him in the hall,” Powers wrote in an e-mail. “I waved Anna (the graduate student watching the baby) and Simon (the baby) in and nursed while students were picking up their assignments and asking questions. This is the only time I ever noticed students noticing that I was nursing. None of them said anything.”
Outside of that one time in class, Powers frequently nursed during her office hours. “My office hours were right after class so he was always hungry. Any time a student came to the first part of the hour I am sure I nursed.” Powers said she never mentioned or discussed nursing with her students. “I didn’t really think about it, it’s a non issue in my mind. I didn’t feel the need to qualify or apologize. The only thing I ever did was say I had my son with me in office hours since he was obviously there.”
Why should someone who is meeting their work and parenting obligations in a non-disruptive way have to apologize for doing so? Isn’t the ability to coordinate work life and family life something to be lauded, not sneered at? Just as this was never an issue for Powers, it should never have been an issue for Pine.
Given the abysmal maternity leave situation in the United States, the desire and need for maternal workforce participation, and the personal and public health benefits of breastfeeding, it is surprising that this issue hasn’t come up more often. If women are expected (or at least encouraged) to breastfeed their babies and expected to go back to work shortly after giving birth, it makes sense for workplaces to be baby-friendly and breastfeeding-friendly environments that will accommodate situations such as child care challenges and even the desire for child care options in the workplace.
The Parenting in the Workplace Institute found that allowing parents to bring their babies to work and creating a work environment that facilitates and supports that has many benefits, including an earlier return to work, increased loyalty, better teamwork and cooperation, improved morale, and lower healthcare costs. These programs are not difficult or expensive to implement and focus mostly on creating a supportive environment and culture. If a university made it clear that it was a family-friendly environment and that both students and employees were welcome to have nursing infants with them, this would create flexibility for nursing mothers and also make it clear to others that intolerance is unwelcome.
Was It the Baby or the Breast?
Pine did what she thought was best in the situation and then continued with her day. It wasn’t until she received an e-mail the next day from a news assistant at the student newspaper that she realized it was an issue. The e-mail specifically focused on the act of breastfeeding, not on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of having a sick child in the classroom.
The University, on the other hand, told the Washington Post that the issue was the child’s illness:
For the sake of the child and the public health of the campus community, when faced with the challenge of caring for a sick child in the case where backup childcare is not available, a faculty member should take earned leave and arrange for someone else to cover the class, not bring a sick child into the classroom.
Pine described a scenario a few days later where she was cornered by the reporter from the student newspaper immediately after class and was hardly able to speak because she had “caught and improved upon my baby’s cold.” So she not only brought a sick baby to work, but also went to work herself when she was sick.
From the University’s perspective, it is inappropriate to expose the campus community to illness and therefore Pine shouldn’t have taken her sick baby to class and she probably shouldn’t have been in class herself after catching the baby’s illness. Yet somehow the environment at the university is such that Pine felt cancelling the class would be disruptive to her students and “could also negatively affect my student evaluations, putting my tenure at risk.” If that is true, it appears that the discrimination against nursing mothers is not the only potential problem at the university. The dichotomy between their written policy regarding illness and the real consequences of following that policy are indicative of a problem that needs to be addressed.
Students’ Objection to Breastfeeding is Indicative of a Societal Problem
The students reaction to breastfeeding in the classroom likely stems from their lack of exposure to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is so often hidden away and done only in the privacy of the family home or at best under a nursing cover in a public space. In order for breastfeeding to seem normal and natural, it needs to be visible. It needs to be something that everyone has seen and everyone is familiar with. It shouldn’t be something that people see as awkward or inappropriate.
If more mothers were to breastfeed in public, especially around teenagers and young adults, it would help to normalize breastfeeding and make it easier for nursing mothers to continue to live their lives and take care of their babies needs. But it would have other benefits too. As I wrote previously in We Need Mothers To Breastfeed in Front of Teenagers, it would provide young people with important exposure to breastfeeding in the years prior to becoming parents. It would help them to see that breasts are not just sexual, it could give them the confidence to breastfeed and it could give them concrete visual examples to draw on as they hold their own baby up to their breast for the first time. It would give them more places to seek support, make them feel less alone, and give them more confidence.
Although Pine never intended to be a lactivist or to create a teachable moment, the reality is that every time she brings her baby to the breast in a public space, she is doing just that. Despite trying to distance herself from lactivism, the anger she showed towards the situation she found herself in clearly demonstrates why lactivism is an essential part of the feminist movement.
Photo credit: Mothering Touch on flickr