When my first child was two months old, I decided to take a chance and breastfeed in public for the first time. When it came to nursing, I barely knew what I was doing, even in private. But when a few friends hosted a small July 4th barbecue for families, I figured I’d give public lactation a try.
While I was feeding my baby – awkwardly sweating, blushing, trying not to show my nipple while simultaneously helping my son latch on – a complete stranger who was eight months pregnant began shouting at me. How could I open my shirt in front of people who were eating? I was making her feel inadequate because she didn’t plan to breastfeed her baby. Was I one of those lactation Nazis?I burst into tears. In addition to feeling exposed and ridiculed in front of friends, I felt furious at this psycho for being such a complete maniac and taking out her insecurities on me (and on my helpless, oblivious, 10-pound baby who desperately tried to get some nourishment during the woman’s diatribe).
So from the git-go I’ve sympathized with women breastfeeding in public. Without exception, women should be able to breastfeed their babies in any and all public and private spaces, at work, in the park, the supermarket, on the subway, at school, in restaurants, on airplanes, and by the local swimming pool.
Breastfeeding is one of the biggest time commitments of early motherhood. It’s challenging to keep it up, especially for new moms who return to work. Because breastfeeding has been proven to be so healthy for babies, and so difficult for women, moms should unequivocally be applauded for nursing consistently. Maybe they should receive a government grant or presidential citation, or at least widespread respect and community support.
So, naturally, when I heard about Adrienne Pine, the “Sex, Gender & Culture” assistant professor at American University in Washington, DC who brought her sick baby to work and breastfed in front of her class of undergraduates, I thought: nice work, honey. Her last-minute decision to bring her sick infant daughter to work, and to feed her in front of class when she got hungry, raised myriad issues relevant to gender and cultural realities. The breastfeeding may have distracted or even disturbed a few of her students, but that’s their issue to stare down. It didn’t hinder the professor from doing her job and doing it well.
But instead of a supportive phone call from Michelle Obama, there has been outcry and debate. At times I felt I’d woken up in a sequel to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter,” set in a provincial, puritanical New England town 200 years ago. Some people apparently think Pine – like Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester Prynne, with her scarlet A for adultery – should have a B.M. tattooed on her forehead, and her classroom quarantined.
Beware! The Breastfeeding Mom approacheth!
Now, Professor Pine certainly had options here. She could have canceled the semester’s first class, and stayed home with her ill baby. She could have hired an emergency babysitter (although at a cost of $150 for a few hours). She could have pumped her breast milk into a bottle and then bottle-fed her baby in class. She could have left class for 20 minutes – giving the students a writing or reading assignment during the 75 minute class – and fed the baby in private nearby.
But I’m glad she didn’t. We all – especially young men and women, starting out in life and “studying” gender relations before they’ve experienced firsthand much of the sexism life will inevitably dole out – can use an excuse to ponder why breastfeeding makes people so ridiculously uncomfortable, and how they will handle such situations in the future.
After all, we live in a world of Hooters waitresses and Jersey Shore cleavage and coin slots. By the age of 15, most girls have experienced some degree of sexual harassment – a man exposing his erection on a public bus, a boss commenting “nice outfit” while staring pointedly at chest level, a boy pressuring her to go further sexually than she wants. Breastfeeding pales in comparison to these truly offensive – but tolerated – everyday acts of wanton sexual oversharing, perpetrated largely by men.
In fact, Baby Pine inadvertently served as one heck of a classroom prop, triggering thought and discussion about single motherhood, the lack of affordable daycare in this country, and why so many Americans find the natural act of feeding one’s baby offensive. To me, the act of harassment here is intimidating lactating women and forcing them to feed their babies only at home or behind closed doors. Every gender and cultural studies course should feature at least one class of live public breastfeeding, and a discussion about how our country supports – and undermines – mothers trying to juggle work and family.
Many American men and women, long past their college years, would benefit from sitting in on Professor Pine’s class.