Unprofessional Breastfeeding

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Above: My toddler, clearly a disruptive menace to the academic experience. It’s so obvious that children and families should be excluded from the higher education setting.

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I teach in the undergraduate setting. I am also a graduate student, a mother, a lactation educator, and a public health researcher. I wear a lot of hats. Each hat makes up a part of my positionality—the experiences I bring with me when I walk into a room. Because my experiences shape how I interact with my students, my instructors, my family, and my research, I make it a point to be transparent about my positionality. On day one of any course I teach, I talk to my students about the cumulative positionalities that make up our learning space. Each individual in the learning community brings unique experiences to the room. By acknowledging the importance of these experiences, we generate an invitation to learn from, and with, each other.

Given this inclusion of experiences, I tend not to draw hard and fast lines between different aspects of my life. I lack the luxury to do so. When my daughter, M, was two weeks old, I showed up to class with bags under my eyes and an infant attached to a leaking breast. Having a newborn in the professional setting was difficult. Between finding a place to change a diaper to managing our novice breastfeeding skills, there were more tears than moments of triumph.

Fast forward to today. M enjoys bouncing off walls, but excels in the academic setting (at least on the toddler scale). With the exception of the occasional fart, if she has something to color and some goldfish to eat she will sit through a 50-minute class session quietly. It is magical. So, when she was sent home from school with the stomach flu, I knew there was a high likelihood that I would be bringing an extra course assistant with me the following day. With my husband tied up with a birth, M joined me on campus. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to get a sub, this was the best solution.

So there we were. M enjoying her favorite movie, and me leading a midterm review session for my 55+ undergraduates. We weren’t ten minutes into class when I looked down at her and knew that the projectile vomit that I thought was a thing of the past, was returning. In one fluid mom-ninja move, I scooped her up, simultaneously catching the contents of her tiny belly in my hand.

The moment that followed felt like an eternity. I recall the nigh slow motion reaction of my horrified students, the feeling of soggy goldfish swimming in a warm puddle of digestive juices, and my daughter clinging to me as I held her tight.

I did what I had to do. I grabbed a pouch of wet wipes, a cup of hand sanitizer, my baby carrier, and within moments we were vomit free, reeking of rubbing alcohol, M was tucked close to my body, and I was moving forward with the planned lecture. She pawed gently at the neck of my shirt, and I responded without thinking, nursing my little girl in the dark cocoon of our baby carrier. She slept the rest of class, I responded to questions, and we covered our midterm review material.

So when I saw this in course evaluations, I took pause…

It’s unprofessional to breastfeed in front of the class.

Perhaps you took on more than you could handle, and shouldn’t be an instructor.

(The above comments have been paraphrased to uphold privacy considerations.)

 

Since that first day of class, with a two-week-old infant cradled in my arms, my daughter has grown taller, and my patience for asshats has grown smaller. So when my role as a parent became a point of contention in a recent course evaluation, you can imagine my tolerance level.

Being a parent has an impact on my positionality. I have become a master at stealth nursing. I have learned how to work in fifteen minutes bursts and after bedtime. More importantly, I have developed a more comprehensive understanding of inclusion.

I have also made mistakes and let things slip. But guess what-I also made mistakes before I became a parent. The difference now is that my mistakes can be attributed to the small human in my care. Clearly, I make mistakes because I am a mom. There’s no way I can juggle the responsibilities of being a mom, a graduate student, and a teacher. *coughBULLSHITcough*

My inability to multitask aside, TO ANYONE WHO EVER THINKS IT’S OKAY TO CALL BREASTFEEDING UNPROFESSIONAL, I feel it is my ethical duty as a public health professional and a lactation educator to help you brush up on the legality of the situation. It is within my LEGAL rights as a mother to breastfeed my child in any public place. It is ILLEGAL to harass a breastfeeding mother (RCW 49.60.030 and 49.60.215). So, to those individuals who were offended by my LEGAL RIGHT to breastfeed my child…

 

I’m sorry you felt uncomfortable. I would be happy to facilitate an opportunity for you to discuss your discomfort with other lactating moms. It might even be helpful to have a sit down with M, and express your feelings about how her needs disrupted your day. I will do my best to abide by your vision of “inclusion” in the future. Heaven forbid anything disrupt your campus experience, and challenge your paradigm.

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9 thoughts on “Unprofessional Breastfeeding

  1. I am so sorry for your experience, but I salute the way you handled the vomit situation in your class.You continued teaching and did not run away.This is called being professional !
    We need more awareness about breastfeeding.The media and popular culture objectifies breasts and everyone forgets about their primary purpose.
    I used to be self conscious during the early days but then feeding my daughter become more important to me than the stares and hussed whispers.To hell with them .I am not going to compromise my childs nutrition due to anyones prejudices.

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  2. I think you are conflating two things; breastfeeding, and professionalism. I am pro both, and I would still say that it is not professional to be “multitasking”, as you put it, while teaching.

    The fact that breastfeeding is protected in public doesn’t extend to providing a right to breastfeed while actually working, you are misinterpreting the scope of the code that you reference.

    It is frustrating that you had to do this though; with decent family leave, you would be able to care for your child without having to go in to stealth mode and try and keep teaching at the same time.

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    1. From a legal perspective, I am protected to breastfeed my in any public place, including the public institution that I work at. Wash. Rev. Code § 9A.88.010 (2001) states that the act of breastfeeding or expressing breast milk is not indecent exposure (HB 1590), while Wash. Rev. Code § 49.60.30(g) provides that it is the right of a mother to breastfeed her child in any place of public (2009 Wash. Laws, Chap. 164, HB 1596). Finally, Wash. Rev. Code § 49.60.215 states that it is an unfair practice for any person to discriminate against a mother breastfeeding her child in any place of public resort, accommodations, assemblage or amusement (2009 Wash. Laws, Chap. 164, HB 1596). While I certainly understand the differentiation you elude to, provided I am doing the job I was hired for, which I was, my supervisor remains supportive and my rights are protected. I do understand what you are saying though, and if I were employed at a private institution, was not able to do my job, or did not have a supportive supervisor, this conversation would look different, even in light of the current legislation. Thanks for your thoughts!!

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  3. Is that because UW is a public university? I was under the impression that the protections don’t apply to employees – it’s stated that way in multiple state documents – the ones that also outline the responsibility of employers to accommodate lactating mothers (RCW 43.70.640) – these guidelines also only protect a nursing employee for 12 months. I’m glad that your supervisor is supporting you. If it’s part of your approved arrangement with your employer then it is, of course, professional.

    I’m particularly interested in this as I also teach and have been on the point of bringing my baby to class on two occasions, but didn’t because I believed it was not legally protected. I have however had my employers’ support when taking breaks to pump, and bringing children to non-teaching events like meetings or orientation events.

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    1. Good points all around—here are my thoughts, and how I interpret my legal rights.

      As a public institution, anywhere on campus that my child is allowed, my rights as a nursing mother are protected, even as an employee. It would be completely reasonable for my employer to request that I not bring my child with me to class. That is within their rights, as UW isn’t one of the Washington State Agencies that has enacted the new “Infant-at-Work Program Policy.” (And even if they were, most infant-at-work programs only pertain to children between 6 weeks and 6 months of age.)

      You are correct–My rights as a nursing employee are only protected up to my child’s first birthday. Until that magical 1-year celebration, my rights to express milk when I need to are protected in the state of Washington. But there are no legal guidelines surrounding what “expressing milk” looks like. I may choose to use a pump. I may opt for hand expression, but I may also choose to nurse my child as a means of expression. Many continuing education opportunities throughout Seattle invite mothers to do this. Clearly there are scheduling considerations to work out for many moms, but from a legal perspective your rights to express milk, in any fashion, are protected in your place of employment until your child is 12 months of age. But, legally an employer can’t ask you about your kids for employment purposes–so why make a big deal about your kiddo’s big day? 😉

      (Clearly there’s room for improvement here. There are frequently issues ensuring the employer is compliant. But also, what to do for women who have lost a child but still want to pump milk as a means of bereavement, or for those mothers who have induced lactation for a child they did not carry. Their rights as lactating mothers ought to be preserved as well.)

      I am grateful my employer still allows me to utilize my break time in a manner than I see fit–to continue to pump once a day while I am away (this also meets a biological need—the one time I went the day without pumping, I got a plugged duct that took weeks to resolve! I also acknowledge I’m one of the few women I know that actually likes my pumping time–it’s a quiet point of the day where I can sit, relax, but still feel productive!) But I know that’s not the norm. wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a society that was more supportive of breastfeeding beyond 12 months?

      But you raise a valid concern. The current language seems to differentiate the rights of a mother in the *professional* setting and the rights of the mother in the *public* setting. It is unclear where that line is actually drawn, or even if it is. And there’s also the issue of duration of your protections as an employee versus as a member of the public. My feeling is there’s enough grey area to afford a little wiggle room, and depending on your state of residence, I say focus on what’s best for you and your child. It might be worthwhile to talk to your supervisor about it, but if your child it under 12 months of age, your rights to express milk, into a cup or into your child’s mouth, are protected. 🙂

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      1. I wish the American Association of Pediatricians would get on board with the WHO to recommend breastfeeding up to age 2. And then I wish the laws would be changed to protect mothers expelling milk (via breastfeeding, pumping, etc.) both in public and in the workplace, to align with that recommendation.

        But this is one of only so many things I would love to change about our current system.

        What agencies have infant-at-work programs?

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  4. I am glad you are making breastfeeding more public even with some dissatisfied students- most of them don’t understand yet what would it mean to be a parent and one day pprobably will think that they had such a good example from their lecturer. Looking back when I was at uni in Uk I would probably not be very happy with lecturer’s toddler around but those were silly young days when I thought I’d never have kids..

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