The Mother of All Debates

this post is dripping with valid arguments

Today I want to take a moment to stir up a little lively debate about working mothers. (Or, for those of you who are bored by the topic, let’s just say it’s about BOOBIES!)

Now that I have everyone’s attention…

Last week I read about a professor who breastfed her child while teaching a class. Students in the class complained to the administration about it. Quite a debate has ensued around the topic.

Some commenters looked at it as an issue of discrimination against breastfeeding mothers. Others, like me, looked at it from a gender-neutral standpoint. A couple of women on the comment boards disagreed with me. Read the article and let me know what you think. I would love to hear some opinions, even if you disagree with me. Let’s have a debate!

Excerpt from the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

A report in The Washington Post tells how Adrienne Pine has a baby daughter who woke up with a fever. Pine, a single mother, was worried she had no good options for a sick baby, so she brought her daughter to the “Sex, Gender & Culture” class she was due to teach on Aug. 28. When the baby grew restless during the class, Pine breast-fed her while continuing her lecture in front of about 40 students.

According to the Post: “On Tuesday morning, university officials issued a statement about the incident that seemed to indicate some disapproval of Pine’s actions, generally citing them as a health issue because the baby was sick. But school officials also noted that the situation was one that could confront any parent with multiple responsibilities. The university emphasized that faculty members should take advantage of options such as sick leave, break times and private areas for nursing mothers to express milk so they can “maintain a focus on professional responsibilities in the classroom.”

Do you think Pine’s actions were appropriate, given the setting and circumstances? Or was her decision to breastfeed her baby during a lecture a distraction to her students?

Many of the comments centered around the issue of the breastfeeding itself, rushing to say that women should breastfeed anywhere and everywhere. “Breastfeeding is natural! How dare anyone try to shame mothers!” they cried. But my opinion is that it wasn’t about the boobs. It was about the baby. There are plenty of things that are perfectly natural to do, but are not appropriate in certain situations, such as a workplace.

For example, farting is natural. But I wouldn’t do it in a business meeting. Eating a bowl of soup is perfectly acceptable, but I wouldn’t do it while giving a presentation. It’s not that farting or eating are gross or wrong. It’s that they are distractions in that setting. It’s all about context.

So I posted this comment:

Annie Haarmann I disagree with the assertion that women should be able to breastfeed “anywhere, anytime.” First of all, it’s highly inappropriate to bring a child to any workplace, sick or not. Secondly, it’s unprofessional to tend to a child while you are supposed to be doing your job. Thirdly, it was disrespectful to the students in her class who didn’t get the full attention of their professor. I would feel the same way if someone brought a baby to my office for the day.

Which received this reply:

Rachel Duncan And therein lies the problem with our country. What else is a mother supposed to do Annie? Do you know that there are some countries who actually pay the women to stay home with their kids. Raising a child here in America does not get any where near that kind of respect.

To which I responded:

Annie Haarmann Rachel Duncan: “What else is a mother supposed to do Annie?” There are plenty of things a mother can do to avoid putting the burden/distraction of her infant on other people. Babysitters, sick days, working from home – to name a few. There are plenty of places where it is inappropriate to bring an infant. A classroom is one of them. “Raising a child here in America does not get any where near that kind of respect.” So, mothers should get respect, but don’t have to show respect to anyone else? If a coworker brought an infant into a meeting at my workplace, I would feel tremendously disrespected. If I were one of those students, I would have felt tremendously disrespected. It’s totally inappropriate to bring any distractions like that into a professional workplace. It puts a burden on everyone else who is trying to listen to a lesson, attend a meeting or do their job.

To which she replied:

Rachel Duncan I guess seeing the repercussions of sexual activity in a class about sexual activity is bad idea huh Annie. It was so distracting. Did you read her blog and what she had to say?

And I responded:

Annie Haarmann Rachel, yes. In fact, her description of the event proves my point. Here’s what she had to say: “The flow of my lecture was interrupted once by ‘Professor, your son has a paper-clip in his mouth’ (I promptly extracted it without correcting my students’ gendered assumptions) and again when she crawled a little too close to an electrical outlet.” A baby crawling around, eating paper clips is clearly not a classroom distraction.

Then another commenter wrote:

Christine Lund You obviously know nothing about breast feeding. Once they attach to you, they don’t need any attention. Please, talk about things you know about personally. And you are a woman?

So, I responded:

Annie Haarmann Christine Lund: “You obviously know nothing about breast feeding.” I know a lot about it, and I support it. “Please, talk about things you know about personally.” I am talking about something I know about personally. I have personally experienced the distraction of having a fussy infant brought into my place of work. It was a huge distraction to everyone trying to work. “And you are a woman?” Indeed. I support equal rights for women in the workplace. If a man had brought a baby to my classroom and fed him a bottle, I’d be making all of the same arguments. Challenging me on the basis of gender is condescending and insulting.

And that’s when I thought this topic would be a great way to stir up some conversation on my blog. What do you think? Do you think this is an issue of professionalism? Or am I discriminating against mothers? I’m interested to hear from my friends who are the mothers out there.

11 comments

  1. Annie,
    I agree with your sentiments. There’s a time and a place for everything. Here, in America, we have so many more services and options available to us than there are in so many other parts of the world. Why don’t people take advantage of those resources? Because they don’t want to. They’d rather inconvenience other people and project their issues onto those people.

    I was also shocked when the professor admitted that her child was getting close to the electrical socket and she passed it off as “not a big deal” when a student interrupted to tell her so. This whole situation just makes my head spin.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing. I also appreciate how diplomatic you were about your responses– even after someone insinuated that you weren’t a woman.

  2. Hey Annie,
    I think the bigger issue is exposing healthy people to a potential sickness.
    Breastfeeding in public, while not approved by some, is not illegal. I understand your concern for distraction & lack of professionalism. This is not a repeated event by this professor and debating a one-time incident in which I have no experience seems like a waste of my time. While I think she had alternatives that day and possibly didn’t consider them thoroughly, I can sympathize with her instinct to try and make the best decision for her child that day.

    • Christine, you’re right. Although I’m not above stirring up some debate in order to increase activity on my blog. I guess I’m kind of a troll in that regard. And maybe I took the comments from those two strangers a little personally. I’ll admit that.

  3. Ah Annie, always enjoy your posts. As a working mother who grew up going to work with her parents (family business) and who currently drags her three kids with her to work (family business) I have not known it any other way. All of my kids have been in the store within 2 weeks of being born out of necessity because as a business owner I don’t get 12 weeks maternity leave. (Yes I am a little bitter but life must go on.) I must say I am personally not comfortable whipping out a teet when they are hungry and think that would be quite the distraction while making blizzards:) Sometimes there aren’t any other options. Luckily for her, she gets sick leave so yes the students miss a class but everyone survives. Probably would have been the best option, esp if her child had a fever. Seriously what mother wants to take a sick kid to work? Not this one. Way to stressful. I feel like the teacher could have handled the situation a little differently and make it a positive learning experience for her 40 students. Something like “Hey life doesn’t always follow the plan but that doesn’t mean I get to take off work today. Kid needs attention and you as my students need the information. So we go with this and make it work.” Show how it is possible to multitask and be successful.
    I fully support breastfeeding but am not comfortable with it in public, although now on my 4th kid I am getting used to it. I think there are more private places to do that which makes it more comfortable for the mother and nursing child. What if something happened and your cover fell down while during the lecture? Um Akward. Pumping and bottle feeding to get through the day work in a squeeze.
    My situation is not the same as your work place situation where it is an office setting, etc. I think that would be a lot harder to not be a distraction to the mother and the other employees. School setting goes the same – but if it is a one time thing I think flexiblity is in order, but from your exerpts on the teacher’s blog it doesn’t sound like she really had control of that situation (paperclip in mouth, outlet).
    Just some food for thought:)
    Susan

    • Susan, firstly, congrats on your new addition! Secondly, I agree. Some jobs have different environments. I think it’s all about context. And I also can’t help but think there’s a joke in here about making milkshakes. But don’t worry, I won’t go there. 😉 Thanks for taking the time to check out my post!

  4. As a breast-feeding mommy-to-be in a few months, I agree with your arguement Annie. This story is not about what she did in the classroom, but that she shouldn’t have been there with a baby in the first place. It is about professionalism. As an University employee myself, it would not be acceptable to do this, no matter the topic of the lecture or class. Bottomline, her professionalism is in question, not the matter of breast-feeding or not.

  5. I honestly don’t have enough time to write out all my thoughts!!! I don’t comment a lot on the breast feeding issue but here goes what I can write now…
    1. I am all for mothers breastfeeding. I am one who has.
    2. women should be able to breastfeed in public.
    3. women who breast feed in public should get respect… but they should also show some respect to others around them.
    4. In this teachers case, if she was concerned about her “sick” child, and making sure the baby had breast milk shouldn’t she also be concerned about the paper clip and outlet?!?! I know it’s last minuted, but most nursing moms have some sort of milk supply. What does she do when she is usually teaching when the baby isn’t sick? doesn’t she send milk with the baby? if the class was 40 minutes, yes, the baby might need to eat right then, but honestly… I’ve fed my kids a little early if we have something or a little late… there were so many options. I think she was just one of those trying to prove a point.
    5. Why is it ok to take a sick kid to work when they aren’t allowed at day care?

    As I mentioned, I’ve been both a SAHM (which is a job that deserves a lot of respect and is EXTREMELY hard (not that you have said different…. just me on my soap box) and now I work part time. Even with my husband to help it’s super hard when the kids are sick. I really don’t know how single parents do it – major, MAJOR KUDOS to them!!! This mom is doing a good job, however, I think this was a poorly thought out. Even if she prefaced the lecture with something about it…

    I feel like I could go on and on (and this almost let to a rant about the ridiculousness of people suing for no reason… what happens when she sues the university for defamation of character or some b/c like that… I could see it happening!) Bottom line – breastfeeding in public=ok. showing no discretion = not ok.

  6. i dont really think its about discrimination, but i dont agree at all that it is any way unprofessional. I can remember countless times as a child when i or a sibling or a friend was sick and no other arrangements could be made, and you i/they spent the day at the office with a parent. obviously as a lecturer you can hardly work from home, if she hadnt shown such commitment for her job and shown up despite her sick baby the class would surely have just been cancelled? its just a little person! a sick baby is never gonna make a student seated at a desk 10 meters away sick too, as they would with other children they are crawling around and sucking on toys with. once there, if the child was hungry the best thing is to feed it, and breastfeeding is how mothers feed their children. would it have been less distracting for the child to be crying with hunger? should the mother have expressed her milk before hand and bottle fed her child whilst holding it against the breasts where the milk originally came from? whilst i probably would have just taken a sick day (i am always missing things because of my child and then being told later “oh dont be silly, she could have come! including in professional and student matters) i personally feel this mother acted perfectly naturally the whole way through and im surprised the matter ever left the room. its hardly amazing, strange or in any way news worthy? (but good for a nice debate! ) 😉

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