Breastfeeding professor: Students get lesson in nursing debate
A professor who nursed her baby in front of her class at American University has become the latest breastfeeding controversy – and all sides are missing a chance to have a deeper, inclusive discussion about the unresolved challenges of childcare access, women's employment, and work-family balance.
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Pine wrote that she was “shocked and annoyed” at the e-mail’s anti-woman implications, that nursing her baby would be considered “delicate” or “uncomfortable.” Later, as Ms. Mongilio pursues her story – even having the nerve to try to interview Pine in person! What shoddy journalism they’re teaching over there – Pine becomes ever more offended, writing disparagingly about how the young reporter called her breastfeeding in class an “incident” and how the student newspaper overall was anti-feminist. (She quoted a rather unfortunate and unrelated date rape column to prove her point.)Skip to next paragraph
is a longtime Monitor correspondent. She lives in Andover, Mass. with her husband, her two young daughters, a South African Labrador retriever and an imperialist cat..
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Meanwhile, the university has not appeared particularly pleased with its professor, noting in classic institutional language that perhaps sick babies do best at home. According to the Washington Post, here’s part of the university’s position statement:
“A faculty member’s conduct in the classroom must be professional. Faculty may maintain a focus on professional responsibilities in the classroom by taking advantage of the options the university provides, including reasonable break times, private areas for nursing mothers to express milk, and leave in the case of a sick child.”
There’s a lot wrong with all of this.
Firstly: Sure, the young reporter’s questions show a good deal of naiveté. Just because breastfeeding involves breasts doesn’t mean that it is an uncomfortable topic. And just because a situation involves breastfeeding doesn’t mean that it’s really about nursing – here, for instance, we have many deeper issues about women’s employment, child care access, and work-family balance, particularly for single moms.
But the journalist is a student. It’s hard to blame her for not navigating in the most academically-accepted or progressive way what is surely a culturally fraught topic. After all, we're in an environment where a woman nursing her toddler is featured on the cover of Time magazine and a woman nursing her baby is kicked off a Delta flight.
Then we have the professor, who, understandably, seems annoyed that this personal experience has become so publicized. But do we have to get all nasty about it? Pine wrote that she had a disinclination to use her daughter as a teaching tool, which, again, I get. But why not, once the baby’s in class, anyhow? Rather than getting her back up, Pine could have used the chance to have an open, detailed, and kind conversation with a journalist who had a mouthpiece to the university community.
And then there’s the university response. In a lot of ways, it seems pretty darn progressive. In its statement, it marks off all the boxes of a good-for-families workplace – flexibility, nursing facilities, and so on. But clearly, in this situation, its policies weren’t enough.
So where does that leave us? With everyone peeved.
Everyone involved in this story seems to be trying to do the “right” thing. But there is massive disconnect, along with a good dose of frustration.
And this, perhaps, hits at the root of the difficulties surrounding parenthood in today’s working American culture. Which is why, I think, I am squeamish. By turning this into the latest breastfeeding controversy, with outrage all around, we are missing a chance to have a deeper, inclusive discussion about those unresolved challenges.