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.

Camie Goldhammer, chairman of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition, held her daughter Johanna, 6 months, after testifying before the Seattle City Council, April 9, 2012, on a municipal law that would make it illegal to discriminate against public breastfeeding.

So, an American University assistant professor breastfeeds her baby in class. Before you know it, there’s a Washington D.C.-meets-academia scandal at hand, complete with dogged journalists, passive-aggressive official responses, outraged defensiveness, female body parts, and a nice dose of commentary about concepts like “white privilege” and “gendered essentialism.”

It all makes me incredibly tired. And squeamish.

Not, mind you, because of the breasts involved. No, it seems to me that we should just get over our cultural issue with those. (And that goes for the people who don’t think women should be seen nursing their babies, as well as for the in-your-face, here’s-my-breast lactation soldier. I’d venture that we can all just relax.)

But squeamish I feel. 

In large part, I’ll admit, this is because the student journalists involved in this kerfuffle (“The Eagle,” the university’s student newspaper, plays a leading role) remind me of my own career as a college gumshoe, and it makes me want to cover up my ears and say “la la la” until the image goes away. 

But there is unease for other reasons. When I read assistant professor Adrienne Pine’s essay on the website, entitled “The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet,” I couldn’t help but feel that somehow we’re all missing the point.

To back up here, in case you missed the news reports about this: About a month ago, on the first day of her course “Sex, Gender & Culture” (I love that detail), Professor Pine, a single mother, woke up to find her baby daughter with a fever. Stuck without child care – she didn’t want to bring a sick baby to day care – Pine had the choice to either cancel class or take her daughter to work with her. She chose the latter.

So, the baby spent the 75-minute class either on Pine’s back, crawling around the floor, or being held by a teaching assistant. At one point, Pine nursed the infant. 

“When Lee grew restless, I briefly fed her without stopping [the] lecture, and much to my relief, she fell asleep,” Pine wrote in her essay. “The end of class came none too soon, and I was happy to be able to take the bus home and put my sad baby in bed where she belonged. It seemed like things had gone as well as they could, given the circumstances.”

But then a college newspaper reporter e-mailed.  And here, Pine gets snarky.  See, according to Pine’s recount of the e-mail, this reporter, Heather Mongilio, asked to talk about what happened in class, while saying that she understood “the delicacy of the matter and I do not want to make you feel uncomfortable.”

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.)

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.

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