It’s Not About The Nipple

Today’s timely post is written by Prof. Anne Flaherty, who teaches in the Poltical Science Department.  She notes that in addition to her work at SIUE, she has three children and is currently nursing the youngest (although not in the classroom.)

A friend of mine sent me an article to read from The Washington Post
about a professor who has been in the news in Washington DC.  The
basic scenario is this: Professor wakes up on the first day of class,
has a sick baby and no back up care, and decides to conduct class
anyway with baby in tow.  During class proceedings, baby gets hungry.
Professor feeds baby, baby falls asleep, class finishes, end of story.
Or not.

Faculty and staff at our institution are likely to remember the raging
discussion of last year, in which multiple new policies ranging from
dress codes to video surveillance were the subject of a torrent of
debates, emails and quiet discussions.  Among those policies inflaming
debate was a section on children, including a rule that would have
prohibited employees from bringing their children to campus
“regularly” during business hours and a blanket prohibition on sick
children.  A valid point of the discussion, regarding many of the
policies, was that as responsible, rational adults who have in fact
been hired due to their intelligence, perhaps faculty members might be
able to exercise their judgement.  It may not be a gross health
violation to bring a child with a cough onto campus to pick up work,
and not overwhelmingly disruptive to others to be working in your
office with a quiet kid for a few hours.  The many dimensions of our
academic workspace also seem to encourage flexibility (within reason).
So, depending on whether I am working on research from home, teaching
a class, giving a guest lecture to an outside organization, sitting in
a committee meeting, or engaging in another aspect of life as a
professor, I recognize that there are key differences in terms of my
conduct and professionalism.  I rarely lead class in my pajamas, and I
equally rarely grade papers on my couch while wearing a suit.

In my opinion, trying to teach a class at an American institution with
a sick baby in tow is probably outside of that realm of reasonable and
responsible decision making.  It may not be welcoming, gender
including, or even just that young children are generally excluded
from so many aspects of the workplace in our society, but they are.  I
know that even if I, as a professor, felt quite comfortable with a
baby in a lecture style setting, for students it is  may well be quite
distracting, inconvenient, and not at all conducive to effective
teaching or student learning.

I also find it hard to imagine taking a baby to many (not all, but
many) jobs in our country and not have it be a problem.  I understand
not wanting to cancel class (or miss an important and long scheduled
meeting, or lose your hourly wage, or deal with a host of other
drawbacks or inconveniences), but the reality of parenthood in our
society is that you are, at times, put in that situation.  To me, this
incident raises questions about how a parent juggling multiple roles
can manage between home and work and the tensions that that causes.
It also relates to question of what constitutes a family friendly work
environment, and whether or not that can- or should- be more open.
This case could even legitimately prompt a discussion of what sort of
rights students have in terms of the classroom environment and the
attention of their instructor.

But as you may have guessed by the title of the post, some of the
discussion is headed elsewhere.  Because when the baby got hungry, the
professor, a nursing mother, fed the baby at her breast.  This act,
sadly, is what initially caught more attention than she would have
gotten otherwise.

I do have to wonder, had she given the baby a bottle, would there have
been reporting on the incident at all?  Had the parent in question
been a father, what would the reaction have been?  And that is what
frustrates me to no end.  Is the interest in the story really just
because she nursed the baby?  Certainly, that is what the professor in
question, Dr. Adrienne Pine, felt:

“So here’s the story, internet: I fed my sick baby during feminist
anthropology class without disrupting the lecture so as to not have to
cancel the first day of class. I doubt anyone saw my nipple, because
I’m pretty good at covering it. But if they did, they now know that I
too, a university professor, like them, have nipples. Or at least that
I have one.”

Dr. Pine’s posting describes the myriad places she has breastfed
without concern or undue attention.  She writes that this incident is
the only time she has felt attacked or given particular attention
because of nursing her child. I think that she is missing an important
observation.   I would argue that the difference between all of those
other places (from public transportation to a plenary lecture) are
likely places where it was appropriate to have a child with you to
begin with.  This particular work space- the classroom – is not one of
them.   And it is that dynamic that deserves attention, not her
breast.

There is certainly a cause to debate the social creation of work
spaces that do not allow for children or that ignore the dynamics of
parenthood and familial obligations.  In fact, I hope that her course
on “Sex, Gender, and Culture” does just that.  As far as I am
concerned, that is the question here.   But while I can argue that how
the baby was fed should not even be part of the consideration, it is
pretty clear even from the title of The Washington Post story that
breastfeeding is the angle that gets the attention.   And that is my
primary concern.  The concern should be about the presence of the
child in the classroom. Period.

Instead, by contextualizing the situation as one of nursing, the
media- and also Dr. Pine- have reverted to a focus on women’s bodies,
women’s choices as mothers, and to the accompanying divisive debates.
The portrayal of this incident furthers the dangerous underlying
thread that motherhood is fundamentally incompatible with the
workplace. It also contributes in my view to media attention that
portrays breastfeeding mothers as extreme and outside of the norm.
Time Magazine’s cover story, “Are You Mom Enough” is just one example
(and don’t get me started on that!).  At times it seems as though any
coverage on parenting and childrearing, particularly relating to
mothers’ employment and feeding choices, is designed primarily to
exacerbate conflict among women.  I do not have the skills – or space,
in a blog post- to explore these concerns here, but they are an
essential element of the concerns that I want to raise related to this
particular story.

As a positive outcome of this publicity, I recognize that the incident
and the coverage of it might offer an opportunity to enter into a
valuable discussion of what it actually means to be a family or female
friendly workplace, a candid assessment of gender roles and
parenthood, expectations of academic setting for both students and
instructors, or for visiting the public fascination with women’s
“forbidden” bodies.   I certainly hope that my many eloquent and
insightful colleagues take the opportunity to address these issues, as
they will do so far better than I ever could.

But I, for one, wish that attention would stay centered on the
question of the presence of children in the workplace and what that
means in terms of how we socially, legally, and even politically
construct expectations of work and workspaces. None of this should be
about how the children are fed if they are there.  Can we get past
that?   Its not always about the nipple.  Or at least it shouldn’t be.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “It’s Not About The Nipple

  1. Dayna Henry

    As a new mom who is still nursing, I can understand why it might be tempting to bring a baby to work. However, I believe that doing so is a distraction for you as the professor and the students in the class. For this same reason, I do not allow my students to bring their children to class. It’s distracting to the learning environment. Even on my daughters best day, I wouldn’t bring her to the office for more than a short visit because it would be distracting to my colleagues. If she’s crying, it disrupts others work and if she’s happy, people want to play with her instead of getting their work done. I agree with professor Flaherty that the issue here is not about nursing in front of the class, but that she had to make the decision to bring her child to class in the first place. While the laws protect a nursing moms rights to breast feed in public, the current recommendations to exclusively breast feed for at least 6 months need to be supported by more family friendly work policies to help make this happen. Paid maternity leave for at least 6 months would have prevented this decision from needing to be made in the first place.

  2. Catherine Seltzer

    I’m so glad we’re having this conversation!

    For a long time I shared the belief that children shouldn’t be in the classroom. A few years ago, though, I had a young couple enrolled in one of my courses. They had a very young son –I want to say that he was about 6 months old at the beginning of the semester but I can’t quite recall—and they were both trying to make progress toward graduation. They wanted to take my class and they had worked out a plan together so that if their son was crying, they would be able to handle it immediately. As a mother to an infant myself, I was highly skeptical. (At that point I felt some guilt about taking my daughter to the post office, let alone a classroom. She was a LOUD baby.) One of our Women’s Studies colleagues urged me to give them a chance, though: she had had the couple in her summer course, and admired the fact that they were highly responsible students and dedicated parents. I did, with all kinds of nervous caveats, and everything worked out much better than I might have imagined: the class met in the middle of the baby’s morning nap, and most students seemed unaware of his presence. The students who did talk to the parents or coo at the baby on their way into class seemed to benefit from being exposed to daily realities so different from their own. No one ever complained, and there were no comments about the baby on student evaluations. The student-parents both did excellent work in the course, contributing regularly to our discussions and producing insightful papers.

    This is not to say that I think children should always be welcomed in the college classroom. I’ve had negative experiences as well: there was an occasion when a mother who was in a pinch brought her daughter to class with her on a day when we were discussing a text that was difficult for adults and certainly inappropriate for kids. I was sympathetic to her situation, but in that case it was clear that having the student’s daughter in the classroom would have had a serious impact on the way we discussed the novel (and, incidentally, may have been upsetting to the young girl.)

    My point, then, is that I don’t believe in hard and fast rules. Did Prof. Pine make the right call? I don’t know, but if there are ways we can make it easier for people to juggle their responsibilities as students or faculty and as parents, then we should be open to them. As both Danya and Anne have pointed out that needs to happen at the institutional level first: faculty need maternity and paternity leave that is based on the semester system rather than an arbitrary 6 or 8 weeks that doesn’t account for the college calendar; faculty should be able to stop the tenure clock without stigma because of changes in their families—births, adoptions, sick parents or partners, etc.; the campus must include clean, private spaces to feed and change babies; the excellent and affordable campus childcare program available to students and faculty now should be expanded; and, in an ideal world, SIUE would offer “back-up care” as one of its benefits. (A version of this service available to Washington University employees, for example, subsidizes in-home care so that faculty can teach classes on days when their children are mildly sick.) Most of all, we want to create a culture where we can talk about the fact that many of us occupy multiple roles: we are students, faculty, and staff, but we are also parents, children, and partners. Our need to care for others—to feed them, to tend to them when they are ill—shouldn’t be a source of anxiety and even shame. I believe that we are at SIUE because we want to do our best work for one another. Faculty are loathe to cancel class for any reason, and students want to attend class. Those class hours are among the most important in the week: it is time carved out for a focused exploration of the disciplines to which we are devoted. If we acknowledge these shared values, can’t we also acknowledge the values that inform our lives outside of the classroom as well, helping one another in our myriad goals, to be excellent students and teachers, say, as well as excellent parents and caretakers?

  3. Erin Murphy

    I think this post raises some great questions, and I agree with Dayna’s comment. I’m also a nursing mother to a baby who just turned 6 months. I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to nurse him in class, or the confidence that I could manage taking care of him and lecture at the same time. (I have in a few instances allowed the kids of students to attend class, but I don’t as a rule. But they also aren’t running the class.)

    But that aside, like Anne points out, had I brought him when he was sick the second week of class and held him in a sling and bottle fed him, I wonder if it would have elicited the same response the Anthropologist experienced. I doubt it. (Fortunately, my partner has sick days he utilized.) But, I wholeheartedly agree the real issue is that she was put in the position to feel she had to make the decision in the first place. I hope this instance can help keep the institutional issues of family-friendly policies on the table, so that parents and caretakers are reliably supported through stated policies (not just through lip service or the kindnesses of our colleagues, which is helpful but not the answer), which in turn will help us be happy, productive professionals free of so often feeling the tensions of role conflict or the guilt of putting out others who offer to help in a pinch.

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