Adrienne Pine was in a jam. The assistant anthropology professor at American University was about to begin teaching “Sex, Gender & Culture,” but her baby daughter woke up in the morning with a fever. The single mother worried that she had no good child-care options.
So Pine brought her sick baby to class. The baby, in a blue onesie, crawled on the floor of the lecture hall during part of the 75-minute class two weeks ago, according to the professor’s account. The mother extracted a paper clip from the girl’s mouth at one point and shooed her away from an electrical outlet. A teaching assistant held the baby and rocked her at times, volunteering to help even though Pine stressed that she didn’t have to. When the baby grew restless, Pine breast-fed her while continuing her lecture in front of 40 students.
Now Pine finds herself at the center of a debate over whether she did the right thing that day and what the ground rules are for working parents who face such child-care dilemmas.
1) First and foremost, the issue here is if breastfeeding mothers have an equal place in our society or not. Especially working, single mothers.
In the real world, single parents are likely to have some sort of conflict once or twice a year for the first five years of their kid’s life. (There are some single parents who never have such conflicts, ever, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.) Unless we’re going to say that it’s never acceptable for a single breastfeeding mom to hold a professional job, then I think we have to accept that sometimes it’s up to us to just grow the fuck up a little and not panic and wig out because BOOOOOOOBS!
The idea that childrearing should be absolutely separate from the work world is a leftover from the past, when a large number of middle class families could afford having a “wife at home” taking care of kids while Dad worked (and secretly drank). We don’t live in that world anymore; we live in a world where, typically, children are raised either by two working parents or by a single parent. It is inevitable that sometimes work and home overlap, and sneering or yelling at breastfeeding mothers is exactly the wrong reaction.
Amanda sums it up nicely:
Funny how we live in a society that both expects women, especially highly educated and ambitious women, to breast feed, but forbids them to do so while pursuing their ambitions. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think pushing women out of positions of prestige and power and back into the home was a feature and not a bug of this system.
2) Many comments I’ve read about this have been stuffed full of drive-by mothering. The child was allowed to crawl on a floor! Shocking! She had to take a paper clip out of its mouth! Shocking! Etc, etc. Makes me wonder if these people have ever met an actual infant. Seriously, the things are like a cross between a stumbling drunk and a vacuum cleaner.
3) Professor Pine did herself no favors with her essay, which seemed (as Amanda put it) pedantic and defensive, and I’d add just plain obnoxious (especially towards a student reporter who Pine casts as a villain). My favorite part is Pine’s sneer towards “lactivism,” which she describes as “hopelessly bourgeois… marauding bands of lactating white women.”1 Pine gives the strong impression that if this had happened to some other professor, Professor Pine herself would have been on the side of the critics.
But that’s okay. Rights are not the exclusive domain of gracious people.
4) A lot of folks arguing against Pine’s action say they’re only concerned with the students best interests. Jack at Ethics Alarms writes:
Was she engaged in personal duties and matters while being paid by the university to devote 100% of her attentions to her students? Yes. Is this professional and ethical? No. Was she in a fix—sure: I don’t care. It wasn’t the students’ crisis, and they should not have been involuntarily made part of the solution.
In the article, she unambiguously explains that her only choices (that she could see) were cancelling the opening class of the course, or bringing the baby with her. Jack argues that she should have conducted an email survey of students to find out what they’d prefer — as if such a thing were at all possible to write, send, get responses to, and compile on the morning of the class. Realistically, it does sometimes happen that single parents are faced with the choice Pine describes – either cancel work or bring the baby.
Let’s agree, for arguments sake, that our only concern should be fairness to the students. How is cancelling the class session entirely fairer to the students, exactly?
Several years ago, I would have been a student who took an hourlong bus and walk to get to the university. I walk up the three flights of stairs, overpriced textbook in hand, and reach either a closed, locked door with a “cancelled” note taped to it, OR a classroom where Professor Pine hands out the syllabus and says the usual first-day-of-class stuff for 75 minutes, but she also spends a few minutes intermittently dealing with the baby.
If the measure of value is “Professor Pine’s attention,” then obviously I get more value if Pine is there with a baby than if she’s not there at all. Aren’t I better off with 95% of her attention than zero percent?
5) In my life, public breast-feeding is unremarkable. Nearly every mother I’ve known who has a small baby, breast-feeds it while chatting (during games, during lunch, whatever), and it’s no big deal, just as it’s not a big deal if I pull out my sketchbook and start drawing while talking.
Is this a cultural thing? Are there still huge segments of the country where breast-feeding is treated as something that’s — well, if not shameful, exactly — then secret? Indecent to do in public? I’m sure there are. But I don’t see any advantages to treating breast-feeding that way. It seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble and fuss.
6) Remember this isn’t about just Professor Pine. Our reaction to her says a lot about how we react to working women generally, and to babies.
I was a wedding coordinator for 14 years, and I attended thousands of weddings. Probably there was a baby crying somewhere in the room in a quarter of those weddings. Sometimes a parent would rush out of the chapel with the baby, and I’d guide them to an area with comfy chairs, and they were always very apologetic. I’d tell them not to worry about it; crying babies have been part of weddings for thousands of years, after all.
Don’t get me wrong — I know babies can be disruptive. I’ve been at meetings and games where a baby in hand was crying, or shouting, or needed to be removed from the room and tended for a while while everyone else twiddled their thumbs. I’ve suffered on airplanes. Babies: noisy and inconsiderate of my needs. I get that.
But babies are an essential part of society. Without babies – preferably well-cared for babies – there are no future adults to take care of me when I’m old enough to need help with my diapers once more.
If Professor Pine intended to bring her baby to every class session, then I’d want her to warn her students ahead of time. But that’s not what happened here. Pine had an emergency and chose to prioritize not cancelling class. She has day care arrangements for the class generally, but on that one day her arrangements fell through because the baby was sick. By the next day she had arranged for a babysitter.
In short, it seems to me that Pine did absolutely everything she could reasonably do to prevent the baby from interfering with her class. To ask more of her than that is unreasonable. What we should do, instead, is realize that it’s not a big deal to have to be in the same room as a baby once in a while. It might not be ideal. If the baby screams or cries, that’s annoying.
But we’re grown-ups (or at least, we’re college students learning to become grown-ups). We should be able to deal with it graciously and then forget about it.
That’s what life is like in a society in which women – even mothers with babies — are equal members of society. That’s what life is like in a society which accepts that babies are part of life.
- Pine also comments “It could be argued that my ability to breastfeed in public has been won on the breasts of so many women who have fought for that right, and that I’m ungrateful to them.” No kidding. [↩]