Two weeks ago, I was at a Chicago dinner party with Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist for Politics Dailey and author of the FLOTUS blog on Michelle Obama. Sweet was in town covering Rahm Emanuel’s successful race to replace mayor Richard M. Daley. After dinner Sweet remarked on the surprising media response to her Daily Flotus piece about the first lady’s support of breastfeeding legislation.
Mrs. Obama is promoting breastfeeding as part of her “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity campaign. She regularly mentions that in the black community only 60% of infants are breastfed, and medical evidence supports that children who are breastfed are less obese. New legislation just passed that gives women a tax break for purchasing breast pump machines and forces employers to provide a private space at work in which to pump.
Just after Sweet’s story was published, Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann was quoted on conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s show: "I've given birth to five babies and I breast-fed every single one. To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump... That's the new definition of a nanny state.” Not to be left out—Sarah Palin publicly joked, “No wonder Michelle Obama is telling people to breast-feed their babies…Yeah, you better, because the price of milk is so high right now.” The Washington Postclarified Palin’s remark for readers by writing, “Nursing children are not generally given cow's milk to replace breast milk, but instead drink baby formula.”
Sweet was the journalist who made the logical connection between the legislation and the first lady’s healthy child campaign. Sweet was surprised at the speed and the magnitude of the conservative response to her story. Conservatives jumped on the opportunity to make the story seem like a leftie conspiracy to raise the deficit and have women take off their clothes in public.
I still wince when I think about trying to pump milk in my office during the second year of my tenure-track job. My daughter, Katie, was born in mid-July, and I was expected back at work five weeks later. Katie’s father stayed home with the baby while I taught and ran home at lunch to nurse. I would leave breast milk in bottles for him at home. I tried pumping in my office with my chair turned away from the window and the door locked, but this would not stop people from knocking or trying to reach me. I nursed for almost five months and wanted to nurse longer, but—not surprisingly—my milk stopped producing. The stress of teaching three classes and not having enough time or privacy in which to pump certainly contributed to this end. I cried for a week…
Recently a girlfriend of mine was part of a group of 30 breastfeeding Moms in Chicago's Lincoln Square. They went to protest the harassment of a woman who was publicly breastfeeding and threatened by another woman who told her it was indecent and that the police would be called. Illinois law states that women are allowed to breastfeed in public without a covering bib. The response to Mrs. Obama's breastfeeding story is just another sign that we have not figured out as a culture how to handle women, work and motherhood. And women may be the most confused...