Unusually public discussion of breast-feeding while teaching
Adrienne Pine didn't want student journalists at American University to write an article about how she had breast-fed her sick infant on the first day of classes this semester. And when she became concerned that The Eagle, the newspaper there, was going to proceed, the assistant professor of anthropology decided she should be the one to tell the story.
So last week, Pine wrote an essay at the liberal publication CounterPunch called "The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposing My Breasts on the Internet." In the essay, she described how her baby woke with a fever on the first day of Pine's course, "Sex, Gender, Culture." Pine couldn't take her baby to child care because of the fever, and didn't want to cancel class or turn it over to a teaching assistant on the first day. So she opted to take the baby to class.
Pine described what happened: "I sped through the lecture and syllabus review with Lee, dressed in her comfiest blue onesie, alternately strapped to my back and crawling on the floor by my feet. The flow of my lecture was interrupted once by 'Professor, your son has a paper-clip in his mouth' (I promptly extracted it without correcting my students’ gendered assumptions) and again when she crawled a little too close to an electrical outlet." At one point, Pine said, her daughter became restless and -- without stopping the lecture -- she breast-fed her. Class ended, but then Pine was contacted by a student journalist.
In e-mail messages and personal discussions with Pine, the student journalists at The Eagle told Pine that "[r]umors about the incident are already spreading through the student body," and that there was an obligation to tell readers what happened. In her essay, Pine objected to calling breast-feeding an "incident" and said that publicizing her action would create a hostile workplace for her. In a note she sent a student reporter, Pine said: "I feel that the focus on my protected actions in class singles me out unfairly in the workplace and as a woman. Especially if you are going to go the typical journalistic route of finding 'both sides' of this 'story' which I believe shouldn’t be one by seeking out students who felt uncomfortable by my actions...."
Feeling that The Eagle wasn't taking her concerns seriously, Pine wrote that she "decided the only option left was to exposé [sic] my breasts -- on my own terms -- on the Internet. 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."
Lisa Wolf-Wendel, professor of educational leadership at the University of Kansas and co-author of Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family (out later this month from Rutgers University Press), said that breast-feeding in class reflected a kind of issue related to being an academic parent that isn't talked about in public, even amid much discussion of how colleges can be more supportive of professors who are parents. Some colleges have lactation rooms for those who are breast-feeding and pumping milk, but most do not, she said, leaving breast-feeding women who lack private offices no choice but to use bathrooms.
And while colleges have become much more supportive of the needs of parents of newborns, many institutions seem to forget the sort of situation in which Pine found herself, in which a child isn't a newborn, but child care is for some reason not available on a given day. "Colleges forget that children, regardless of their age, continue to exist."
Wolf-Wendel said that she knew that Pine was not the first woman to breast-feed in class. Eleven years ago, Wolf-Wendel's second child was born on the first week of classes for the spring semester. At the time, Wolf-Wendel couldn't afford a leave, nor did she want to be apart from her newborn daughter during her first weeks. So she sent a note to a graduate class she was teaching in which she said she would be bringing her daughter to class for the first few weeks, and offering the students the option of anonymously expressing discomfort with this plan to the department chair, in which case an adjunct would have been recruited to teach. No one objected, so Wolf-Wendel taught the course, which met for three-hour sessions.
From time to time, her daughter "would get fussy or hungry, and without a hitch, I would continue the discussion or lecture, and take out a blanket and breast-feed her and go on to teach the class," Wolf-Wendel said. "I recall being careful to cover myself and not to stop teaching, and to be mindful of what my child needed and what my students needed."
When students filled out their course evaluations, Wolf-Wendel said that several students commented on her "bravery" for breast-feeding in class, but several also expressed their discomfort.
Wolf-Wendel said she's confident she wasn't the first professor to breast-feed in class either, however much people avoid the discussion. Her experience, she said, made her understand Pine's situation.
"I'm very sympathetic to her. She was trying to be a good professor and a good mother, and trying to fulfill both of those roles to the best of her ability," Wolf-Wendel said. "If you want people in multiple roles, sometimes you are going to have overlap of roles," she said. Sometimes it might be a situation where a professor has no choice but to cancel class. But that's something professors don't want to do, especially on the first day of the semester, she said.
The only way to prevent a situation such as the one Pine faced is to have back-up child care available for higher education employees, or to have professors ready to step in and teach a course on no notice -- and those aren't solutions likely to be offered, Wolf-Wendel said. People need to accept that, sometimes, "our children potentially might need us at times that are inconvenient."
Via e-mail, Pine said that she has been pleased with the reaction to her essay, which she said "has been overwhelmingly of gratitude and solidarity."
Asked how colleges and universities might help academics in her situation, she said: "The question about what universities should do is a complicated one. As a society, to prevent discrimination and enable women equal work opportunities, we should have universal free childcare. Given that that is not currently available, employers should do a better job of making free, or at least affordable childcare (including emergency childcare) available on-site. As it is, childcare eats up half of my (or any other AU professor single parent's) salary, and while flex pay helps, it is not enough. But beyond childcare, the real issue in this case is that there needs to be some assurance that the difficult choices the neoliberal academy forces faculty parents to make will not create a hostile work environment for us. Intellectual laborers, like all workers, need a work environment free of harassment and discrimination."
Zach C. Cohen, editor in chief of The Eagle, said that the newspaper started looking into the first day of Pine's course after hearing about the breast-feeding from students who were there. American's campus is small enough, he said, that many people have been talking about the class. He said no decision has been made on whether the newspaper will run an article. "We're collecting all of the facts, and we'll make a decision once we have all the facts," he said.
UPDATE: American University issued the following statement Monday morning: "AU supports faculty and staff as they face challenges of work life balance. The university follows federal and D.C. laws for nursing mothers, and provides for leave in the case of a sick child. In accordance with the law, AU provides for reasonable break times and a private area to express milk for a nursing child for up to one year from the child’s birth. [This follows directly from federal law -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 Section 4207, which requires employers to (1) provide a “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for up to 1 year after the child’s birth each time she has a need to express the milk and (2) provide a place shielded from view and from intrusion by coworkers and the public, other than a restroom, where mothers can express milk.]"