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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


A Lactating Professor Walks Into a Classroom

The reactions to this article, which has been circulating the Internet, seem to fall into three general clusters.

September 16, 2012

The reactions to this article, which has been circulating the Internet, seem to fall into three general clusters:

1. Breastfeeding a) has no place in the classroom or b) is a perfectly natural human activity, and if you have a problem with it you are bourgeois and repressed;
2. Bringing a baby who is too sick for daycare into a classroom is a) dangerously irresponsible: the baby belongs at home in bed, and the teacher has no business exposing students to the baby's germs; or b) no more dangerous than riding the bus or subway, or living in a dorm – a baby is considered "too sick" for day care if it has a low-grade fever or the sniffles, and most of us who have those symptoms still go to work or class, so get over yourself; and
3. The teacher's reaction to the controversy was a) defensive verging on paranoid and in any case, way out of line; or b) understandable given that a Federal case was being made out of an attempt to serve both her child and the students.

I think there is some merit to each of these positions. Breastfeeding IS normal and natural, and we as a culture need to get over the sexual fetishizing of breasts. Yet nursing during a lecture probably does distract attention from the subject matter. A sick child should ideally be kept at home, but babies don't care much where they are as long as they are cared for, and it seems likely that one or more students also had a cold or mild flu that day. The teacher did fly off the handle at a student reporter, but come on, she had a sick child and had just completed a harrowing first day of classes; give her a break!

What strikes me most forcefully about all of the commentary is the apparent belief that there was a good solution to the teacher's dilemma. Some suggested that the teacher should have had a better backup plan; she should have called on a friend or neighbor to watch the child while she taught. But as anyone who has tried to secure that kind of coverage at the last minute can attest, this is much easier said than done–and this woman is a single mother.

Others thought she should have canceled the class, but that is not a great way to start off the semester, and there is pressure on many academics to show up for all classes. Besides, it is likely that students would drop the class given an absentee professor on the first day–and those numbers, and negative evaluations, would affect her shot at tenure.

My own solution–an emergency drop-in center for parents (students, faculty and staff) in a pinch–is not likely to be implemented soon. In its absence, can we agree that we live in a less than perfect world, where most people do their best under difficult circumstances? A sick baby nursing in the classroom is an inconvenience, but not a life-threatening crisis. I'm still not sure what all the fuss is about.


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