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Is Breastfeeding While Teaching Inappropriate?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

This week, we just had to get our moms' take on a parenting dilemma that turned into a national story. Last month, when anthropology professor Adrienne Pine's baby was a bit under the weather, she decided to bring her to class, which happened to be the first day of class at American University in Washington, D.C. The baby got hungry, as you might imagine, so Professor Pine breastfed her as she continued to lecture.

Well, this caught the attention of the student newspaper, The Eagle. A student journalist tried to interview the professor about it, who didn't want to talk about it, but then deciding she wanted to get the story out in her own terms, she posted a lengthy and biting blog post on the left-leaning blog site Counterpunch, and the rest is, if not history, at least something to talk about with our moms, and so they are here.

Leslie Morgan Steiner is a mom of three and an author. She's the editor of "Mommy Wars," a collection of essays about the alleged tensions between stay-at-home moms and those who work outside the home. Jolene Ivey is the mom of five boys. She's also a Maryland state lawmaker. She's also one of the founders of a nationwide parenting support group. Dani Tucker is the mom of two and an office administrator and fitness instructor.

They're all here. Welcome, ladies, moms.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.


DANI TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: As you might imagine, we did reach out to Professor Pine and her employer, American University, repeatedly. We have not had a response from them, but Professor Pine did speak to ABC News recently. I'll just play a short clip of her. She's defending her decision to breastfeed the baby and bring her and so forth. Here it is.


ADRIENNE PINE: It wasn't the ideal option, but the fact is there was no ideal option and it was the best of the options available. People seem largely charmed, you know, by the humanity that I think that children can bring to a workplace environment.

MARTIN: So, Leslie, what do you think?

STEINER: Well, I would be even sort of more radical than Professor Pine. I think we need to grow up around this issue of breastfeeding in public and really examine the accusation that breastfeeding is inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.

You know, not so long ago it was considered inappropriate for married women to work at all and even more recently it was, you know, frowned upon for women to wear pants to work.

Breastfeeding is natural. It's healthy for mom and baby. I think women should be supported in doing it everywhere because it's so difficult to do, and if somebody has a problem with watching a woman breastfeed, I think it's their issue to deal with. I actually think it's a form of censure and intimidation to force lactating women to breastfeed only behind closed doors at home or in some kind of glorified closet at work.

MARTIN: Really? Jolene, what about you?

IVEY: I tend to agree with Leslie on this one. I mean I think that breastfeeding - it's just eating, and if you're not going to send someone to eat in the closet or send them to eat away, or if it's a situation where you would feed a baby with a bottle and no one would raise an eyebrow, wouldn't end up in the newspaper if she'd brought out a bottle that day, but the fact that she brought out her breast made it a big deal. That seemed pretty silly to me.

The issue for me was less about the breastfeeding and really more about the free speech issue.

MARTIN: What do you mean, the free speech issue?

IVEY: Well, she's tried to squash the story, and if she's a professor at a university, she should not be trying to impede other people's First Amendment rights.

MARTIN: Well, you raise a good point here, that she - part of this long piece in Counterpunch arose because she apparently was offended by and objected to the student journalist, also a young woman, asking questions about it, and so she, as I said, decided that she wanted to get the story out in her own terms.

We also reached out to the student journalist at The Eagle, which is the American University student newspaper, and we received no response from them either, who didn't actually publish a story about this.

Dani, you have a different take on this.

TUCKER: I don't have a problem with breastfeeding. I don't think anybody does. We know that mothers have to breastfeed. My problem with her is the time and place. There's a time and place for everything. She put herself first. That whole incident was nothing but a distraction to her class. The whole incident, from the TA having to, you know, sit the baby, even though she told her, you know, she didn't have to. Well, come on, ladies. She has to. The child is all over the place, you know, to the point that, you know, you got your students going, you know, professor, your daughter is putting a paperclip in her mouth. Professor, she's playing with the outlet. That was the point.

It wasn't the point that she was breastfeeding. You're a mom. You have to breastfeed. It's not time for nobility right now. You understand what I'm saying? It's time for you to think. You had leave. And in her Counterpunch article, this is what I like here, she says my daughter does not define me. Yes, she does. You are a mother because you have a daughter. That defines you. Stay home, take leave, take care of your sick child.

MARTIN: Does this - does this - let me push back. Let me just ask you this, because I actually want to mention that too, about what she says about that. But I do want to ask you about this. As a single mom yourself, did you ever - well, you weren't. When your babies were babies, you were partnered, so that's not - you know, that wasn't the case. You were married then, but - well, for - well, OK.

Let me just say, as a single mom yourself, did you have any sympathy with her dilemma, in that she's a single mom? This was the first day of class and she was afraid that if she didn't come for the first day of class, even if she took leave that she was entitled to, that it would reflect negatively on her evaluations and that she would pay a price for it. Did that - did that - did you have any sympathy?

TUCKER: My sympathy - my sympathy is with the Wal-Mart mother who doesn't have a choice. My sympathy is with the Wal-Mart and the Giant mother, and the mother who doesn't have leave and can't take off, and there's nobody to watch the baby. And if she doesn't come to work, she's going to lose her job. No, I do not have a sympathy for woman that had leave and thought it was better and the best and the only option she had was to come to class instead of taking the leave. Her administrators even said it: You have leave. Why didn't you take it? And then she turns around and says in her article: Next time, I will cancel the class instead. Sweetheart, that's what you should have done in the first place.


TUCKER: My sympathy is with that mother who does not have that choice, whose back is against the wall. She has no choice. This woman had a choice.

MARTIN: Leslie?

STEINER: But that's why I think that we should support her, because - so that other people who don't have a choice can also breast-feed in public and at work. And I just feel like saying that breast-feeding somehow stopped her from doing her job is ridiculous. It's just a complete red herring. It's very clear that breast-feeding helped her do her job better, because it engendered all this discussion that's totally relevant to her class.

And I say, come on. We live in a world of Hooters waitresses and "Jersey Shore," cleavage and coin slots. By the age of 15, most girls have experienced some kind of sexual harassment far beyond this. Breast-feeding in public pales in comparison to the truly offensive acts often tolerated and perpetrated by men. And I feel like we have just got to get over this issue that it's somehow offensive and disruptive. It's - most women who are breast-feeding know how to do it discreetly and without it stopping them from doing their job or interrupting everybody else. It's other people who have the problem, not the women who are trying to feed their babies.

MARTIN: Jolene?

IVEY: Well, I thought that the administrators now saying, oh, you should have taken leave. Ha, ha, ha. If she had taken leave, they would have been talking about her like a dog. So it's very convenient for them now to be able to say oh, no. You really shouldn't have come in. You could have taken leave.

MARTIN: Well, wait a minute. Why do you assume that? Given that she says herself in her piece in Counterpunch that it's a very supportive, family-friendly environment? So why did say that?

IVEY: Because...

MARTIN: What she says in her piece is that she was afraid that the students would negatively evaluate her.

IVEY: Well, then, if the students are negatively going to evaluate her, that does reflect on her, correct?

MARTIN: Well, here's my - here's something I'd like to throw out here. One of the things that I found noteworthy about the piece - and it goes back to something that you said Jolene, about her trying to squash discussion about this - we don't really know what the students thought, because her hostility to airing the question means the questions were not asked.

This is my - so my first question is that she is a teacher, and might this not be a teachable moment? I mean, the argument that some people made is that these students have paid - or their parents have paid - quite a lot of money for her undivided attention during that 90-minute period. So why isn't it appropriate for her at least to raise the question or discuss with them - this is a anthropology, a feminist anthropology class, after all - of the whole question of where, you know, breast-feeding fits into the workplace and sort of that dilemma? So that's my other sort of question - and then for her to try to bully the student journalist rather than explain the point of view, I find distressing.

But the other piece about it is that she says in the piece: I was shocked and annoyed that this would be considered newsworthy, and at the anti-women implications inherent in the email's tone.

Why is asking the question considered hostile? And - but the final point I'd like to make of this is that she's making the argument of noticing the fact that she had a breast-feeding baby, that she is a woman with a breast-feeding baby is inherently hostile. And I want to ask about the implications of that. Is the problem here that the only way we know to deal with gender is to pretend it doesn't exist? And by pretending it doesn't exist, that means that everybody has to be a man or act like a man.

You know what I mean? It's like the whole argument about being colorblind. Is the issue to be colorblind, or just to be - accept people's color, as opposed to pretend it doesn't exist?


IVEY: I'm sorry. When you know that the way they found out was one of the students complained.

MARTIN: How do you know they complained, or they asked a question? They tweet - do we know that they complained or did they just said, hey, my professor was breast-feeding in class? They tweeted it.

IVEY: Why...

MARTIN: How much of a complaint can you have in 140 characters?

IVEY: I don't know. It just seemed to me that it was - they made a deal out of something that shouldn't have been a big deal.


TUCKER: Well, wait a minute. Again, here we go, because we keep making this about her. They should have made a big deal. It's their class. It's their class. They have the right to learn in their class. OK. This has nothing to do to me. We're focusing on the breast-feeding, and the breast-feeding is not the issue here. The issue to me is the child was sick. Your child, lady, was sick.

IVEY: Then why didn't they tweet it that she brought a sick child to school?

TUCKER: I don't know why they didn't. I'm tweeting right now. Your child was sick...


TUCKER: ...OK. I don't know what they tweeted, but I'm tweeting right now. Your child was sick. This is your class. Your class is here to learn. There is a time and a place for everything. That was not the time or the place to have that teachable moment. Your child was sick. We are all mothers sitting right here. We are all mothers. Let me ask: How many of you would have done this? Tell the truth. If your child was sick...

STEINER: I have done - I've done worse.


TUCKER: I said if your child was sick.

STEINER: No but I...

TUCKER: I understand you have to breast-feed...

STEINER: No, no, no. I've done even...

MARTIN: Hold on. Let me just jump in...


MARTIN: ...because Leslie is going to answer this. We're having our visit to our parenting support group, our Moms roundtable. We're talking about a college professor who breast-fed her baby in front of her class. It was the first day of class. It caused a bit of a stir, including right here.

I'm joined by our regular contributors Dani Tucker, Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Dani posed the question: Who's done this? Leslie, raise your hand.

STEINER: I have breast-fed in public, and in front of work colleagues on many occasions.

MARTIN: But now that's not what she's asking you. Did you...

TUCKER: I didn't ask you that. I said a sick child.

STEINER: Yes. And I even - I took - I had - you know, I'll never forget this. My first child, he was sick. I had to give a presentation to the chairman of Johnson and Johnson. My husband would not stay home to take care of the baby, and I dosed him with Tylenol and I took him to the daycare center. And I'm not proud of it, but I had to do it. It was a really important time, and I had no choice.

TUCKER: You did what?

STEINER: And I - I took a sick child to the daycare center with Tylenol.

TUCKER: You took a sick child...


TUCKER: ...but you did not take that sick child to your presentation.

MARTIN: But she took him to daycare.

STEINER: I took - even worse. I took him and exposed him to, you know, a hundred different babies. And I wish I had had the guts to take him to the presentation and breast-feed him in front of Ralph Larsen, but I was not quite that brave at this time. And I feel like we could eliminate this issue by saying breast-feed is fine to do in public, and also let's get some subsidies to daycare centers and sick childcare centers, and then we don't need to have this conversation anymore.

MARTIN: Jolene?

IVEY: I've done it - I've done it not with a sick child, but with a child whose pacifier got lost. I was so annoyed, but I had to go to work. I had to put that baby on my boob and greet people at the door and run the whole day. And it was fine, because all those people coming in, they had to impress me that day, which was a wonderful thing. I didn't have to impress them. So, therefore, when they walked in 22 years ago, and I extended my hand and said hello, how are you, and come this way, and have you met this person, no one said a word. And I just said, you know, I'm so sorry, but, you know, here's the baby.

MARTIN: Because you had the power.

IVEY: Yes.

MARTIN: You felt that you had the power in the situation.

IVEY: I had the power, and I knew it.

MARTIN: Well, that was one of the arguments here, is that she had the power and she knew it, but doesn't want to admit she had the power.

STEINER: Yeah, I have a problem with that, too, that she tried to be invisible, to your point. And I think we're never going to solve any of these issues by hiding and breast-feeding in a closet or refusing to talk about it or asking other people not to talk about it. And I was very surprised, too, that she, in her position, didn't go for more discussion among her students, and that she's not giving more media interviews, because I think it's a wonderful, teachable moment - not just for students, but for this whole country.

MARTIN: I guess the question is that her argument seems to be - and yes, I am a journalist, and so reflexively, I find myself drawn to the student journalist and her dilemma of being a very young person trying to ask a person with more power, a person of stature in the organization, a question which she thought might be uncomfortable for her and to be publicly ridiculed for it by a person, you know, who is a powerful person within her institution, I find that sort of - you know, that is what I want to point out.

But I also want to point out, the fact is: What's so terrible about asking the questions so that she can elucidate her position? My question is: those young women in that class, how do you know they weren't just looking for a role model?

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: They weren't just looking for a narrative that helps them understand how to live their lives? How do you know they were complaining? And even if they were complaining, how do you - why not stand up and say: This is my thought process, this is the world I live in, this is the world you're going to live in, let's talk about it? What's so terrible about that? But because we're not supposed to notice, the implication is that the only people who exist are people who are men. If gender - if women can't be noticed, then the attitude is that the only people who - our model for how we handle everything is men. That's my question.

But, you know, Dani, can I go back to you? What's irritating you? What's pushing your buttons in this? Something's pushing your buttons. What is it?

TUCKER: This could have all been avoided. I mean, I - don't get me wrong. I don't want anybody to think that I'm not for her right to breast-feed. Yeah, I'm for your right to breast-feed. I'm just for your right also to use common sense, OK. You know, I understand mothers who didn't - many a day I had to take, you know, my two to daycare with the sniffles because I had to get to work. There was just no way I could take off. We worked through those situations. But, to me, this young lady was selfish. She took a situation, and then wanted to know: Well, why is every - what's the big deal? Lady, you made a big deal when you came out that house and you didn't have to. And that's what's irritating me.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

TUCKER: You know, if you - you didn't - just to keep hearing her say she did not have any option to cancel class, canceling class was never an option. That's what irritates me.


TUCKER: You got a sick child who should come first before your option to cancel class. That's what's irritating me.

MARTIN: Leslie?

STEINER: You know, I feel like, even now, in this discussion here, all of us are really focusing on the woman in the situation. And I - there's something inherently wrong in that. I feel like our country has such a long history of pointing the finger at women for situations caused in part by men, you know, the really obvious cases being rape and unwanted pregnancy. And to me this is another case.

Professor Pine's baby was created by a union between a woman and a man. Now, she, a single mom, is trying to feed and care for the resulting baby by herself. And instead of supporting her with community daycare and other early motherhood programs and just general support, make it almost impossible for this single mom to work and raise her child. And to me, this outcry - even us talking about it here - is - it's an example of how this country refuses to support women trying to juggle work and family. And again, the only harassment I see is the fact that this woman was forced to choose between showing up for work and caring for her sick baby.

MARTIN: OK. Jolene?

IVEY: That was certainly number-one problem. But what made this a story was the fact that she was trying to squash the story, and that's what made it the story. This is a free speech issue, and within the university, it's really horrifying that she would do that. But we also have a situation right now in Maryland where there's a delegate from Baltimore County trying to squash the right of a Baltimore Raven, Brendon Ayanbadejo - I believe that's how you pronounce his name.

MARTIN: Ayanbadejo. Mm-hmm.

IVEY: Yes. And he supports marriage equality. Well, there's a delegate who's trying to keep him from speaking. And I just thought that that was ridiculous.

MARTIN: That's so - didn't work. Didn't work. Dani, a final thought from you. I always think it's funny when people accept your invitation to talk about something, and then criticize you for talking about it.


MARTIN: Sorry, Leslie. Could have said no. Just say no.

TUCKER: My final thought. I am a single mother. OK. That cannot always be our mantra and our excuse for what we do. Use your head. Just because we are single mothers does not give us the right to - no.


TUCKER: OK. Use your head.

MARTIN: But one person's common sense is another person's status quo that needs to be fought. So I don't, you know, I don't know. All right. Well, thank you. Thank you all. Too bad nobody has any strong feelings about this.


MARTIN: Dani Tucker is a mom of two, an office administrator, a fitness instructor. Jolene Ivey's the mom of five, a Maryland state lawmaker, the co-founder of a national parenting support group. Leslie Morgan Steiner is an author, a mom of three, the author of the books "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love." And they were all here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you, moms.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

TUCKER: Thank you.

STEINER: Thank you.


MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.