Should a teacher breast-feed in class?

A professor sparks debate when she breast-feeds her baby during a lecture -- but that's not what she did wrong

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 12, 2012 3:37PM (EDT)

Adrienne Pine
Adrienne Pine

This is not a story about breasts.

You might not know that, though, given the headlines over the past few days, the ones about the controversy that erupted when an American University professor brought her baby to class -- and breast-fed while she taught.

As Romenesko reported Monday, Heather Mongilio, a news assistant at American's newspaper the Eagle, reached out to professor Adrienne Pine for a comment when "it was brought to our attention that you breast fed your child during your Sex, Gender and Culture class" on Aug. 28. The reporter went on to invite Pine to "discuss what happened in class," adding, "I understand the delicacy of the matter and I do not want to make you feel uncomfortable, but for the story to have the most balanced angle it would be best to have your thoughts."

Pine, noting the irony of it all, replied that "I really wish this weren't considered 'newsworthy,' but I suppose that's why a feminist anthropology course is necessary at AU." She explained that she "had no intention of making a political statement or shocking students," but merely felt "it was unfair to leave the job of teaching the first class to my teaching assistant" when she had a sick baby she couldn't bring to daycare. She said she was concerned that opting out of the class would "be disruptive" and even put her tenure at risk. "The baby got hungry," she wrote, "so I had to feed it during the lecture. End of story."

But end of story it was not. Ever since the class, the Eagle's Rants page has been awash in conflicting and spirited debate over what went down. And some of Pine's students told the Washington Post they didn't mind the baby but were "appalled" at the nursing. "Just don’t breastfeed in class," said one student. An 18-year-old may not grasp this concept yet, but a baby doesn't understand "I'll feed you after class." If you're bringing your baby anywhere with you, you're feeding your baby.

Pine herself, however, has been no slouch about fanning the flames of the debate, either. In an essay in Counterpunch, Pine wrote that when her baby woke up with a fever on the first day of class, she decided, "I could not bring her to daycare with a fever, and I did not feel like it was an option to cancel class," a class that was reasonably uneventful until, "when Lee grew restless, I briefly fed her without stopping lecture, and much to my relief, she fell asleep."

The next day, after the tale of the professor who brought a baby to school had made the rounds, Pine got the email from Mongilio at the Eagle. But after Pine sent her reply, she says the reporter nonetheless "accosted" her the following day after her class, "hounding me, as my voice became increasingly hoarse and pained. I, unfortunately, was in professor mode, too polite to tell her to go to hell." Instead, she reluctantly answered some of the reporter's questions and then, most unwisely, had second thoughts. She contacted Mongilio and said, "I recognize that I already gave you an interview, but I want to register my strong desire that you not publish this story." A few days later, after an editor replied that the Eagle still intended to run the story, she emailed him back and said, "Please hide my name."

Based on Pine's reaction, Romenesko declared her "upset" over a reporter's inquiry. Inside Higher Ed wrote that "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 the Daily Mail, ever eager to toss a Molotov cocktail into the public discourse, said Pine "faces campus backlash from offended students." But the backlash now isn't about the baby.

I don't know a working mother who hasn't found herself in some version of Pine's dilemma – caught between the demands of a very important professional obligation and the very sudden needs of a child. I don't know a mother who hasn't had to make a snap decision about the course of her day, knowing that choice could have serious consequences for her career or her child. Pine made a judgment call, one that she hoped would enable her to fulfill her duties to her baby and her students. And that's what this is really about. That rock and that hard place.

The issue isn't that Pine nursed her kid. If there's any venue in the world that should be hospitable to a breast-feeding mother, I sincerely hope and pray that place is a classroom for feminist study. It's clear Pine, who has taught at AU for four years, isn't the type to drag her baby around campus willy-nilly. She is a woman who says, "I have tried to maintain as much of a separation as possible between my small family and my professional life," who found herself in an emergency situation.

Yet she handled it with increasing clumsiness as it unfolded. The university has said that Pine's choice to bring her baby to class "does not reflect professional conduct" from a health and hygiene standpoint. And it's correct – a baby who is too sick to go to daycare is too sick to be around a class full of students. It's not good for her or them. Pine may genuinely have feared professional reprisal, but without any alternative care options, she should have left that first class to her teaching assistant. Believe me, I get it. On a morning just last week I had to gaze into my daughter's pink, infected eyes and mutter a stream of "My day just got hosed" curses under my breath. It sucks. But sucks is what you get some days. Not because you can't multitask, but because you shouldn't take a sick kid out.

Pine did what seemed like the only option at the moment, and was no doubt surprised that anyone would take issue with her choice, including a few minutes of nursing. She had a right to tell the Eagle she didn't see the newsworthiness of the event. But she was tremendously wrong to ask the paper not to run the story (although it has yet to) and wrong to ask it to scrub her comments and her name from it. An educator should never traffic in the business of trying to shut down conversation. End of story.

In her Counterpunch piece, Pine says, "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." But it's not about the nipples. If it is, for any student or student reporter, it shouldn't be. What matters in this story is that it shows yet again the difficult choices working mothers face every single day. It shows how overheated the conversation can become – accusatory on one side, self-sabotagingly defensive on the other. And that while we try our best to balance home and work, some days, everybody falls short -- the confrontational reporter, the angry students, the censorious professor. Nobody wins. Sometimes, the best that can happen is the baby gets fed.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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