Friday, September 14, 2012

Breastfeeding in an Anthropology Class

Babies show up everywhere! Here my 4-mo son 
gives his first ever academic paper, at the Society
 for American Archaeology conference, in 2010. 
No babies were breastfed during this conference paper.

I'm sure everyone has heard the kerfuffle over American University professor Adrienne Pine's decision to breastfeed her baby during a feminist anthropology class. The baby woke up sick on the first day of classes and was unable to go to daycare, so Dr. Pine brought her to work. Later, Dr. Pine was approached by the AU student newspaper, who wanted to run a story on the "incident". Dr. Pine preferred to tell her own story, so published her account in CounterPunch.

I have breastfed my three children in lots of professional contexts: meetings, my office, conferences, etc. I have had my children in class. (Last semester, my students were worried that I would literally have a child in class. They asked for a set of instructions in case I went into labor while teaching.) I have no memory of breastfeeding in class, but I wouldn't be surprised if I did, once or twice, with one of my older children.

In a nation that provides so little support for working families, but where women are more than half of the workforce, such conflicts between the personal and professional are inevitable. Academic mothers often have no partner or their partner is also an academic. We work very long hours. (I work most evenings and on the weekend.) We are not well-paid relative to our education levels, and daycare, especially emergency daycare, is expensive. 

It's hard for academic women to take maternity or sick leave. Most universities don't have a lot of redundancy in faculty. If I can't teach my class for a day - or for six weeks of leave - then someone else has to do it on top of their own job. Often that person is not particularly well qualified to teach the class (it's outside their specialty) and is working a significant over-load without pay. We're all willing to pitch in when necessary, but an untenured mother may worry that asking colleagues to help will negatively affect her tenure case down the road.

The saving grace for academic parenthood is the flexibility we have to arrange our schedules around our families' needs. If I need to, I can leave campus in time to pick my six year old up from school, and work from 8-10pm on class prep instead of 3-5. If my child is sick, or has a half-day, I can bring him or her to my office, or even to class, if necessary. Is it ideal? No. But often it's the best solution for everyone.

If I didn't have that flexibility (and if I wasn't working in such a wonderful, family-friendly environment like UMM), my best option would be to leave academia. If I had to be at work from 9-5 without the ability to bring my children when necessary, then I would look for a job that pays better and only expects 40 hours a week. I would also count myself lucky if I could find such a job, as many women have to contend with jobs that demand long hours, have no flexibility, and still don't pay well. This is a failure of the system, one that makes it very difficult for working mothers.

But the hoopla over Dr. Price's parenting decisions isn't about public policy and social infrastructure. It's about the way our culture has an instinctive "oooh, gross!" reaction to breastfeeding. That's not what people are saying, of course, because we don't want to admit that something so "natural" makes us squirmy. But it's true.

Read this Washington Post article about the "incident". Students claim they were unhappy because they were exposed to a sick child. But how frequently do students and faculty come to class with full-blown consumption? The baby was said to be distracting to the students and professor, yet the student newspaper found out about the story because a student tweeted about it during class. I find it hard to believe that the baby was more distracting than Facebook and Angry Birds.

I don't mean to minimize the potential problems. Babies are a distraction, and nobody wants to have an infant in the classroom on a daily basis. But the controversy here has nothing to do with the distractions of infants in general, and everything to do with the cultural baggage associated with breastfeeding. We have sexualized breasts to such an extent that the idea of a baby feeding from them - as happens in all mammal species - is sometimes even equated to sexual abuse of children! To many people, a woman "using" her breasts in public (to feed her child) is like a man "using" his penis in public. Even if the person is covered in such a way that you can't see the organ(s) in question, the behavior is seen as sexually inappropriate, and makes others uncomfortable. There's an "ick factor".

(Think I'm exaggerating? Check out this interview, where one of the reporters says "but you wouldn't breastfeed your baby during an interview", in the same tone as she might say "pick your nose" or "have sex". Clearly, this is seen as a disgusting, or at least somewhat shameful, act. Like peeing, we may have to do it, but it shouldn't be publicly acknowledged.)

Negative ideas about breastfeeding are very old in Western culture. In pre-Industrial periods, wealthy women hired wet nurses for their children, rather than nurse them themselves. Breastfeeding was low-class, animal, unrefined. This idea of breastfeeding was one of the reasons women in the 20th century embraced formula and abandoned nursing. Like tinned vegetables and beef, it was a sign of status and wealth.

So, obviously, I don't think Adrienne Price did anything wrong in bringing her baby to class and feeding her. She did the best she could under difficult circumstances. People who criticize her for the negative consequences (the potential to distract from class, for example), should think about the degree to which their cultural baggage about breasts and breastfeeding is affecting their reaction.

That said, I, personally, would not have handled the aftermath of the "incident" in the same was as Dr. Price. It's a personal decision, of course, but I would not have published the CounterPunch article, which had a rather aggressive and sarcastic tone, and I felt was unkind to the young reporters from the student paper. She said taking her child to class could be a "teachable moment". Teaching, to me, is better done in a less confrontational manner, and with more sympathy for the socially-learned reactions which are, nonetheless, very real. I do see that Dr. Price has apologized to the students, however, and I hope that this controversy can spark some national thinking about the choices we are forcing on working mothers.

I see that Becky Farbstein at the blog Serious and Not-so-serious Musings on Archaeology made similar points. Great minds, etc.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this. I think you're spot on in your connection of penis and breast, and wonder how this can be addressed in the classroom ... especially in a feminist anthropology classroom, this seems like something maybe to cover in the course overview in relation to expectations and explanations of expectations.

  2. Yes, I think the class overview is a good place to start.

    It may be naive, but I hope that an open discussion of how mainstream US culture views breastfeeding, and why, could help students recognize the emotional baggage they carry relative to this issue. Perhaps just that awareness would prevent knee-jerk reactions.

    Like I said, it may be naive!