FILED IN: Social Issues

Professor breastfeeds sick baby in class and sparks a national debate

Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor at American University, sparked a national debate after she brought her sick baby with her to class and breastfed her during the lecture. Photo via SXC Photo user achinel

An American University professor has sparked a debate that has grown beyond the perimeter of the Washington D.C. campus after she brought her sick baby with her on the first day of class and breastfed in front of her students.

According to assistant anthropology professor, Adrienne Pine, her daughter woke up with a fever the same day she was scheduled to teach the first day of her “Sex, Gender & Culture” class.  Unable to bring her child to daycare in that condition, she was left with a predicament.  She had no other viable last minute childcare options, a new, inexperienced T.A. and 40 students expecting her to lecture.

Pine said that while debating how to handle the situation over breakfast, a friend had encouraged her to take the baby with her to the 75-minute class and told her, “Just take her to class. You’re a working parent. Your students won’t care. It’ll be a teachable moment.”

Although Pine said that she tried to maintain separation between her personal life – specifically her daughter – and her professional one, and did not have any interest in turning her daughter’s cold into a “teachable moment,” she felt she had little other choice and that cancelling class just was not an option.

And so she brought her daughter, Lee, along to the lecture and syllabus review in a blue onesie with her at times strapped to her back and others crawling at her feet.  For the most part there were a few minor disruptions (“Professor, your son has a paperclip in his mouth” – which was handled without pointing out the student’s gender assumptions) and although Pine told her T.A., Laura, that looking out for Lee was absolutely not part of her job description, Laura insisted on holding and rocking Lee to help Pine get through the lecture.

At one point, Lee became hungry.  Pine said that she briefly breastfed the baby without exposing herself and without stopping the lecture.  She said that much to her relief, her daughter quickly fell asleep.

The following morning, Pine received her first contact from a reporter for the school newspaper.  In the email, the reporter referred to Pine breastfeeding her daughter with words such as “delicate” and “uncomfortable” – which shocked and annoyed Pine.

In a statement she later posted in a blog, Pine referenced the email and described her reaction.

If I considered feeding my child to be a “delicate” or sensitive act, I would not have done it in front of my students. Nor would I have spent the previous year doing it on buses, trains and airplanes; on busy sidewalks and nice restaurants; in television studios and while giving plenary lectures to large conferences. I admit those lectures haven’t always gone so well (baby can get fidgety), but as a single parent without help or excess income, my choice has been between sacrificing my professional life and slogging through it.

Pine wrote back to the reporter and told her that she didn’t consider breastfeeding her baby to be “newsworthy” and she wasn’t trying to make a political statement or shock anyone.  In very simple language, she explained the circumstances of her child being sick and that it appeared to be a better option to bring her baby to the class rather than cancel it.  Then the baby got hungry and she had to feed her.  She ended her email with a direct “End of Story.”

Pine specifically states in her blog that she doesn’t consider herself a “lactivist” and said, “To be honest, if there were an easy way I could feed my child without calling attention to my biological condition as a mother, which inevitably assumes primacy over my preferred public status as anthropologist, writer, professor, and solidarity worker, I would do so. But there is not.”

The student reporter continued to press Pine for an interview, showing up outside the door of her next class with a clip board and questions, the details of which Pine discusses in her blog.

Pine asked the reporter not to run the story and went to her departmental chair, who gave her his full support, and who informed her Dean and collegues of what was occurring.

Pine said in her blog that she received numerous e-mails of support from her collegues, many saying that they hoped the paper would put a positive spin on the story and many that understood no matter what the spin that Pine was, in her words,  “being targeted as a working woman in a way that would permanently tie my reputation to my perceived biological condition.”

Pine implored the school paper’s editor not to run the story, as she didn’t believe it was news, and didn’t get very far.  After an e-mail exchange she said she came to the realization that even though they offered not to use her name in the article, her name would eventually be tied to it and it would “shape [her] online reputation for all eternity.”

It was then that she decided to share her story in her words on her own terms.

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.

Now, AU Eagle, how about finding some real news to report?

American University released a statement saying that it was a health issue that the baby was sick, but that they understood that the situation that came up for Pine is one that many working parents may face.  The university said faculty members should take advantage of options such as sick leave, break times and private areas for nursing mothers to express milk so they can “maintain a focus on professional responsibilities in the classroom.”

“Every working parent can empathize with facing the choice of an important day at work when a child gets sick,” university officials said in a second statement Tuesday afternoon. “Both demand your focus and attention. There is no easy or ideal alternative.”

The school indicated that it was concerned with students being exposed to potential illness.

“For the sake of the child and the public health of the campus community, when faced with the challenge of caring for a sick child in the case where backup childcare is not available, a faculty member should take earned leave and arrange for someone else to cover the class, not bring a sick child into the classroom,” university spokeswoman Camille Lepre said in an e-mail obtained by the Washington Post.

Public and student reactions have varied.  While many have offered Pine support and others have dismissed the situation entirely, there are also many that criticize her actions that day for different reasons.

One person wrote:

This is NOT about breast feeding.

Who can take their kids to work?  That is simply unacceptable.  She knew she was a single mon, so why didn’t she have a plan in place for when her child became ill?  Or does she have some sort of superwoman complex, an “I can do it all myself” attitude.

The worst part of this is that she is a feminist.  What father would ever bring his baby to work?  Women cannot expect to play by different rules, yet insist on being treated equally.  Her lack of planning and insistence that what she did was perfectly normal is a slap in the face to all women who have “figured it out.”

A self-proclaimed breastfeeding advocate was also critical of the professor’s decision to bring her baby to class and said:

I’m a breastfeeding fan. I think that people who are “offended” by breastfeeding are ridiculous.   However… when you are delivering a lecture, you owe it to the students to give them your undivided attention, even more than they owe you their attention (after all, they are the ones paying for the privilege).  To eat, check texts on a phone, clip your nails, breastfeed (or bottlefeed) your baby, brush your dog, comb your hair, knit, etc. while giving a university lecture is inappropriate.

A person defending Pine said:

This whole thing happened because she didn’t have a place to take her sick child while she was working.  Why in this country do we expect working moms to arrange elaborate child care and backup child care arrangements by themselves?  Why doesn’t AU provide child care?  Why doesn’t AU provide referrals to people who can provide backup child care in a pinch?  Why is all this the mom’s fault?

Another person that came to Pine’s defense said:

Come on! Why is this an issue? I am really surprised that college students seem to think that breastfeeding a baby in front of other is somehow inappropriate. Haven´t they seen a breast in their life? Even more surprised that American University shows such a retrograde attitude towards breastfeeding a baby. How galling that the course subject is about gender and sex!

Pine’s blog post “The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet can be read in it’s entirety HERE.

Sources:  The Washington Post, the Daily Mail