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Is it OK for a college professor to breast-feed during lecture?

Adrienne Pine, a professor at American University, recently breast-fed her infant daughter during the first lecture of a “Sex, Gender and Culture” class. Afterwards, Pine was “shocked and annoyed” that her breast-feeding was considered newsworthy by the school newspaper. When student reporter Heather Mongilio initially requested Pine’s comments, Pine explained her situation, and then dismissed the matter in an email.

“…the baby got hungry, so I had to feed it during the lecture. End of story.”

Of course, it’s not the end of the story.  The email transcripts, excerpted by Jim Romenesko this week, come from Pine’s own defense on Counter Punch, where she explains how she reacted when Mongilio continued to question her after the next class session.

“I slapped my palm on my forehead in frustration. What I wanted to say was ‘Who cares? Do university students really need to be so mollycoddled that they should not see something I do on public transportation nearly every day?’”

With all due respect to Pine, I am shocked and annoyed that she failed to realize why breast-feeding on the job might have sparked the curiosity of the student body.

We do a lot of things on public transportation that we wouldn’t do on the job. I, for example, like to read my Kindle and write the occasional bad poem. Other people talk to themselves and clip their toenails. Maybe this should not be the standard.

Sick baby, big day at work—decisions, decisions
Breast-feeding a baby while giving a lecture is odd, but it’s not out of line under the circumstances. The baby was sick. Pine couldn’t get alternative childcare. We’ve all been there. I can almost feel the knot in my stomach just remembering those days.

Pine had to be stressed, stating that her other option (cancelling class) could have negatively affected her chances for tenure. She had to feel that familiar working mother conflict of serving neither her child nor her job well, while being compelled to do both at the same time. She described speeding through the lecture while her baby ambled around, once putting a paper clip in her mouth, and another time getting too close to an electrical outlet.

“The end of class came none too soon, and I was happy to be able to take the bus home and put my sad baby in bed where she belonged,” Pine wrote on Counter Punch.

Before Pine decided to feed her daughter, the teaching assistant held her. Why didn’t she just sit with the baby nearby and let the TA teach the class? 

For its part, American University said in an email to TODAY.com that while it doesn't have a policy that specifically addresses breast-feeding, the university does provide sick leave when a child is ill. 

"Every working parent can empathize with facing the choice of an important day at work when a child gets sick," Camille Lepre, assistant vice president of communications for American University, said in an email. "Both demand your focus and attention. There is no easy or ideal alternative. AU strives to create a work environment that helps faculty and staff balance their work and personal lives." Lepre went on to add that the university "does not agree with the Counterpunch post."

This is not about breast-feeding in public

Pine whipped it out in public, but she didn’t do it on a park bench or at the library. She breast-fed while she was performing a public function of her job. It was no more appropriate to breast-feed her child than it would have been to change the baby’s diaper (or potty train her) in front of the class. What if the breast-feeding hadn’t soothed the child? Would she have delivered her lecture to the tune of "Rockabye Baby"? What if the baby were a sick, hungry 5-year-old? Would Pine have brought the contagious little cherub to work and had a pizza delivered?

This is not about breast-feeding. It’s a matter of professionalism. And, yes, sometimes we all have to make very difficult choices between our families and our jobs. The truth is Pine’s daughter could have waited until after class to eat. Had she not been ill, she would have been in childcare during class, presumably either being bottle-fed or not eating.

I want to be on Pine’s side, and it wouldn’t have taken much to win me over. A simple acknowledgement at the outset of class that yes, breast-feeding a baby while delivering a lecture is a bit out of the ordinary, but, hey, I’m a mother—deal with it, followed by gentler treatment of the student reporter.

At the very least, a “don’t tweet this” was in order. If it were me, I’d have begged the students to treat any glimpse of breast with a generous application of Photoshop.

Do you think it was appropriate for Professor Pine to breast-feed during the class she was teaching? Weigh in on the TODAY Moms Facebook page.

Lela Davidson is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA. Her writing is featured regularly in family and parenting magazines throughout the United States and Canada. She blogs about marriage, motherhood, and life-after-40 at After the Bubbly.


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