The Soapbox: Breastfeeding Professor Brings Sick Baby To Class, Heads Explode

At this point, I’m absolutely over the phrase “having it all.” It’s been beaten to death, taken out of context, used as link bait, etc… And I’m over it. I’m mostly over it because it’s a convoluted concept. “Having it all” doesn’t have one universal definition and it is something we only lord over the heads of women. It’s problematic on many levels, yet that doesn’t stop folks from hammering the point over and over and over again. But because the concept of “having it all” is so entrenched in our society, when an accomplished professor (of a feminist anthropology course, no less) ends up bringing her sick baby to the first day of class, and at one point nurses her, it becomes fodder for an investigative story.

That’s what happened to Adrienne Pine, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University. Pine’s young daughter woke up with a fever, unable to attend daycare. It was the first day of her “Sex, Gender and Culture” class, and the professor did not want to cancel or saddle her TA with the responsibility of overseeing the first class.

[D]esperately weighing the situation, it seemed that I had little choice. I could not bring her to daycare with a fever, and I did not feel like it was an option to cancel class.

The class went as smoothly as possible according to Pine:

I sped through the lecture and syllabus review with Lee, dressed in her comfiest blue onesie, alternately strapped to my back and crawling on the floor by my feet. The flow of my lecture was interrupted once by “Professor, your son has a paper-clip in his mouth” (I promptly extracted it without correcting my students’ gendered assumptions) and again when she crawled a little too close to an electrical outlet. Although I specifically instructed my teaching assistant, Laura, that helping me with my child was outside her job description, she insisted on holding and rocking Lee, allowing me to finish class without any major disruptions. When Lee grew restless, I briefly fed her without stopping lecture, and much to my relief, she fell asleep.

And that should have been that. Was it the most ideal situation for a first day of class? No. Did Professor Pine handle it to the best of her ability? I think so. In her piece at the blog Counterpunch, Pine makes it clear that her role as a mother does not define her, so she found a way  in this particular instance  to do her best to ensure that was does define her: “anthropologist, writer, professor, and solidarity worker” stayed on track. It should have ended there.

However, Pine quickly found herself being hounded by student Heather Mongilio, a writer for American University’s official student newspaper, the Eagle, who felt that there was a story here. And maybe there was a story about bringing a sick kid to work as a single parent. I could possibly see that, especially if it dug further and looked at the realities most families face when it comes to things like paid sick leave. But no, that was not the case. Apparently, budding journalist Mongilio felt that the real story was that Professor Pine breastfed her daughter in front of her feminist anthropology class.

Pine did her best to make it clear that she didn’t think there was any story here. Yet, Mongilio persisted, bringing an agenda to the questions she thrusted upon Pine.

Heather continued 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. So when she asked me “do I consider the classroom a private or public space,” presumably trying to bust me for doing something “private” somewhere public, I told her it was both. AU is so expensive and exclusionary, in addition to formally being a private university, that the classroom could be argued to be private; however, the ideal of the University is to be a forum where ideas can be exchanged and debated publicly, and I hoped my classroom corresponded to that model of open inquiry. But, I added, coughing, “whether it is private or public has no bearing on whether I would choose to feed a hungry child.”

“When the incident occurred…” she began.

“I didn’t think of it as an ‘incident’,” I responded, with what I’d hoped would be visible annoyance. “But obviously one of my students told you, so I guess you think it was.”

She continued, “When the incident occurred, were you worried about what your students would think? Did they seem uncomfortable, did they say anything?”

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?” But I believe my answer was more along the lines of “I’m the professor. I’m in a position of authority in the classroom. How likely is it that they will out themselves as being afraid of a partially-exposed breast on the first day of a course on feminist anthropology?”

Pine ended up emailing Mongilio after their encounter, requesting she not publish the story, which is completely understandable. Since really, there was no story. There was a professor, who also happened to be a mother, in a sticky situation making the best of it. Had Pine bottlefed her baby, there would have been no eager student pestering Pine with her barrage of questions. Eventually the editors of the Eagle stepped in and decided they would run the story, despite Pine’s continuous requests to the contrary.

And this is what it comes down to: how can we even begin to discuss the concept of “having it all” when a non-story becomes investigative journalism? Why focus on the one non-issue in the entire event? Because somebody might have been uncomfortable with a grown woman discreetly nursing her baby? Sorry, I don’t buy it. And the more we focus on stories like this, the more we miss the larger picture. Making it into a breastfeeding “exposé” for all intents and purposes only furthers the forced debate of whether a professional woman can have it all. It slices Professor Pine into a sum of her parts rather than looking at her as a whole. While it saddens me that this was a story worth reporting in the first place, I applaud Professor Pine for speaking her mind about it, and not allowing this non-newsworthy event that turned into a story to publish without comment.

This post was reprinted with permission from The Mamafesto.