A professor walks into class with her baby — the baby was sick and couldn’t go to daycare, and it was the first day of class and the prof didn’t want to cancel, so baby was brought along. During the lecture, the baby is at times strapped to the professor’s back, and at times crawling on the floor, at times being held by a teaching assistant. At one point, the baby gets fussy, and so the professor breastfeeds the baby. Normal “this is life” stuff, or a national news story?
National news story, obviously. The the professor in question has written her own piece at CounterPunch explaining her version of events. The Mamafesto also has a good post on this, although we disagree about a few things.
To me, there are a couple of issues here, and breastfeeding is the least of them. Is breastfeeding in class a big deal (or should it be)? No. If a mom is breastfeeding during a break or even during a lecture and the feeding isn’t interrupting anything, then who cares? What’s more interesting (and questionable) is the general issue of bringing a small child to work, when your work is as a professor lecturing a classroom of students.
The fact that the baby was sick makes this question a little easier — it’s disrespectful and inappropriate to bring your sick self or another sick person into your work place when you are afforded adequate sick and leave days. Sick days exist both to give you time to recover and to make sure that you don’t communicate your disease to other people. That’s exactly why the baby couldn’t go to daycare — because it’s a public health issue. Students do not get sick days. I understand that Prof. Pine didn’t want to cancel the first day of class, but bringing a sick baby into that room was not respectful. Sick babies also tend to need more care and attention, which no one other than Prof. Pine — who was supposed to be lecturing — was there to provide.
The sick issue aside, though, this story (or non-story, as Pine believes it is) does raise some interesting issues about how and where we draw lines between work and family, and whether we ever should. I completely understand, from Prof. Pine’s perspective, why bringing her child to class seemed like the best of several bad options on that particular day. I can also understand, from a student’s perspective, why having a baby crawling around on the floor during a lecture and then being picked up and fed (by a breast or a bottle or whatever) is a big distraction to both you and the lecturer. In Pine’s own essay, she mentions that during the lecture a student told her that the baby had a paperclip in its mouth; clearly, at least some of the students were focused on the kid, at the expense of their focus on the class. She mentions that she couldn’t wait to get out of there, and sped through the lecture.
Of course, professors are people, and they get distracted and speed through lectures for all sorts of reasons. For Pine it was a breastfeeding baby; for others, it might be trying to beat weekend traffic so they can make it up to the Cape for the weekend. And as a one-off thing, bringing a baby to class doesn’t strike me as all that newsworthy. But “it’s ok to bring your kid to work if it’s a one-off thing” is not a cohesive policy, formally or ideologically.
I think we all agree that workplaces need to be more friendly toward parents (and especially mothers). But in practice, what does that look like? Does it mean bringing kids to work? My answer to that: Sometimes. But then the question is, when? And under what circumstances, and at what jobs, and what age of children? There are very real impediments that get in the way of the idea that every space should be open to children. When I worked a corporate job and had a private office, it would have been relatively simple to bring a nursing/sleeping baby or a 12-year-old with a stack of homework to work with me. But I can’t say the same about being a waitress or a food service worker, or, yes, a lecturer. And even in my office job, most people kept their doors open, and the walls were not that thick; if there had been a child crying in the office next to mine, that would have posed a big problem for me — it would have distracted me from my work and rendered me unable to concentrate, which would have impacted my ability to adequately perform the duties of my job. And children, being children, are probably going to cry at some point.
Small children need care and supervision — that’s why we hire care-givers, or call CPS on parents who leave a three-year-old alone for a few hours. If your job requires you to be focused on other people or a complex and intensive task, by waiting tables or preparing food or engaging in a long lecture / question-and-answer or a whole variety of other things, regularly bringing a child to work raises serious issues that are not going to be solved by feminist platitudes. Sometimes, bringing a child into a particular work space is going to mean that the needs of other people in that space are not being adequately met. So how do we meet everyone’s needs? Can we? Is it ok to bring a kid to work only if it’s an emergency? Who gets to define “emergency,” and is that policy even fair or coherent?
I don’t know what the answers are — and I’ll admit that I was a bit turned off by Prof. Pine’s piece, and especially by her excoriation of a student journalist who was just trying to cover what students had already turned into a story. But this story is interesting to me particularly because it illustrates how feminist ideals — supportive workplaces! balancing career and family! — butt up against the reality of many of our actual jobs.
Prof. Pine is right that it’s ridiculous for students to be upset or shocked at seeing a mother (or their professor) breastfeeding. But I’m not sure it’s so unreasonable for students to expect that their professor will not be attending to a baby during class.