Lactivism: Breastfeeding Activism on Campus

by Heather Shea Gasser

I’ve written in a previous post about the personal being political and professional — and breastfeeding is a perfect example to further explain my point about how these three intersect.

My choice to breastfeed was highly personal. It was an individual choice I made on behalf of my child’s health and my personal desire. Any woman’s choice to breastfeed is likely wrapped up in her identity as a mother as well as socially constructed perspectives about motherhood. And, how long we continue to nurse is also highly personal and laden with cultural and societal expectations. I want to be clear that my perspectives on breastfeeding coupled with my personal experiences that I share in this post are not meant to alienate or exclude women who can’t breastfeed or who chose not to for any number of reasons. The personal and political nature of women’s choices around pregnancy, birth, postpartum care, and parenting are just that … individual choices to be respected and valued. Certainly there are plenty of perspectives about whether “breast is best”, just as there are about natural childbirth. While these are vital topics to explore, in this post, I move beyond the personal factors to discuss the political and professional intersections with our work in student affairs as feminists and as parents.

Breastfeeding, for many, is also political. Some would say it borders on activism at times. I identify as, know, and support many “lactavists” who see breastfeeding as an outlet for their feminist activism. For others, just breastfeeding discretely in public feels like an outrageous activist act.Sometimes the personal and the professional collide, like the time when I asked a prospective employer for time in the schedule and a location (not a bathroom) to pump breast milk during the day that I was on campus interviewing for a new position. Sometimes the personal and political collide. During the period when I was breast-feeding my first child, another breast-feeding mother in Tucson made the news because she was feeding her child on a bench in public at the local mall (much like the featured image on this post). A mall employee asked her to cover up, go into the lactation room, or leave. She refused and brought a complaint, which was elevated to the Tucson City Council. The Council eventually passed legislation making it possible for women to breastfeed anywhere they might otherwise be. I made an appearance at a Council meeting with other breastfeeding mothers who staged a nurse-in to show support for the woman and the council’s positive action. Read the news story covering the event in 2005. In more recent news, the governor of my new state, Michigan, just signed breast-feeding anti-discrimination legislation into state law this week.

When I went back to work full-time shortly after having each of my sons, breastfeeding also became intertwined with my work and identity as a student affairs professional.  Workplaces are becoming increasingly accommodating of infants in the workplace, indeed a former and valued staff member of mine worked alongside her infant for months. However, I didn’t bring either of my babies to work, so continuing to provide breast-milk meant pumping at regular intervals throughout the day, storing the milk in a small cooler, and then bringing the whole contraption home to wash, sterilize, store, and portion out to give to a child care giver for the next day’s feedings. Recently I saw this humorous video about two women’s characterization of a breast-pump as a “frenemy”. Yep, I thought — that’s about right. I, too, had a love/hate relationship with my breast pump.

While it was logistically challenging at times to set aside the time (though I did get rather good at multitasking), the ability to pump made me feel like I could be both a provider to my child while also working at a job that I loved. And, my ability to pump in a private, clean, and safe location directly impacted my ability to continue breastfeeding.  Continuing breastfeeding throughout the first year of my babies’ lives allowed me to come back to work and continue my pursuit of a career in student affairs. All aspects of this equation were interconnected.

Here’s the primary point of this post: As feminist activists in student affairs, we can help shape the institutional culture around accommodating new mothers’ needs… we can all be lactavists. As a supervisor we can assist our employee, a new mom, in changing her schedule to allow for frequent pump-breaks or allowing her to bring her infant to work. We can connect her to resources and help her “figure it out” during a very vulnerable and emotional stage in her life especially when she’s finding it hard to speak up on her own behalf.  And as leaders and activists, we can also collectively advocate for what she and all other new parents need to be successful at both parenting a new infant while simultaneously pursuing a rewarding career or education. We do even more good if we continue to dismantle the barriers and shift the culture making parenting accommodations commonplace and standardized on campus to everyone’s benefit.

For some women, an inability to meet growing demands combined with internal and external pressures to keep it all together can result in simply giving up.  Old prejudices impact new mothers and our institutional cultures implicitly reinforce the belief that mothers should not and cannot work and therefore the only viable and obvious option must be to stay home. All leaders, supervisors, and administrators can contribute to an organizational culture that makes the culture on campus more conducive to a blend of work and parenting not an either/or proposition. Just as I’m not saying that all women should breastfeed, please also don’t read that I’m diminishing or disparaging any parent’s independent choice to stay home with an infant. I honor and appreciate women and men who have come to that decision on their own and have the means to do so. My concern is for the patriarchal and misogynistic institutional culture that doesn’t allow for women, in particular, to make any other choice.

So, what do accommodations for parents look like? Addressing this topic could be a whole series in itself starting with paid parental leave in the U.S., but as the focus of this post is on breastfeeding, I’m going to specifically outline lactation resources and services. At both the University of Arizona and at the University of Idaho as part of my role working with non-traditional students/student parents and directing a women’s center, I was among a team of people who advocated for the installation of lactation rooms on campus and resources to support student parents. When I was pumping at work, I was fortunate to have a private office with a lockable door and a nearby sink.  Not all who visit, study, or work on our campuses have that same privilege. What about graduate students who work in laboratories? What about custodial or facilities staff who don’t have offices? What about front-line staff members whose “offices” may be cubicles in public areas? In case you aren’t aware, the law recently changed and now all employers are now required to provide pumping mothers reasonable break time and “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.” Unfortunately, these requirements don’t extend to students or visitors. I would guess that on most campuses, pumping mothers would be at a great loss to find accessible locations where they can privately and hygienically express breast milk. Many campuses lag far behind in providing appropriate lactation rooms.  As I’ve met with various campus leaders and stakeholders around lactation rooms on two different campuses I’m astounded at the level of ignorance surrounding this topic.  A bathroom is not a reasonable, safe, or hygienic option. After all, how would you like your lunch to be prepared in a bathroom?

Let me be clear… setting up lactation rooms on campus is not about hiding nursing babies — designated lactation rooms are exclusively intended for pumping. It is my belief that breastfeeding mothers should be able to feed their babies anywhere she is otherwise able to be… and the presence of babies on campus is growing. One might see breastfeeding mothers in class, in an office setting, in a waiting room in the student union, or in a student group meeting. As more women nurse publicly it is my hope that the culture of silence around breastfeeding will continue to subside.

If your campus is looking to create a designated lactation room, there are two campuses that have received recognition as model programs for student parent lactation support. One of which was my former campus, the University of Arizona and the other is the University of Michigan. What are the ideal characteristics of a lactation room? Here’s a short list:

  • A place where employees and students can find privacy. Ideally this is a quiet, secure/lockable and comfortable room.
  • A comfortable chair, an electrical outlet, and a table to hold the pump and various accessories.
  • Depending on usage, some kind of reservation system and/or signage to indicate that the room is occupied.
  • Ideally (not required) a nearby sink to rinse the various parts of the breast pump.
  • Lactation rooms should be accessible from the variety of different locations around campus ideally available in most campus buildings but minimally within a five-minute walking distance from any place on campus.
  • Sources: http://hr.umich.edu/worklife/parenting/setup.html and  http://lifework.arizona.edu/cc/lactation_information/establishing_lactation_areas

As I have participated in the processes of setting up lactation rooms, I’ve found that administrators and others, in addition to their ignorance about pumping in bathrooms, are generally uneasy (sometimes to the point of embarrassment) with the discussion about accommodating breastfeeding mothers on campus. Why is this? As we discuss student and employee retention, why wouldn’t we talk about how lactation services for students or employees?  It’s my theory that administrators (men and women alike, particularly if the woman has never had her own experiences with pumping) shy away from talking about breast-feeding because *gasp* it involves (wait for it…) a breast. The most overly sexualized body part on a woman simultaneously is the one body part that can deliver the perfect nutrient balanced food for infant health. This post further makes this point. We need to stop sexualizing breasts and nursing moms and start changing the culture.

Breastfeeding on campus provides a perfect example of the personal clearly intersecting with professional and educational goals. For all feminists in student affairs who want to see more gender balanced organizations, we need to start connecting the personal and professional and advocate for real change on behalf of parents in general and breastfeeding mothers specifically. Feminist activism means dismantling institutional and systemic systems of oppression that continually send the message to women that they don’t belong in the workplace. As a society we need to stop blaming or shaming women who are just trying to do the best they can for their infants while also working in a meaningful career. In student affairs, feminist activism requires those of us in positions of administrative leadership to advocate on behalf of student parents and employees who are breastfeeding mothers.

What has worked on your campuses? If you have lactation resources or a lactation room, how did it begin? What trends are you seeing with regard to students and employees bringing infants to school/work? Let’s continue the conversation.

 

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5 thoughts on “Lactivism: Breastfeeding Activism on Campus

  1. I really loved this post. Thank you Heather. I just finished pumping at work and it is a frenzy (that luckily I too had a private office with a lock!).

  2. Great Post Heather. Our lactation room in the new union is a talking point on every tour I do. Its an opportunity to discuss the needs of many on campus. I too have helped create rooms on campus and it can be rather simple. After doing so, I was asked to meet with the Council on the Status of Women. After hesitancy…(why would male be asked to come talk about this resource?)..the discussion was great. It is easy to get bogged down by inability to create the perfect space, but there are great guidelines out there to help plan for a room and I found this one to be great: http://www.aia.org/aiaucmp/groups/secure/documents/pdf/aiap037226.pdf.

    As a male, these rooms are critical if one thinks “wouldn’t I want my wife/sister/coworker/daughter/(insert relationship) to have a resource like this”? Furthermore, as the resident mixologist (my job was to unpack, sterilize, package, portion, and repack the contraption for the next day – for two kids until age 1), I can sympathize with the distractions and angst of breastfeeding. Often I would ask “what happened? you got less/more than normal?” knowing the slightest thing could have big impacts.

    I will say one big item to consider in designing rooms is that while many mothers do not mind nursing in public, some prefer privacy. This also does not even consider norms from other cultures (which I am not aware of) that may exist.

    I would also include guests in your list of intended users. We treat our room as an amenity and often get asked for it due to a visiting speaker, conference participant, etc. Getting a room on the same reservation system as meeting rooms allows for more awareness of this resource.

    “Trends” I have seen include Baby Care or child friendly rooms which are open to mothers and fathers. These have the same feel of a lactation room but are not single occupant restrooms.

    A perk and word of advice: Make sure the room has wireless internet!

  3. We recently got a lactation room in our new Student Success Center on campus which also houses our health center, hopefully women on campus will feel encouraged to use this space. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but understand that it has plenty of outlets for plugging in the pump and women should still be able to connect to our campus wifi (I could clean out my inbox swiftly while pumping!).
    I was fortunate like you Heather to have an office door with a lock as well as a supportive office; I am one of many young mothers in my office so pumping is a part of our office culture.

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