Breastfeeding in Parliament is defeat for women, not a victory.

Businesswoman with baby and PC

Australia’s Parliament recently voted to allow female representatives to breastfeed in the chamber. Lactivists are hailing it as a victory. It’s not; it is, paradoxically, a defeat.

Why? It undercuts the professionalism of women and it is a poor exchange for what they really need: generous maternity leave.

Women have struggled for decades to be taken seriously as professionals; breastfeeding at work, while actually working, is unprofessional.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#f27591″ class=”” size=””]Allowing women to breastfeed at work and therefore skip maternity leave is like allowing workers to eat at their desks and therefore skip a lunch break.[/pullquote]

When my children were babies, my husband occasionally brought them to the hospital to eat when I was available. I nursed them in the privacy of the on call room. I loved seeing them and nursing a baby is so much more enjoyable than pumping.

BUT … I never took my babies into patient rooms; I never brought them to the emergency room and nursed them while performing a D&C for miscarriage; I never had a baby nursing under my surgical gown when performing a hysterectomy or a C-section. It wouldn’t have been not merely unprofessional (although it would indeed have been unprofessional), it would have been disrespectful to patients. They deserved my full, undivided attention whether I was operating on them, examining them or merely talking to them.

I would be appalled if engaged a lawyer and she nursed her baby during a consultation, during a deposition, while arguing with opposing counsel or in court in the middle of a case.

I would be appalled if got on an airplane and the pilot were nursing her baby during my plane flight or even (perhaps especially) if the pilot were nursing while going through pre-flight safety checks.

I can’t think of a single professional whose performance would be enhanced by breastfeeding a child while working.

When Australian representatives are in the Parliament chamber, they are working. They are considering legislation, arguing with colleagues, engaged in procedural maneuvers, supposedly giving their full attention to the people’s business. Bringing a baby into the chamber to feed it is unprofessional. It deprives the people of a legislator who is fully engaged with the matter at hand and it deprives babies of mothers who are fully engaged with them.

Don’t tell me that babies need to eat. Adults need to eat, too, but not in the operating room, while court is in session, or in the cockpit in the midst of actively flying the plane. And while it might not be dangerous to eat while examining a patient, or in a client consultation, or during a job interview, it would be disrespectful.

Moreover, breastfeeding at work isn’t a matter of business accommodating mothers, which would be a victory; it’s all about mothers (and babies) accommodating business.

In the past two decades, the line between work and home has been blurred. Sure, in 1996 someone from work could call you at home to consult on a problem, but when you were out of the workplace, you were generally considered unavailable. Computers, smart phones, and email have changed all that. Work has invaded every moment of life. Unless you are out of the range of a satellite phone, you can always be contacted; your coworkers can always send you documents to peruse; your boss can always expect you to finish that report ASAP and send it immediately even if it’s 2 AM. Work has invaded the home and since there are only a limited number of hours each day, it has cut into family interactions. When my father came home from work, I only had to share him with my mother and sports on TV. When today’s parents of young children come home from work, their children often have to continue to share them with work even when they are physically present.

Allowing breastfeeding in the workplace is a cheap substitute for what women and babies really need: generous maternity leave.

In my view, the feminist ideal would be recognition that women are valuable as mothers and valuable as professionals and workers. The feminist ideal is NOT forcing women to bring mothering into the workplace where it will compromise both job performance and mothering.

Allowing women to breastfeed at work and therefore skip maternity leave is like allowing workers to eat at their desks and therefore skip a lunch break. It’s not a victory; it’s a defeat.