April Moments

Maybe, just maybe, telling the story is just as important as the story itself

The collision of three worlds: mothering, breastfeeding and marketing

Occasionally, different pieces of my world collide. Such collisions can be good, bad or just downright interesting.

Like when you discover that two long-time friends – one you know from your hometown elementary school and one you met during summer camp in a completely different state – know each other.

Or like when you spend weeks researching and writing a story about black lung disease, only to hear the day after the article is published that one of your immediate coal-mining family members has it.

My latest “collision” experience involves three pieces of my world: I am a mother. I am a breastfeeding mother. I am a work-outside-the-home mother whose job is in marketing and communications.

There have been three recent incidents involving breastfeeding mothers nursing their babies in public places. Employees of American Airlines, a recreation center in Burleson, Texas, and Chick Fil-A reportedly asked breastfeeding mothers to cover up. All three made national news in some form. Two involved large companies. All three resulted in the breastfeeding mothers’ form of protest – the nurse-in. (More on that later.)

(Side note: It is not my intention to engage in a breastfeeding vs. bottle-feeding debate. Just because I am a breastfeeding mama does not mean I am anti-bottle-feeding mamas. I like to think I support all moms, no matter what choices they make when it comes to the details of parenting.)

I guess many people think it is perfectly acceptable to ask a nursing mother to use a cover while her baby is eating. An American Airlines representative does. After a breastfeeding mother filed a formal complaint with the company, part of Tim Rhodes’ July 30 response was: “Because of the offense that may be taken by others within the close confines of commercial aircraft, we simply ask that breastfeeding be done with a certain discretion and a sense of modesty. We believe it is reasonable that we ask the mother to cover up…”

Besides the obvious (Would you like to eat under a blanket?), here’s the problem with asking a breastfeeding mother to use a cover. It implies that what she’s doing is indecent, and laws protect breastfeeding women from ever being arrested for indecency. Whether a nursing mom uses a cover or not should be her decision – and only her decision. It’s not something into which she should be coaxed.

My husband works in restaurant management, and, like the Chick-Fil-A employee in the aforementioned story, he has, sadly, received complaints from customers who are “offended” by breastfeeding mothers feeding their babies. Unlike the Chick-Fil-A employee, his reply to these people has always been, “She has the right to feed her baby.” God love him, right? Granted, any other answer, and he would suffer my wrath.

I certainly can’t speak for all breastfeeding mamas, but I can tell you that, in my case, I would never want to attract people’s attention while nursing. I am an introvert, so I tend to be a low-key person anyway. When thinking about my fellow breastfeeding mama friends, I would say most of them also prefer not to attract attention while nursing.

Keeping all that in mind, it seems completely counterintuitive that a businessperson would approach a breastfeeding mom and ask her to cover. Because you know what that does to the introverted, quiet, discreet, modest breastfeeding mom? It turns her into an angry, fighting, wide-eyed, activist mama bear.

Anyone who regularly deals with parents – daycare workers, teachers, pediatricians, etc. – has probably witnessed the mama bear reaction. It can change the world, people. Mess with a mom’s instincts, and a trailblazer is born. It seems to me that perhaps some businesspeople don’t understand this about moms. And maybe in their unknowing, they neglect to educate their employees on certain laws. Like laws that protect breastfeeding mothers. As Lucy Eades told the recreation center employee who asked her to use a cover, she has a right to breastfeed her baby, uncovered, anywhere she is authorized to be. She is right, and the city that runs the recreation center later issued a statement confirming it.

According to the “Good Morning America” story, American Airlines’ flight attendant (F/A) manual states, “Breastfeeding of infants is permitted during all phases of flight. F/As should not place restrictions or requirements on the mother of the infant.” I have to wonder, then, why Rhodes’ response, cited above, calls it reasonable to ask a mother to cover up. Isn’t that a restriction?

The take-home message that I am seeing in all three of these recent news stories is employers are not doing a good enough job educating their employees. Owners and managers at restaurants, grocery and department stores, libraries and any place that has mothers and young children as frequent customers need to know the laws themselves and convey them to their employees.

Without this education, someone will inevitably make the mistake of asking a breastfeeding mother to cover because other guests have complained and are “offended.” Can you imagine if everything that offended customers was brought to an employee’s or a manager’s attention? You know what offends me at restaurants? When people chew with their mouths open and smack their lips. My friend Leigh said she is offended when people don’t put a napkin on their laps. Perhaps we should all start complaining to restaurant managers when something others do offends us.

For some crazy reason, it is still acceptable in the United States for individuals to be “offended” by breastfeeding. Obviously, I wish that were not the case. Since it is, I hope that more businesspeople will do what my husband does – basically tell anyone who is offended that he or she can look away or leave the establishment. He knows the laws and would never ask a breastfeeding mom to use a cover.

If you’re wondering what my job in the marketing and communications field has to do with all this, allow me to explain. The classic response to a breastfeeding mama being asked to stop, leave or cover is to stage a nurse-in. Nursing moms converge on the business in question to breastfeed their babies and toddlers. It’s like saying, “Take that, silly business. Try and tell me I can’t breastfeed, and I’ll bring all my friends along next time!” See what I mean about the mama bear?

From a public relations perspective, a nurse-in is not something a company would choose. In addition to the coverage resulting from the employee’s original mistake, the media also usually show up at the nurse-in event. Double bad PR.

As a breastfeeding mother who works in marketing, I think the best thing a manager or employee can say to a nursing mom, if a customer complains about what she is doing, is this: nothing. Saying anything more than nothing will draw unwanted attention to the mother and negative, nationwide attention to the employee and the business.

Originally published on ovparent.com.

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