Breast-feeding while teaching isn’t what makes this woman a boob

Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 12, 2012

The American University professor who breast-fed her baby while teaching a class was inappropriate, judgmental and flat-out absurd.

But it wasn’t feeding a sick ­1-year-old that made her look like a boob.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Adrienne Pine went ballistic because the very natural act of feeding a child clearly freaked out at least one of her students, and the college paper asked a reporter to check it out after people began tweeting about it.

Pine’s reaction to that inquiry was deplorable. But let’s get back to that.

First, was it kosher for her to feed her kid while lecturing on the very first day of class?

I have totally been in awkward situations when I was nursing. Being a breastaurant open 24-7 and having any kind of adult life is difficult. I have nursed a child in three countries, on airplanes, in restaurants, parks, auditoriums and movie theaters. I will add to that résumé a cemetery, the bow of an inflatable dinghy, a ski gondola at 9,000 feet and — I swear this is true — in a two-horse open sleigh.

But I am also a bit uncomfortable with the lactivists and the nursing women who do it in your face, making something that should be no big deal into a shocking political statement.

It would be great if it weren’t a big deal, if the same people who go to Hooters didn’t get all skeeved out when they are forced to acknowledge that those delicious breasts might be yummy to very little people, too.

But, sadly, we’re not there just yet.

I don’t think I ever did an interview while nursing (at least not a face-to-face one). And I’m guessing that nursing lawyers don’t breast-feed while taking depositions and that nursing doctors don’t have infants latched on while seeing patients. That wouldn’t be professional.

I wish Pine had turned over the lectern to her teaching assistant or maybe given the students a short reading assignment while she stepped aside to nurse her daughter to sleep. It would’ve illustrated the superwoman nature of what she was pulling off — work/life balance, the beauty of a woman’s capabilities, her trust in the teaching assistant.

But her decision to breast-feed while lecturing wasn’t her biggest lapse in judgment.

Last I heard, it is a professor’s job to enlighten, teach and explain. In an online essay, “The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet,” Pine said she didn’t whip out the milk to create a teachable moment (though that kind of bold performance while teaching a feminist anthropology class might have earned her points for creativity and chutzpah).

She was a working mom with a sick baby, and she was in a bind. End of story, she explained in her essay, which she published on the Web site CounterPunch to preempt anything the student newspaper was planning to publish.

The young journalist, Heather Mongilio, was responding to a tip from a student who was obviously uncomfortable with seeing a professor she or he had just met breast-feed her baby in the middle of a lecture. And let’s be real, most college kids probably have had very little interaction with breasts in this context.

Looking at the e-mails between them, Mongilio was careful, respectful and thorough.

But rather than work with the student journalist in a calm, mature and professional way, Pine lost it. And me.

She was mean to Mongilio, excoriating her for asking questions. Pine ridiculed, belittled, mocked and lashed out at the student and the paper. She shared e-mails she wrote to the AU Eagle attempting to censor the paper, demanding that its editors shut down the story. And she succeeded.

In her essay, Pine wrote that the “ideal of the university is to be a forum where ideas can be exchanged and debated publicly.” Except when you don’t like the ideas, I suppose.

I did not want to slam this woman. We get in trouble for staying home with a sick kid and for working with a sick kid. We get told to breast-feed, then we freak people out when we do it. It is a constant struggle to strike a balance that works.

But attacking a student who asks questions and trying to censor a student newspaper is not feminist, not motherly and definitely not professorial.

Professor Pine completely lost her teachable moment.

Follow me on Twitter: @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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