Adrienne Pine was in a jam. The assistant anthropology professor at American University was about to begin teaching “Sex, Gender & Culture,” but her baby daughter woke up in the morning with a fever. The single mother worried that she had no good child-care options.
So Pine brought her sick baby to class. The baby, in a blue onesie, crawled on the floor of the lecture hall during part of the 75-minute class two weeks ago, according to the professor’s account. The mother extracted a paper clip from the girl’s mouth at one point and shooed her away from an electrical outlet. A teaching assistant held the baby and rocked her at times, volunteering to help even though Pine stressed that she didn’t have to. When the baby grew restless, Pine breast-fed her while continuing her lecture in front of 40 students.
Now Pine finds herself at the center of a debate over whether she did the right thing that day and what the ground rules are for working parents who face such child-care dilemmas.
On Tuesday morning, university officials issued a statement about the incident that seemed to indicate some disapproval of Pine’s actions, generally citing them as a health issue because the baby was sick. But school officials also noted that the situation was one that could confront any parent with multiple responsibilities. The university emphasized that faculty members should take advantage of options such as sick leave, break times and private areas for nursing mothers to express milk so they can “maintain a focus on professional responsibilities in the classroom.”
“Every working parent can empathize with facing the choice of an important day at work when a child gets sick,” officials added in a second statement Tuesday afternoon. “Both demand your focus and attention. There is no easy or ideal alternative.”
Some students interviewed Tuesday said breast-feeding doesn’t belong in the classroom.
Pine, who expected that headlines would emerge when a student newspaper reporter asked her about what happened in the Aug. 28 class, sought to frame the discussion with an online essay titled “The Dialectics of Breastfeeding on Campus: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet.”
In the Sept. 5 essay, Pine wrote that she was “shocked and annoyed that this would be considered newsworthy.” She lamented that her workplace had suddenly become “a hostile environment.” She also upbraided journalists at the Eagle student newspaper — which, as of Tuesday afternoon, had not published any article on the matter — and wrote that the tone of a reporter’s questions implied an “anti-woman” view.
University officials, however, said professors should avail themselves of other options rather than expose students to potential illness.
“For the sake of the child and the public health of the campus community, when faced with the challenge of caring for a sick child in the case where backup childcare is not available, a faculty member should take earned leave and arrange for someone else to cover the class, not bring a sick child into the classroom,” university spokeswoman Camille Lepre said in an e-mail.