When a United Airlines employee tossed a blanket at a breastfeeding mother during the plane’s taxi, he thought he was doing his employer and its other customers a favor. According to Kristen Hilderman, who was flying from Houston to Vancouver in March, an employee named Keith didn’t even deign to speak to her about her breastfeeding, but instead dealt with her husband. After declaring her husband could “help her out,” he ignored Kristen’s question as to what she needed help with. When she then went to board her next flight, there was a sole blanket by her seat only.
Unlike mothers of years past, Kristen had social media at her disposal. All she needed to do was tweet. United had no choice but to pay attention.

Hilderman’s tweet, which was a photo of a lengthier complaint detailing the whole set of incidences and how they made her feel, has garnered about 2,500 retweets. The airline was then subjected to an onslaught of tweets and Facebook statements in support of Hilderman and of breastfeeding on airplanes and had to respond and later said crews were being counseled.

Breastfeeding in public has always been a contentious topic. From eye rolls and heavy sighs from people who feel like their rights are violated by a baby eating, to parents struggling to do what’s right for their children—including feeding them. Some mothers have no problem covering their breasts (and hence their babies’ heads) to appease those who would be offended at such a sight. Others don’t want to. The question always boils down to whose rights are more important? And subsequently, who even has rights in this situation to begin with. Should those simply looking to eat a meal at a local restaurant or fly from one location to another be subjected to a mother’s breast attached to an infant’s mouth? Should a mother trying to feed her child have to do logistical gymnastics to make that happen?

While public support seems to be turning toward the plight of the harried mother trying to keep her baby calm, some businesses are having trouble catching up, particularly when they receive a complaint from another customer about the breastfeeding. It’s easy to understand how this happens. If a business’s motto is “the customer is always right,” it can be hard to choose which customer actually is right. Most often, the business will side with the complainer, assuming theirs will be the business most easily lost if action is not taken. But in doing this, companies can attack an already vulnerable population. Ask any breastfeeding mom if she’s been harassed for trying to feed her child. The answer will most likely be yes. And when stacks and stacks of these instances pile up, women can feel embarrassed, shamed, and outraged.

Sometimes, these days, instead of meekly acquiescing and feeling like second-class citizens, mothers will use the weapons at their disposal—namely social media—to turn the shame on its head and feed it right back to the business. This changes the companies’ struggle from a one-on-one customer battle of “rights” to a publicly discussed and judged incident of a business treating a customer as less than.

And I, for one, say finally.

Finally we have the ability to move the onus of breastfeeding malice from the mothers who are simply doing their jobs to company policies that are definitely not doing their jobs.

In Hilderman’s case, United Airlines issued both a public and a private apology and made allusions to “counselling” for their crews. So far it falls short of spelling out their breastfeeding policies and supporting their customer, but it is, at least, a start.

Another recent case of using social media to force companies to recognize the rights of breastfeeding women resulted in even better action. April Leamy was breastfeeding her 4-month-old baby at Fia Ristorante and Pizzeria in January, something she says she’s done many times before with no problem. On that day, however, another customer lodged a complaint with a server, who then went over to Leamy and asked her to stop.

She stood her nursing ground and asked to speak with the owner, Chris Paladino. Paladino told Leamy he didn’t have a problem with her breastfeeding, but he backed the customer with the complaint. Leamy says they went back and forth on the laws until Paladino finally said that as a private business owner, he didn’t need a legal reason to ask her to leave. So Leamy and her family immediately paid their check and left.

“I could have escalated it, but I was just so embarrassed already, and just done with it,” Leamy told me over the phone. The next day, Leamy posted about the incident on a private mom Facebook group to which she belongs. And that’s when the magic started happening. Leamy said the comment thread went on and on, then some of the moms decided to take their complaints to the restaurant’s Facebook page. She said at first Paladino was very defensive and tried to deny it even happened, but when she commented in response to him, he changed his tune.

“He sent me a private message, apologizing for what had happened, then he opened the restaurant the next weekend to local nursing mothers for brunch, and comped all our meals,” Leamy said.

Paladino has since publicly labeled his restaurant breastfeeding friendly and has pledged to support any nursing mother in the face of another customer complaint.

“It’s amazing how one little statement on Facebook can turn into something huge,” Leamy said of the experience. “You can change the world with just a couple keystrokes, and it’s just awesome.”

In this age of online immediacy, we have the power to change the way businesses do business. We have been granted a voice. It’s up to us to use it.

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer. She blogs at Parentwin and can be reached on Twitter @parentwin.

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