Unnur Bra Konradsdottir was faced with a dilemma.
The Icelandic lawmaker was sitting in parliament Wednesday, breast-feeding her 6-week-old daughter, when she was unexpectedly called to respond to a bill.
Konradsdottir, who has been an MP — a member of the Althing, the country’s parliament — since 2009, walked up to the lectern with her baby still at her breast. In full view of her fellow lawmakers and television cameras, she delivered her remarks with her daughter nursing quietly.
“It’s like any job: You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Konradsdottir later told Agence France-Presse. “It is the most natural thing in the world.”
If she was nervous, it didn’t show in videos of the session.
And if any of her fellow lawmakers were surprised, that didn’t show either.
After Konradsdottir finished speaking, a passionate debate continued — about the immigration law that the lawmakers had been discussing.
The breast-feeding itself was a nonissue, the 42-year-old member of the country’s Independence Party said.
“She was hungry and I had not expected to go to the pulpit,” Konradsdottir said, according to the Independent. “Then another MP was giving statements on a bill that I put forward on the behalf of the Judicial Affairs Committee, to which I had to respond. So I either had to tear the baby girl off me and leave her crying with the MP sitting next to me or just take her with me, and I thought it would cause less disturbance to take her with me.”
The baby is Konradsdottir’s third child and was born Sept. 1, according to the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. Konradsdottir said her fellow lawmakers were used to her baby anyway because she has been with her at the parliament “almost since she was born,” the Independent reported.
“She has attended numerous committee meetings with me over the final days of this parliament,” Konradsdottir said, according to the paper. “Usually she is very calm and when we cast our votes she is sound asleep. So there have never been any incidents before.”
According to Icelandic media outlets, it is believed to be the first time anyone in the country has breast-fed while giving a parliamentary speech.
But the fact that no one batted an eyelash is not surprising: Iceland has long had a liberal, relaxed view of breast-feeding in public.
How relaxed? Last March, Icelandic MP Bjort Olafsdottir, one of Konradsdottir’s colleagues, posted a picture of her breast on Twitter in support of the #FreeTheNipple campaign — a movement that argues that women are unequally punished for toplessness.
The attitudes correlate with the country’s progressive parental leave policies. Iceland is often ranked among the world’s best countries for new mothers and is also among the most generous countries when it comes to paternity leave, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2000, Iceland extended its parental leave to nine months, allotting three months to new mothers and three to new fathers, with the remaining three months divided between the parents as they chose. The federal policy covers parents who have been employed for six months or longer in Iceland and includes the birth, adoption or permanent fostering of a child.
By contrast, the United States does not guarantee paid leave for new mothers — one of the only highly competitive countries in the world not to do so, according to the same Pew Research Center report. Some of the other countries that also do not provide paid medical leave are Suriname, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau and Tonga, The Washington Post has reported.
Whether directly or indirectly related, stories regularly surface in the United States of women who have been shamed or assailed for breast-feeding in public.
Earlier this year, a judge in North Carolina told Stephanie Rhodus, a woman breast-feeding her 8-month-old son during a court appearance, to cover up or leave his courtroom, The Post reported.
“Ma’am, you need to cover up,” the judge can be heard saying in a recording of the incident. “For you not to realize that is absolutely ridiculous. Step outside, and cover up right now. Stand up, and go, now.”
“He was so condescending and so aggressive,” Rhodus told ABC News. “And I knew that by law I had the right to breast-feed my child there, and I wanted to declare that I had the right to do that there, but I was terrified.”
In June, several good Samaritans rushed to the defense of a Connecticut mother who was verbally accosted by a man for breast-feeding in the cafe section of a Target store.
The mother, Jessie Maher, filmed the encounter and posted it to Facebook after he called her “f---ing disgusting” and “nasty.” Shaking, Maher can be heard crying in the video as a woman comforts her and then shouts angrily back at the man. Eventually, several Target employees appear to escort the man toward the door.
“Don’t shake, you’re fine. He has no right to be doing what he’s doing — you have a baby in your hands,” the woman told Maher, adding: “This is a beautiful moment right now. If he doesn't like it, he can go.”
Dip a toe into any online parenting forum and you may find no more fervent debate than the one that surrounds breast-feeding.
The World Health Organization recommends breast-feeding exclusively until a child is 6 months old, continuing as appropriate. For some women, though, breast-feeding is uncomfortable and even painful, or otherwise not possible.
“We all know not to throw baby out with the bath water — but let’s not throw mother out for her milk either,” a trio of doctors wrote in a recent guest column for The Post. “Here’s our prescription: If breast-feeding works for you, great. If it doesn’t, don’t tie yourself in knots to make it happen.”
However, groups like La Leche League International and Normalize Breastfeeding say they are seeking to encourage those women who do choose to breast-feed by fighting the stigma that surrounds the act.
“Day after day, mothers around the United States are being removed from restaurants, asked to leave boutiques, and are often told to go to the restroom to breastfeed their babies,” reads a statement on Normalize Breastfeeding’s website. “It’s time to change that.”
They may have a new champion in Iceland.