The XX Factor

Professors Should Not Breast-Feed in Class

Adrienne Pine, assistant professor at the American University Department of Anthropology.

Courtesy American University.

Amanda, you wrote eloquently yesterday about the kerfuffle over Adrienne Pine—the assistant professor at American University who made the front page of the Washington Post for breast-feeding her sick baby while delivering a lecture to her “Sex, Gender & Culture” class. But I have to disagree with your contention that this dustup is about a mother’s right to nurse in public. It’s about Pine’s selfish decision to inflict her work/life balance issues on her students.

Women have every right to breast-feed in public. Pine’s mistake was insisting that she could do her job at the same moment that she was nursing her daughter.

I sympathize with Pine’s struggle to maintain her career while serving as a single mother. Young children require 24/7 care, and if you don’t have a spouse or childcare provider available when you want to engage in something else, then you face a choice—neglect your child or neglect that something else (in Pine’s case, her job). Pine made the correct decision—she put her child ahead of her students—but in doing so, she refused to acknowledge her choice to shortchange her class.

Her job at American University requires her to focus on her students for 75 straight minutes. It’s not a lot to ask, but she failed. The reality that Pine dismisses is that you cannot give your full attention to your child and your work at the same time. Instead, she gave both her divided attention. It was a selfish choice that allowed her to feel as if she was doing it all, while in reality she was falling down on both jobs. (Pine says that at one point during her lecture, her daughter “crawled a little too close to an electrical outlet.”)

It’s dishonest for Pine to act as if she had no options. A spokesperson for American University said it best, in a statement to the Washington Post:

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.

Pine had the right to take time off to care for her feverish baby. Instead, she chose to expose her 40 or so students to a sick child. Her daughter wasn’t allowed at daycare, because sick babies are notorious germ vectors, so why did Pine think it was ok to expose her students?

You’re right, Amanda, to characterize her defense as “pedantic and needlessly defensive.” Her insistence that a news story about the incident would create a hostile work environment is an insult to women enmeshed in truly sexist workplaces. Pine did a crappy job of teaching on the first day of class, with at least half of her focus (and at one point, a breast) fixated on her child. Playing the victim when someone calls her on her unprofessional behavior only undermines her cause and perpetuates toxic stereotypes of women as victims of their biology. And her insistence that she could parent and teach at the same time devalues the hard work required for both tasks.