Here in rural Pennsylvania, we have a radio plug for breastfeeding. The government plug features a man speaking with a deep Southern accent, and country music plays in the background.
Why the cowboy pitch? The answer is that highly educated women are already
on the breastfeeding bandwagon. They know the American Academy of Pediatrics
recommends that newborns be breastfed exclusively for six months because it
reduces the incidence of respiratory infections, Chron's disease, diarrhea,
infections, SIDS, botulism, allergies, and even improves cognitive development. And rates of breastfeeding at six months of age rose from 27 percent in 2001 to over 36 percent in 2003.
That's good news for kids, and it's good that the government is promoting breastfeeding with radio spots. But, in case you missed it, there are still a lot of men out there who believe a woman's place is in the home. A hundred years ago, men said women were too weak to work, or too emotional for serious jobs. Seventy years ago, many employers had 'marriage bars,' so any woman who got married (much less had children) could be fired because she couldn't be a devoted wife and employee at the same time. Twenty-five years ago, we heard that employment was bad for children -- if the employee happened to be a mom. Each of these claims turned out to be false, and was gradually rejected.
Breastfeeding is the newest weapon in the war to keep women at home, and it is indeed powerful. Breastfeeding is a good thing to do, but requires a lot of time, as in feeding every one to three hours. Many men and employers are more than happy to accommodate by sending women home. Fathers are often willing to work longer hours at work to support mom, and employers may even offer to take her back once the children are a bit older.
It's not just employers and fathers. Sophie Currier requested extra breaks to breastfeed or pump during her nine hour medical licensing exam. But the request was denied by the National Board of Medical Examiners and, as of last week, by a federal judge. The judge suggested that Sophie put off taking the test until she completes breastfeeding, a strategy that would lose her a residency in clinical pathology at prestigious Mass. General Hospital. The 'stay at home and breastfeed' message could not have been clearer.
For most women, the option of staying home is financially difficult or impossible. For many poor, single moms, staying home is also borderline illegal: 20 states require single mothers of infants to hold down a job in order to receive welfare benefits. Paid parental leave would help, but we haven't heard any of the presidential candidates talking up six full months of paid leave recently.
That leaves only one solid option: pumping breastmilk at the workplace, and storing it for later use. This can be done with some private space and equipment under a lactation program, and many employers have already figured this out. Last year, 23 percent of all employers surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management, and 91 percent of the Working Mother Top 100 employers had lactation programs.
Obviously, 23 percent is not a majority. We need more. Many state legislatures know this and, while only 13 states have directly addressed breastfeeding in the workplace, a total of 39 states have laws protecting breastfeeding in public and private places, and 10 of those laws were passed since the beginning of 2006.
We really need federal legislation, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney recently introduced the Breastfeeding Promotion Act. The Act would prohibit discrimination against breastfeeding employees, and would partially fund lactation programs. You can help by signing the MomsRising petition in favor of the Act, and I urge you to do so.
Supportive cowboys are good. Supportive workplaces would be much better.
Robert Drago is a Professor of Labor Studies and Women's Studies at Penn State University, and the moderator of the workfamily newsgroup. His latest book is Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life.