Thursday, April 26, 2007

Human Rights vs. Hegemony

I spent a lot of time last week banging my head against the wall, trying to figure out for myself how to have a reasoned, respectful conversation with people who wish breastfeeding mothers and children would disappear from public. "How do I talk to people who come from such a different perspective?" I asked myself and other veteran breastfeeding advocates. I don't think that all the people who complain about breastfeeding in public are horrible, insensitive least, I don't want to think they are. There must be a way to talk about this issue that strikes a chord with them. Despite all the head-banging, I remained at a loss. Then this email from UK mum Morgan Gallagher arrived in my inbox. She was responding to emails from other breastfeeding advocates and professionals that were supportive of the outcome of the situation at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston. Here is the most articulate argument I've read in sometime for why I do all I do to support breastfeeding. It so clarified my thinking and I urge you to read it, too. Morgan gave me permission to post and hopes that people will find what she wrote useful.
I’m finding it increasingly difficult to read, and respond to, the posts which suggest it was Jessica and Tobin’s responsibility in RHM to prepare the way for her nursing. That is not unreasonable for Jessica to be asked to ‘announce’ her intention to nurse for, after all, we all need to find a way to rub along together.

I’m finding it hard to read these posts, as they seem to be suggesting that all parties involved have equal rights in the matter. Tobin’s need to be nurtured is of equal status as the rights of the ‘offended’ party in having to watch such an uncomfortable act.

This is complete nonsense. There is only one right here: Tobin’s right to nurse. That’s why there is a law stating so, no matter how ineffective it turns out to be.

Tobin has an inalienable human right here that is being denied. The right of a human child to human milk, to nurture and nourish when its psychobiology requires it.

The offended onlooker does not have any rights to be protected. The offended onlooker has a personal issue, a feeling of discomfort and unease, that requires handling. A cultural dissonance, that needs acknowledged, responded to, engaged with and hopefully smoothed away. The nursing dyad has no such personal issue in this paradigm. The nursing dyad is not operating out of a cultural context. The nursing dyad has supreme importance and protection in this scenario.

There is a simple truth here, that is so awesome and complete in its simplicity, that it’s in danger of being overlooked: breastfeeding an infant is not a lifestyle choice. It is not a cultural convention. It is not a personal statement. It is a biological imperative. It is our essential nature. It is an essential element of our species, and the continuation of it. It is a biological norm.

We do not choose to breastfeed. We can choose not to. Likewise, we do not choose to breastfeed in public. We can choose not to. Breastfeeding is not a cultural construct. Not breastfeeding, is. Nursing an infant when the infant needs it, is a biological norm. Deciding that this needs to be done in a certain place, at a certain time, or in a certain way, is a cultural value.

The problem with many of the comments in here over the past couple of days, comments about tolerance, offence, understanding that other parents are going to be askance at nursing twins is that these arguments place nursing within a cultural paradigm. It positions the debate in one of opinion, feelings and cultural mores. In doing this, it assigns equal right to all participants, not to have their feelings etc ‘offended’ and that they all have equal standing in the debate: no one position is more valued or ‘protected’ than the other. Different cultures often do things so differently from each other, that problems and tensions arise when people of the differing cultures meet are best met with discussion, sharing views etc. All laudable comments on such problems as they arrive in a multi-cultural society.

However, breastfeeding is not a cultural activity. Therefore it does not belong in the cultural difference paradigm. As a biological normative behaviour, it exists in a complete different paradigm: that of human rights.

Quite often, when this sort of thing is discussed, someone will say, Would you ask a black person to go eat in their room if someone else was offended? and a huge debate will fall open about whether or not that was an appropriate thing to say. One side will scream its not appropriate to reference colour, the other will say, Why not? and off the merry go round will go.

Well, I’m going to raise it here as an example of what I mean by the basic difference between arguing about a cultural convention and a biological norm.

Being black is a biological norm. In fact, it’s the biological norm. Being white is actually the absence of being black. To discriminate against someone on the basis of colour, is to discriminate on their essential biology. It is to discriminate against their right to exist: it impinges on their human rights. There is no logic, rhyme or reason to such discrimination. It is a cultural construct imposing lunacy on the essential nature of humans. No one decides to be black. It is not a cultural concept. It is not a lifestyle choice. It is an essential artefact of human biology. It is.

As is breastfeeding.

Remembering that we do not choose to breastfeed we can only choose not to. All babies are born to breastfeed. It is not a cultural concept. It is not a cultural artefact. They are not making a lifestyle choice. They are following their biological, and psychobiological, imperatives. They are doing what humans do they are suckling for nurture, for nourishment and for survival. It is.

That is why they need the protection of the human rights paradigm, not the cultural one.

When laws are passed to protect the nursing dyad, these laws are not about protecting cultural difference. It is not about soothing cultural dissonance. It is not about protecting feelings, emotions or opinion. It is about protecting the essential normative biology of a nursing dyad. It is to prevent cultural suppression of an innate human characteristic. Just as being black, is an innate human characteristic.

I reiterate: breastfeeding is not a lifestyle choice. It is not something you choose to do. It is something you can only choose not to do. If you accept that an infant has an inalienable human right to human milk, and to comfort and soothe on the mother’s breast, you must also hold up its right to do so when it needs to regardless of how offended the ‘onlooker’ in. By all means soothe the onlooker but don’t make it the responsibility of the mother to do the soothing.

Keeping nursing in public debates with the cultural paradigm is completely and utterly redundant in our current society. It was once the only place the debate could take place, and we must thank, and support, the previous generations in their struggle in that paradigm. Many nursing mothers here and now, are only here because of the work of previous generations, who in the Great Drought sought to change personal opinion when they could.
Slowly, gently, and in a ‘let’s all get along nicely’ way. Wonderful women fighting a small, slow battle, inch by inch. Thank you.

However, we are not there anymore. Keeping the debate in the cultural paradigm is not only no longer useful it is detrimental to progress. Keep it in the cultural battlefield and you do several things, all of them

For starters, you place all the pressure on the individual mother, and her infant. Jessica Swimely has carried that entire pressure of this battle on her head over the past few days as the law that is there to prevent her
from having to do so, has failed her. By keeping the cultural paradigm in mind, you make it about the mother making the inroads into culture. You makes statements as a society that breastfeeding is to be protected but you leave the individual mother to take the flack. She must make the choices daily, on where and when her child’s psychobiological needs are suppressed by the hegemony. She carries the burden.

As does the infant.

In addition, you get all the cultural ‘debates’ that take up the time and energy and prevent progress. The female human breast is ‘sexual’ and it’s understandable that others will be offended. Ehm no. The female human breast is not sexual. It does not carry a biologically determined normative function of ‘sexual attraction’. (Enlarged breasts actually mimic the true sexual attraction the human bottom. Large breasts are not biologically
standard.) Culture dictates whether or not it is a sexualised organ. Keep the debate in cultural mores keep having endless arguments about seeing sexual body parts. Some USA State laws have even identified this as part of the protective law and stated legally that a nursing breast is not a sexual object. When you accept, and promote, the concept that nursing in public is a cultural debate, you actually end up undermining what you’re trying to protect by constantly allowing the ever rolling debate on such trivial points as to how much of a breast can be seen before offence is caused. Unless it’s a non-nursing breast, in which case you’re allowed rather a lot of it on billboards.

You also create space for the debate to include when and why weaning should occur and further undermine normal nursing practices from establishing. Lest we forget, this is about nursing toddlers. Every single time one of the posters in here has made a comment about how it is understandable that people have reacted badly to nursing twin toddlers, a dagger has been struck in the heart of many of us. Two extremely pernicious concepts have bobbed to the surface here one is the ‘indiscrete’ women, making it harder for laws to be passed, as she ‘whips it out’ and alienates people. Concurrent with this is the notion that those of us nursing toddlers in public are making it harder for acceptance, as we are acting so far out of the cultural norm. Shame! Shame on you! How can you possibly justify discussing a woman’s body, and her biological imperative to nurture her infant in such negative and unjust terms? How can you stand up and say you support breastfeeding, but you can see that those nursing toddlers are better advised to hide more than the others? How can you undermine the very women fighting longest and hardest to establish normative nursing patterns. How can you justify suggesting that women nursing in public hinders breastfeeding awareness?

Yet you do all of these things, when you argue about breastfeeding as a cultural issue. Because the very nature of cultural debate is to state that all sides have some points to make, and must be accommodated.

Breastfeeding is not a cultural artefact. Breastfeeding is a biological norm. The ability of the infant to access their mother’s milk when and where it chooses, is a human rights issue. The right of the human infant to nourish and comfort itself at the mother’s breast when it requires to, is an inalienable human right. A woman having control of her own body, in order to nourish her infant regardless of cultural suppression, is her inalienable human right.

These are human rights, not cultural debates. We can act in order to get along nicely where possible, but the right of the human child to breastfeeding is paramount.

And lest we forget, the cost of the lack of nursing, is death for many human babies. In the USA, 2 babies per thousand die for being on formula. Many many more get ill. In the wider world, 3500 babies a day die for lack of breastfeeding. In the time it’s taken me to write this over 7000 babies have died. And in the global village we live in, the lack of nursing in the West, feeds into that statistic. Women in the West feeding their infants in closed rooms, are not seen by their own communities, by the expectant mothers around them but they are also not seen by the mothers of the Third World, desperate to give their babies ‘the best’. These women only see white, affluent and incredibly healthy babies and mothers on the sides of cans of expensive formula. By keeping our nursing mothers bundled in the corner, or locked in bedrooms with their toddlers, or asking the common room to clear before feeding them we contribute to the problem. But that’s okay, because the father over there, feeding his sick baby formula, is appeased.

Women chose not to nurse because they live in a culture that disapproves of it. We cannot change this, by working within the culture to ‘smooth it all out’. We cannot dump the responsibility on the individual nursing mother to prevent offence. We must act to protect her rights to nurse, and her child’s right to nurse. Their human rights. Full stop. Period. End of.

Working in terms of the sensibilites of the onlooker to nursing, was once useful. Yesterday. Or even the day before yesterday. We can acknowledge how useful it was, and how much was acheived, as we move on to tomorrow.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New York Times Covers Ronald McDonald House Breastfeeding Debacle

The New York Times covered the RMH story in this morning, but missed some important points.

"They [RMH administrators] agreed that the sisters could nurse in public areas if they were sensitive to others around them. McDonald House would work on clarifying its guidelines, Ms. Scott said." Being sensitive to others, as defined by the RMH administrators, means the moms are to announce their plans to nurse, yet then nurse "discreetly." As I wrote yesterday, this is extraordinarily silly and contradictory.

"Asked if the staff might have avoided the confrontation, [RMH Houston Executive Director] Ms. Scott said: 'It happened so fast, I don’t know what else we could have done. We feel we fell down the rabbit hole with all this.'"

What else could they have done? Hmmmm. Think think think. (Yes, I'm answering her Alice in Wonderland reference with a Winnie the Pooh reference.) How 'bout acting with as much concern for this mother and her young child as they were for the complaining father? How 'bout educating the father that this is how this mom comforts her child, instead of passing along his complaints to her? How 'bout not issuing thinly veiled threats to have this family removed from their accommodations?

What's missing from the Times coverage is what's still missing in this story. RMH administrators have not apologized for adding to this family's anxiety or for how insensitively managers at Holcombe House handled the situation. It has not made any public announcements to fully support breastfeeding in all its facilities and to educate its staff on the importance of accommodating breastfeeding families. It's hard to knock an organization like Ronald McDonald House that does such marvelous, charitable work for families with desperately ill children. One has to wonder, however, how this situation got so out of control and how even with a story in the New York Times, no one at RMH has come out with unequivocal message in support of breastfeeding families.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ronald McDonald House Tells Mom, "You can breastfeed, but..."

While I am glad Jessica Swimeley and her family will be able to remain at the Holcombe Ronald McDonald House in Houston, the resolution to this story is yet another disappointment. Dictating to mothers about how they may breastfeed is condescending. Telling them to warn others before nurseing, yet be discreet about how they nurse, is contradictory to say the least. A roomful of grownups came up with this? It's as silly as the stuff my four-year-old and her friends come up with!

Jessica and her sister Melanie want the Board of Directors of RMH Houston to adopt a policy that supports and protects all breastfeeding families that stay at its facilities and ensure that no other families experience the shaming and thinly veiled threats they experienced. They're asking for your help. Start by sending a letter to

Deborah Gibson
President, RMH Board of Directors
Ronald McDonald House-Houston
1907 Holcombe Boulevard
Houston, TX 77030

And a carbon copy of your letter to RMH HQ:

Ronald McDonald House Charities
One Kroc Drive
Oak Brook, IL 60523

You can also email the Attorney General of Texas Greg Abbott and urge him to look into this matter, as the RMH policy to tell mothers to breastfeeding in private appears to be a violation of Texas law.

If you're from Texas, take a moment to use this form to send a letter of support for the bill meant to strengthen your states breastfeeding in public statute.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Good News & Bad News

It's late and I'm very tired after a wild night of knitting with my mom-friends, so I'm just going to block quote Melanie's update from the meeting with RMH staff and board members. Comments? I'll have some tomorrow morning, as well as contact information for further letters to the RMH board of directors.
The meeting was about 2 hours long and included myself and my sister, a representative from the LLL, and a doctor from the area who is responsible for some big research on breastfeeding. I will not mention their names as I have not asked them for permission to do that but we thank them both for their support! We could not have handled the meeting without them. I contacted the suggested LLL person in Texas (again no names) and she sent them right out. She was great as well and worked tirelessly for us today.

From the RMH Arlene, the Director of Operations, as well as Naomi, the Executive Director, attended as well as a couple of their board members.

After a very lengthy conversion with many twists and turns the RMH is allowing us to stay. We are from now on allowed to breastfeeding in the communal areas if we follow some rules they have set forth and not too many people complain about it. They said if just one person complains they will tell them they support breastfeeding and discuss with them why they are concerned. If many people were to complain they will have to deal with that as it comes up, they could not say how as they have not encountered the situation.

The rules we are to follow are that we are to be discreet, this is at our discretion, meaning we choose what discreet means but they said they will obviously know if we are not being discreet if people are complaining that they are uncomfortable with us nursing.

We are also being asked to inform the people around us before we begin nursing if we think there is anybody that may be uncomfortable with it. We are to tell them nicely that we are going to breastfeed, in case they want to leave or look away.

There was alot of discussion about what discreet meant, but after some pretty silly possibilities for discretion they decided it would be up to us as to what that meant. They said they would not bother us about nursing again unless many people complained, which nobody felt was likely to happen.

The RMH wanted us to tell everybody that the RMH supports breastfeeding moms...they were VERY adamant about it. You can decide for yourself if that is true, I am only passing on what they said to us.

Now, at this point, this only applies to us. When asked how other nursing moms would be treated they said they cannot make any changes right in the room but that they will be examining the practice, or oral guidelines, of asking breastfeeding moms to stop. They said they did not have the power to make policy change, it had to go to the board; which they said they would seriously discuss doing.

Obviously alot more was said in 2 hours but this is the gist of the situation. If they really do examine their guideline this could be a really good thing but we will have to follow up to make sure that happened. Please if you decide to write anymore letters(and they received ALOT of letters) please do so to encourage them to reexamine thier guidelines and to thank them for considering it. Although they were not apologetic to us they have agreed to reexamine their stance and this could be really good for alot of nursing moms. If we handle this correctly this could mean national change for the RMH.

We will be waiting to find out how this plays out in the following days and will will update as needed. Lots of media have contacted us from all kinds of large outlets and I am still not sure who, if anyone, I will talk to at this point. We are trying to decide how to best help ALL moms.

We want this to benefit moms across the board so me and Jessica will be working to change their guidelines as we go. And the LLL says they will continue to offer us support. We are not giving up on a full scale policy protecting moms, but we will have to wait for a board decision on that. This will take time but I am confident that we can make this happen.

THANK YOU ALL FOR OUR SUPPORT!!!!! Above all if you all had not done what you have done I suspect we would not have had the outcome we did or even had that meeting.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Melanie posted an update on the situation in Houston as of this morning.
I just spoke to Naomi Scott, the Executive Director of the RMH Houston, and we have a meeting this afternoon at 4pm. She came back from her vacation early to handle the situation. Unlike Arlene, Unlike Arlene, Naomi was very pleasant on the phone but she told me that although they are not kicking us out right now that it is a guideline (an oral one) to ask all breastfeeding mothers to go to their rooms to nurse. This is the first I have heard of any oral guideline from anyone. It was never mentioned before. She told me this was because they had multicultural residents here and that they need to protects all the residents from feeling uncomfortable. Because of this they are not changing their stance on us breastfeeding downstairs.
I find myself struck dumb with disbelief and yet not surprised in the least. First, I must say I'm amazed by Naomi Scott's creativity. I don't think I've heard the "respecting cultural differences" argument for discriminating against breastfeeding mothers and children before, but it sounds to me like a new twist on the same ol' same old: The psychological comfort of adults who fetishize breasts is more important than the physical and emotional comfort of a young child. The sensitivities of people who can look away from a scene that causes them discomfort should be respected, but not the sensitivities of a mother, who has been shamed and threatened during an already stressful time by the very institution that offered her help.

I hoped against hope that this situation would be resolved quickly, so this family could get on with focusing on the care of Tobin. Shame on these misguided people who seem bent on blackening the reputation of Ronald McDonald House and giving these people such a hard time. I'm awaiting an update from Melanie and will post here again as soon as I have news.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ronald McDonald House in Houston Demands Mother & Child Nurse in Private

According to its web site, Ronald McDonald House "offers a home away from home to the families of children undergoing treatment for cancer and other serious illnesses." Jessica Swimeley, mother of a 17-month-old twin undergoing surgery on a brain tumor, thought she had found a safe and welcoming haven at Hollcombe House, a Ronald McDonald House near the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, but was shocked when asked by an RMH employee to leave a common area of the house, where she and her children normally eat, and nurse her son in their room, three floors up (where, by the way, the family is not suppose to eat). Understanding the importance of breastfeeding on demand, especially for a sick child and knowing the inconvenience of frequent trips to her room, this mom protested the request, that appears to be a violation of Texas law. She spoke to the person on staff who originally told her to nurse in her room, then had a phone conversation with Arlene Whatley, the Hollcombe House Director of Operations, who told Jessica that families who do not "acclimate to the environment at RMH should find somewhere else to stay."

Jessica's husband is serving in the Air Force, so her sister Melanie Mayo-Laakso is staying at Hollcombe House to help with the children. She said she came down to the common room to find her sister in tears after speaking with Arlene on the phone. Wanting to help her sister, who understandably is under a lot of strain already, Melanie tried speaking with the RMH employees, too. On the Mothering magazine discussion forum, Melanie writes, "I pulled up the state law on my laptop and after a lengthy discussion the administrator acted as if she was going to examine the law so she understood it and move on. I thought that was the end of it. Today I find out they may be kicking us out of the RMH because we refused to comply with what they call their 'interpretation of the law.' Their interpretation is that if they provide somewhere else for us to nurse they don't have to let us nurse in public places."

Does this sound like "separate but equal" to you, too?

Human breast milk kills cancer cells and even adult cancer patients drink breast milk to boost their immune systems and get relief from the side effects of chemotherapy. Infringing upon this child's access to potentially life-saving nourishment is a gross violation of his human rights. Ronald McDonald House Charities does so much to help families and I hold out hope that someone in the organization will do the right thing, right away, and ensure that families with sick children find accommodations that support and protect breastfeeding families, rather than shame and threaten them. Please, now, write to Naomi Scott, Ronald McDonald House Houston Executive Director and insist that she call for an immediate change in policy, welcoming breastfeeding in all public areas of RMH Houston and make plans to educate all RMH employees about the importance of providing breastfeeding friendly accommodations. Please send copies of your letters Susie Richard, RMH Houston Director of Operations and to Arlene Whatley, Hollcombe House Director of Operations. If you can, please fax a copy of your letter to Ronald McDonald House Charities headquarters, 630.623.7488, or call 630.623.7048 to register your concern about this situation in Houston. Let them know that families across North America are appalled by what's happening to this family and demand immediate resolution.