Dear professors: don’t bring your kids to work

Prof. Pettigrew on the breastfeeding in class debate


Mothering Touch/Flickr

Something about the job of professor seems to make everything we do subject to scrutiny. If Dana the accountant decides to breast feed in a marketing meeting, she may raise eyebrows. A professor does the same thing in class and she makes international news.

So we must have some sympathy for Adrienne Pine, the American Anthropology professor who surprised her students by nourishing her offspring in the way God intended. Pine’s child was sick and could not, therefore, be taken to daycare, and rather than cancel class or leave the class to the TA, Pine brought the kid along. And when the little one got hungry, Pine let nature take its course.

Feminist critics have been quick to defend Pine on the grounds that any concerns raised are thinly-veiled attacks on women. Mary Elizabeth Williams notes that this is the dilemma of all working moms and that Pine’s mistake was in how she handled the subsequent press attention, not how she handled her baby.

Amanda Marcotte, over at Slate, on the other hand, says that Pine got called out because she displayed  “transgressively feminine behavior in the traditionally masculine role of college professor.” In other words, don’t be too much of a woman, lady, or people get pissed off.

Such defenses, though well meaning, miss the point.

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons why Pine should have rethought her decision to tote her tot to her talk. Even well-behaved children are likely to cause distractions both for professor and student—and not all children are well-behaved, especially if they are sick and hungry.

Besides, there were other solutions available. Get someone to cover your class; or just cancel the class. Profs do it all the time for worse reasons than Pine had.

But most importantly, cases like this seem to be indications of a troubling tendency to conflate people with their children, or rather for parents to think of their children as not just part of their lives, but part of themselves. Motherhood has become nearly synonymous with womanhood, to the detriment of all.

We are witnessing a kind of hyper-hetero-feminism on one hand where anything that makes parenting more difficult is construed as anti-woman. At the same time, it leads to an unintentional anti-feminism where women are reduced primarily, or only, to their role as mothers.

No disrespect to parents, but if you choose to have children, you accept certain responsibilities and agree to face certain challenges. We should not make things needlessly hard for mom and pop, but there are still places where little kids don’t belong. A university class is one of them.

Todd Pettigrew teaches English at Cape Breton University. Have a comment? Share it below.


Dear professors: don’t bring your kids to work

  1. Great article, Professor Pettigrew, I agree completely. I have to admit that, as a young woman, I am starting to find the “Supermom” trend rather troublesome. Although motherhood is a wonderful thing and should be honoured and respected, I am with you in the belief that the ability to balance (and keep separate) the roles of parent and working professional is crucial in order for a woman to maintain her identity as an individual.

    Also, I am getting heartily sick of all this constant carping about how hard it is to be “a working mom”. Fathers are just as important as mothers, and most men with families also have careers. They do not seem to demand special privileges for themselves, as parents, in the workplace. Why can’t women learn to be the same way? If women feel that they are unjustly shouldering most of the childrearing responsibilities after the baby has been born, then I would suggest that the best thing to do would be to demand that fathers be equally involved in the lives of their children — no more, no less. Surely that is a far better solution, and more in tune with gender equality, then expecting women to be allowed to have their children constantly attached to their hips. I would not want a female professor to breastfeed her baby when she is supposed to be giving a lecture, just as I would not approve of a male professor taking his child to class with him. There should be no special treatment in place for either sex.

  2. You do not have children, that is quite obvious. Mothers and fathers are both equally important in the lives of their children, but a mom is a mom – you’ll get it if you get to be one

    • The requirements of those committed to being good parents will fall such that one or the other parent’s job will be affected. It’s unavoidable. In most cases, it is the mother as the couple has decided she is better equipped to handle whatever comes up or her job is more flexible. In my household all parenting duties are shared equally (post-breastfeeding) and that does not somehow magically erase how demanding it is or how it affects one or both of our jobs at times. It definitely affects my husband’s job and requires him to ask special allowances if he is the one who’s going to deal with the sick kid that day.

      I hope you save your response above and, in a few years when you have kids, you review it. Don’t worry, I, too, said some silly things in my day when I didn’t have a clue what was going on.

      • I understand your point, Angela, but it is statements such as “In most cases, it is the mother as the couple has decided she is better equipped to handle whatever comes up or her job is more flexible” that I find problematic. We should perhaps be asking ourselves WHY it is the mother who is more often than not considered “better equipped” to do the main share of parenting responsibilities, why mothers are still expected to be the primary caregivers in our culture, and why it is that women’s careers are more easily and readily compromised than those of men.

        And, truly, another reason I object to such attitudes is because I find the constant undervaluing of fathers in our society deeply troubling. A case in point is AM’s contradictory comment above: to wit, mothers and fathers are equal, but moms are still more special. There are plenty of single fathers out there who raise their children single-handedly and do a great job, and there are plenty of mothers out there who are downright terrible. It is love and commitment that makes a good, competent parent — not having a particular set of body parts. Until we realize this and stop favouring the role of a mother over the role of a father, I think women’s lives will continue to be much harder than they need to be. I regret that you consider such a view “silly”, but there it is.

    • @AM – I apologise if I misunderstand you, but are you implicitly saying that single fathers or homosexual male fathers cannot provide equal care to their children as a Mom can?

  3. ps- I am in no way advocating for the choices of the professor above. I am trying to communicate that simply sharing the parenting load doesn’t alleviate all of the stresses and demands of parenting.

  4. So, what was the topic of her lecture in anthropology . . . ?

    Actually, I think it was probably a rather lame attempt by a career woman to show that she does put her kids first, when they need to be. Since feminism arrived, women have had to struggle to show that they really are feminine, and not hateful towards all things womanly.

    I don’t know how she could have taught, and concentrated on what her students had to say and respond to them, while caring for her infant, let alone breast-feeding it.

    I’ll bet she only has one.

  5. Perhaps a better title (and more useful in many campuses I could name) would be: “Kids, don’t bring your Professors to work.”

  6. I completely understand why the Professor brought her kid to class and find the brouhaha slightly ridiculous.

    1. Cancelling any professional activity because of a sick child is one of those things which ensures that the bias against giving responsibility to women in the workplace stays alive and well. There is a lot of pressure on women to keep things humming along regardless of unexpected events such as sick children.

    2. Working mothers know that the key to balancing motherhood and work is flexibility rather than “separateness”. Sometimes, creativity is required.

    In the end, since breastfeeding in public in our society remains slightly controversial, arguably, Prof. Pine’s main transgression boils down to a momentary lapse in good taste – I would not be offended, but can understand that not everybody may be that comfortable with the activity.

    But it is telling that no one bothers in this context to commend Prof. Pine for her dedication to her job and her students. She *could have* cancelled, she *chose* to go the extra mile, trying to please everybody at the same time – the ultimate balancing act.

    I’d give her brownie points and advise her to stay home with baby next time -baby will be a lot more grateful than her students or university. My experience as a working mother is that the cost of keeping things humming along sometimes simply isn’t worth it.

  7. Not to distract too much from the interesting issues raised about child-rearing responsibilities and so forth, but the baby was too ill to be at daycare, preumably because of concerns about spreading illness, the child’s comfort, or both. Don’t all of those also apply to the workplace? Surely, if you’re kept out of the one on the grounds of illness, you should also stay out of the other.

    • The immune system of a baby’s FAR different from that of an adult — a sick baby poses risk to other babies, not to adults.

      • @ Matthew B – you clearly do not have infants. Every new parent that I know who sends their child to daycare consistently ends up ill. Children and petri dishes.

      • Correction – children *are* perti dishes.

  8. I see plenty of things going on in classrooms all the time that are far more distracting than a prof breastfeeding. But someone those kinds of distractions are acceptable (facebook, Youtube, texting, students eating large and noisy meals), but a mother feeding her child is not. Strange world we live in.

  9. As an undergraduate anthropologist what I find most remarkable about this nonsense is the fact that this made even a ripple in the fabric of college life. This was an anthropology class and an excellent demonstration of natural conduct.

    I won’t go into my theories on the artificialization of culture called civilization or its destructive effects except to note that we are captives in our self-imposed cultural prisons and refuse to be liberated.

    Now scrape of the toxic waste that is clouding your vision. What did she do? She fed her child. That’s it. Now, what did everybody else do? Went nuts because the child was fed from the wrong container. Don’t believe me? What would have been the result if she had – in seclusion, the civilized way – used a breast pump and put the milk into an artificial breast, a bottle, and then fed her child?

    Civilization would have been appeased, artificial categories would have been preserved and parent-child bonding would have suffered only a little. Collateral damage.

    Civilization is pathetic.

    • It’s not entirely true that the only objection is to breastfeeding (to which I, in fact, don’t object). Other than the point I raised earlier, there is the question of whether being engaged in one activity which requires some attention (nursing the baby) reduces one’s ability to engage effectively in another (teaching the class).