Storm in an E-cup

Working mothers don't need breastfeeding rights at work, but real choices in life.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

So women’s equality has come to this: a debate about whether we do or do not have the right to breastfeed at work.

On 27 October, a ruling by an employment appeal tribunal gave rise to headlines proclaiming ‘Mothers lose right to breastfeed baby at work’ (1). The appeal tribunal had overturned a previous ruling in the case of Helen Williams, 31, a Royal Air Force (RAF) lieutenant who took the Ministry of Defence to an employment tribunal after she was denied permission to breastfeed her baby while on duty. Williams won her case in 2002, but the appeal tribunal has now ruled that it was unfair to expect her employers to give her time off to breastfeed. A fresh ruling has been ordered (2).

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has been quick to insist that women have not, in fact, lost ‘the right to breastfeed at work’. It explains that, under health and safety legislation, employers are required to provide pregnant and breastfeeding women with a place to rest, and that ‘the Health and Safety Executive also recommends that employers provide women who are breastfeeding with suitable rest periods, access to a private room to express milk, and somewhere to store milk’ (3). This has not been changed by Monday’s ruling. So why the fuss?

Jenny Watson, deputy chair of the EOC, said: ‘The practical reality of modern mothers’ lives means that many return to work while they are breastfeeding.’ (4) But as Watson surely knows, this case is not about the practical realities of mothers’ lives as they work out how best to care for their kids. The very notion of the ‘right’ to breastfeed at work indicates that this is a symbolic discussion, about the relationship between work and family life, and how society negotiates the boundaries between the two.

The fact that the breastfeeding mother in this case is a lieutenant for the RAF is an open invitation to pisstakes. ‘Now, we don’t have strong views either way on the desirability of women breastfeeding at work, but we do feel that there is a time and a place’, stated the website Anorak. ‘For instance, we would suggest that the cockpit of a Tornado at 1,400 mph isn’t really the right venue to suckle your infant baby.’ (5) There is something incongruous about the traditionally male world of the military, with its image of tough discipline, having to organise its practices around a mother’s breastfeeding habits. But that, it seems, is the point.

The ‘right’ to breastfeed at work represents a broader push to change working practices across the board, to make them more feminised and family-friendly. From the military to the office, issues such as workplace crèches, flexible working, and other ‘work-life balance’ initiatives aim to subvert the traditional separation between the public world of work and the private world of home and domesticity.

Gone is the notion that women’s equality involves enabling women to leave their domestic responsibilities behind for the length of the working day, so they can be subject to the same opportunities and pressures as men. When it comes to today’s working mums, best practice seems to be to encourage them to carry their domestic responsibilities around with them all the time, and to encourage employers to give them special treatment because of it.

It’s not hard to see the tensions that this causes, on a practical level. ‘Servicewomen who wish to breastfeed their children are liable to undertake the full range of duties’, said an MoD spokeswoman in relation to the Williams case. ‘It is only subject to local circumstances that they may be permitted to return to duty whilst still breastfeeding.’ (6) This seems reasonable enough.

A servicewoman should expect to return to her previous job, in which she should expect to be treated equally with men – but how can she do this, if her work turns out to be incompatible with breastfeeding requirements? Even in more flexible environments than the military, it is hard to see how an employer can be expected to treat new mothers in the same professional way as everybody else, if he or she is required to think about and make allowances for the particular ways in which the employee wants to feed her child.

As for new mothers – some clearly do have their reasons for wanting to breastfeed on the job, and that’s up to them. As a general principle, however, it hardly seems ideal. To have to interrupt one’s working day with hurried feeds in extra breaks, or sessions spent sitting at the breast pump, does not exactly fit with the myriad of reasons why mothers might want to keep breastfeeding. It seems like a rather awkward attempt to combine working motherhood with the direct nurturing role of full-time motherhood – and doing neither to one’s satisfaction.

Given the practical downsides of workplace breastfeeding, it seems odd that it should become such an issue – certainly one that is discussed in terms of employment ‘rights’. But this reflects a deeper tension in the relationship between motherhood and work. Today’s society expects mothers to enter the public world of work, and to a certain degree has enabled them to do so. But at the same time, it expects them to take their domestic responsibilities more seriously than ever, and allows for very little choice or flexibility in how they might achieve this. The upshot is a degraded conception of work, and a pressurised conception of motherhood.

The symbolic character of the ‘right to breastfeed at work’ has been most clearly expressed through the debate about whether MPs should be allowed to breastfeed during debates and meetings in the House of Commons. ‘Breastfeeding is much better in terms of health and most workplaces now have provision for mothers who want to breastfeed’, argued Labour MP Julia Drown back in 2001. ‘Even if nobody uses this rule it sends out the right message.’ (7) The ‘right message’ clearly being that society’s workplaces and institutions should adapt around domesticity – that they should encourage women to bring their home into work.

There is something disturbing about the idea that Parliament, a formal institution with its emphasis on politics and public life, should be turned into a big crèche concerned with its members’ personal, private lives. Yet those MPs campaigning for breastfeeding rights see this as a positive step forward – not for breastfeeding mothers so much as for politics. As with the workplace, politics is seen as too aloof, too professional, too much of a split with domestic life. By bringing the mother-baby relationship directly into the workplace, breastfeeding on the job is seen as a way of changing the whole working culture.

What this discussion about the need to ‘feminise’ the workplace by making it more family-friendly misses, of course, is the fact that the upside of working motherhood is precisely the ability to get out of the narrow domestic world and to play a role in public life. A crucial aspect of working motherhood is having the ability to go beyond nurturing and breastfeeding, and play a broader role in society. The notion that work should become an extension of work, where you do a bit of both public and private activities, cannot but narrow the scope of work.

It also contributes to the already considerable pressures on mothers. As anybody who knows anybody with children surely knows, breastfeeding has been transformed from a practical issue about how best to feed your child to a statement of Good Motherhood. Concerns about everything from health to parental bonding are used to cajole new mothers into breastfeeding, regardless of the difficulties they might have in doing so, the sleeplessness and inconvenience that breastfeeding might cause, and the fact that most babies, whether breastfed, bottle-fed or bit-of-both fed turn out healthy enough. Mothers find themselves trapped in a constant round of guilt-trips, in which they feel they cannot do right for doing wrong (see Who needs Breastfeeding Awareness Week?, by Jennie Bristow).

Add to this the fact that the UK government has recently upped its recommendations on how long new mothers should breastfeed, to six months, and that it has also extended ordinary maternity leave to 26 weeks, it is not surprising that new mothers might worry about returning to work after a shorter period of time, especially if it involves putting baby on the bottle.

But even given this overload of nurturing pressure, and even if they wanted to stay at home for longer, society does not exactly make it easy for them to do so. A society that is increasingly organised around two-income families makes extended maternity leave into the equivalent of financial penury. The same government that waxes lyrical about maternity leave and six months of exclusive breastfeeding has also become notorious in its lack of patience with stay-home mums, and its desire for all women to get out there and raise their ‘social capital’ at the same time as they raise their kids.

The only reason why workplace crèches, work-life balance, flexible working and such concepts as additional parental leave have become hot topics in the discussion about employment ‘rights’ is because childcare provision in the UK continues to be inadequate: expensive, inflexible and inconvenient. And as long as women are expected to play Mum all the way through their working day, this situation will continue.

The main issue facing mothers today is not breastfeeding rights, but real choices. Women should be able to decide if and when to return to work on the basis of positive choices, rather than deciding to stay home because childcare is inadequate, or returning to work because it is considered good for them. They should be able to be treated as professionals in the office and mothers at home. And the question of whether, where and for how long they breastfeed their babies should be theirs and theirs alone.

Read on:

Working on parents, by Jennie Bristow

(1) ‘Mothers lose right to breast feed baby at work’, Daily Mail, 28 October 2003

(2) ‘Mothers lose right to breastfeed children at work’, Robert Verkaik, Independent, 27 October 2003; Fresh hearing into lieutenant’s breastfeeding claim, Ananova, 28 October 2003

(3) Breastfeeding at work, Equal Opportunities Commission, 28 October 2003

(4) Breastfeeding at work, Equal Opportunities Commission, 28 October 2003

(5) Going tits up, Anorak, 27 October 2003

(6) Fresh hearing into lieutenant’s breastfeeding claim, Ananova, 28 October 2003

(7) Breastfeeding may get Commons go-ahead, BBC News, 3 December 2001

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Topics Politics


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