Breastfeeding Australian lawmaker Larissa Waters makes Parliament history | Ladders

A breastfeeding politician in Australia shows how far the U.S. still has to go in welcoming working mothers.
Parents @ Work

Australian lawmaker breastfeeds her baby in Parliament for the first time

When maternity leave ends and a working mother has to return to her job, the hard work of motherhood is just getting started.

CNN reported that for the first time, a baby was breastfed in Australian parliament. Queensland Senator Larissa Waters, co-deputy leader of Australia’s Green party, fed little Alia Joy on her first day back from maternity leave on Tuesday, and tweeted a celebratory photo.

The idea that the move was so newsworthy points to the ongoing debate about breastfeeding while on the job, as illustrated by women who have done so at work around the world.

A mother-daughter duo in government

Larissa and Alia may have made history, but it took a year. BBC News reported in February 2016 that the Australian House of Representatives had a policy change, authorizing “lawmakers to breastfeed and bottle-feed in the chamber.”

Babies have appeared in parliaments before. In 2016, Spanish politician Carolina Bescansa breastfed her 5-month-old son in Parliament “in an effort to highlight the struggles faced by working mothers,” according to HuffPost, and both “conservatives and feminists” voiced their opposition.

The cutest example was probably the baby daughter of Italian politician Licia Ronziulli, who accompanied her during voting in the European Parliament in 2010, when the official “was still breastfeeding.” The little girl made multiple appearances in the chamber over the years, voting with her mother.

This is one of the messages Ronziulli reportedly retweeted to stand up for Bescansa in 2016.

Background on maternal rights at work

Breastfeeding is still a controversial topic, even among mothers. It’s a normal biological function for many women, and women shouldn’t be shamed for it, but many still debate the choice passionately.

The other political statements of breastfeeding politicians, however, are about the availability of childcare and other policies for working mothers. When alternative childcare options aren’t available for working mothers with infants, things get tricky. It’s not easy to choose between breastfeeding a hungry child out of sheer necessity in certain situations (and at such a critical time for child development), and choosing to find other methods.

Progress for working mothers in the United States is still on the slow side. It depends heavily on how accommodating employers can be.

ABC News reported on a national survey of 422 employees in the US by Workplace Options in 2011, which reportedly said that 44% had “a clean, private place to pump breast milk at work,” and 36% reported not being able to incorporate “pumping breaks” because “their work schedule was not flexible enough.”

According to the United States Department of Labor, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — widely known as the Affordable Care Act— changed a part of the Fair Labor Standards Act, making it mandatory for employers to give “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”

Employers also have to give employees “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”

There are state laws about breastfeeding and milk at work, and apparently, “all employers covered by the FLSA must comply with the break time for nursing mothers provision.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that according to estimate of The National Institutes of Health, “at least six milk expression stations for every 1000 female employees should be the general rule.”

Elle Magazine even profiled “The Best Lactation Rooms Across America,” including ones at Google, Discovery Channel, IBM, and General Mills.

American University professor makes time for her baby in class

Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of American University. When I was a student, I remember hearing about the time Professor Adrienne Pine breastfed her sick baby on the first day of a “Sex, Gender & Culture” class in 2012. The Washington Post said, “the single mother worried that she had no good child-care options” when her child awoke with a fever.

The polarizing dialogue I heard on campus echoed the ongoing conversation and divide surrounding this topic — some people cheered her on, while others questioned the fact that she chose to breastfeed in a professional space.

According to The Washington Post, American University issued multiple statements, the first of which seemed against Pine’s decisions, “generally citing them as a health issue because the baby was sick,” but that similar situations could happen to “any parent with multiple responsibilities,” and that staff should use “sick leave, break times and private areas for nursing mothers to express milk.”

The professor even wrote a post published on CounterPunch.org titled “Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet,” where she tells her side of the story, including her strong opposition to the American University student newspaper deeming it “newsworthy,” and emails between her and members of the student group (which university officials reportedly opposed because of how students were depicted).

Working mothers’ babies won’t stop needing nourishment any time soon, so it may be time that the expectations for breastfeeding in various workplaces is slowly shifting.