American University Professor: Bad Parent, Bad Employee, or Both?

By | September 13, 2012

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Recently, this story about an American University professor breastfeeding her sick child in front of her class caused quite the media stir. In summary, the article explains that the single-parent/professor opted to bring her child to work with her since she could not be sent to daycare due to a high fever and she was incapable of finding other adequate care. The author notes, "The baby, in a blue onesie, crawled on the floor of the lecture hall during part of the 75-minute class two weeks ago, according to the professor’s account. The mother extracted a paper clip from the girl’s mouth at one point and shooed her away from an electrical outlet. A teaching assistant held the baby and rocked her at times, volunteering to help even though Pine stressed that she didn’t have to. When the baby grew restless, Pine breast-fed her while continuing her lecture in front of 40 students."

The professor in the center of it all, Adrienne Pine, followed up to the media storm with a response diatribe: Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet, where it appears that she utterly and completely missed the entire point of society's criticism of her actions. It has nothing to do with lactivism or public breastfeeding. (In fact, if anything, I would think that pro-breastfeeding "lactivists" would be pissed at her for shedding so much negative light on breastfeeding by choosing to do it in one of the very few inappropriate scenarios that exists.) It has zero to do with the public happenings of her breasts, and everything to do with the fact that her child has no place tagging along with her to work - sick, or not.

It's no secret that the corporate culture of this country doesn't really favor mothers. Not only are we provided inadequate maternity leave after giving birth, but when we return we face the dreaded "mommy tracking" - you know, being placed on that career path to nowhere? Mothers are usually the second-class citizens of a working society. We are the difficult ones.

Recently, my husband was job searching. I had switched jobs earlier in the year, and he helped me prepare for my interviews. I returned the favor to him as well by helping him with the do's and don'ts of interviewing. He said, "So, I probably shouldn't mention anything about Charlie, right? I shouldn't let them know that I have a baby?"

"No, honey," I said. "That one was just for me. Men aren't branded with the scarlet 'P' on their lapel when they admit to being a parent. The interviewer will just assume you have a wife that stays home. You are just expected to be the one 'taking care' of us."

It is completely unfair. And being a working mom is something that I openly struggle with. But if you have to be a working mother, you must accept the responsibilities of both roles. Equality, fairness and opportunity for working mothers will not be achieved by having a complete disregard for the lack of structure or rules that come with being an employee.

When I was pregnant with Charlie, the most annoying comments I would get revolved around my work situation. I worked from home as a marketing specialist at the time, for an online company. They would say, "You are so lucky, you have the perfect job to have a baby!!!" (Yes, with that many exclamation points.) Everyone assumed that C would just stay home with me - as if it were appropriate or feasible to produce the same amount of work, receive the same amount of pay and parent my child at the same time. I often wondered if people just assumed that I did no work at all, therefore how great that I can just have a baby and continue on my merry way. Right.

I had to find child care and pay more than my mortgage for it each month, just like everyone else. My husband didn't have much for sick or vacation time, so most of the sick care ultimately fell on me. Being a salaried non-exempt employee, on the occasions that C did have to stay home with me, my boss told me I had to keep track of any time I spent with him to dock my pay accordingly. (I still wonder if that was legal.)

Adrienne Pine's situation is not unique. We all - working parents - face it. How do we make arrangements when our normal schedules get thrown off track, due to illness and other unforeseen circumstances? This comes with being a parent. And as a working parent, you have to find a way to make it work.

But, Pine's version of "making it work" was the wrong way to go. First, I have to point out that this sick child clearly was not being given the proper care and attention that she needed. Child care facilities don't ban children with fevers from attending just for funsies. The children are SICK. They can spread illness. They need extra care and love and attention. Not to be toted about town and into a college classroom, playing with paperclips and electrical outlets and spreading their germs to a cohort of undergrads.

The students in her Sex, Gender, and Culture course are paying $18,777 each semester for their education -- around  $1251 per credit hour*. Unless these students are enrolled in a breastfeeding class and Pine is the lead lactation consultant, or they enrolled with a prior expectation that their course would also function as a child care facility, there is something hugely wrong with what went down during that class. There is no way that a professor could instruct the high-quality lecture that she was hired to teach while also providing the proper care to her sick child.  I would be furious if my tuition dollars were paying for this kind of half-assed, distracted education.

What if this scenario happened in another professional setting? Like, what if a police officer came to arrest you with her child in tow in the back seat? Or a female firefighter entering a burning building equipped with her Baby Bjorn? Would you mind if your physician gave you your yearly physical while she simultaneously changed a diaper? How about the Barista that made your morning latte? It's one thing if you have a child friendly job that has outlined policies allowing you to bring your child with you to work. Otherwise, this kind of behavior is simply unfair to your employer, your colleagues, and the people benefiting from the good or service you are offering.

And where is the American University in this? Apparently, they need to invest more into their crisis control and public relations, because the statements they have released to date have been lackluster. How are they not concerned that this incident highlights the lack of quality education being received within their walls? Not only that, but the professor proceeded to mock the cultural diversity of their student body in her retort. (And I quote: "Exasperated, I skirted the issue of AU’s lack of class and racial diversity [in Washington DC, of all places]...") Awesome.

Higher education is facing enough of an uphill battle when it comes to enrollment numbers and survival - this kind of media circus is in no way helpful to their institution's image. Not to mention, American University has been painted as "mom-unfriendly" for fostering a work environment in which its employees do not have the support they need to function as employee-parents. Clearly this professor felt that she had "no other choice" but to deem that day her own personal Bring Your Daughter to Workday. Providing adequate sick or personal leave (and empowering employees to take that leave), and competent teaching assistants capable of stepping in during an absence could have curbed this whole incident. Note to AU: You are lookin' a-fool!

I am as pro-public breastfeeding as the next mom. This story is masquerading around the web as a public breastfeeding debate when it's really nothing of the sort. This mother made a poor decision, both as a parent and as an employee. And she should be ashamed.

___

* Tuition Figures from www.American.edu


1 Comment

rachel on September 14, 2012 at 8:58 PM.

“Higher education is facing enough of an uphill battle when it comes to enrollment numbers and survival”

if there is anyone i DON’T feel sorry for in this situation, it is the universities charging more than the price of a new car for a semester of education. maybe they wouldn’t be struggling with enrollment numbers if they didn’t keep raising tuition prices.

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