we need parental leave AND breast pumps

pumping in US Airways lounge, CC licenced, by Flickr user CafemamaThere’s a fabulous article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker about the history of breastfeeding and of breast pumps. Did you know that Linneus had first categorised humans as Quadrupedia: four-footed beasts, until his wife was breastfeeding their baby a few years later, and he thought that the term mammalia, or animal that breastfeeds their young, would be a better term? That after wetnurses being common among the wealthy and even the middle classes, breastfeeding became de rigeur in the eighteenth century, but then again became a lower class activity in the early twentieth century?

The latter part of the article stops being a history of breastfeeding and makes an interesting argument that we’re currently focusing so strongly on the technology of the breastpump that we’re privileging the right to pump at work above parental leave. in Salon Kate Harding argues that this is a judgemental mothers-should-stay-home argument, but I disagree. Parental leave in the US is appalling. Parents aren’t entitled to paid leave at all, though most are entitled to take twelve weeks unpaid leave and get their job back when they return, and of course, some employers give twelve weeks paid leave. Fathers, as far as I know, have no right to parental leave at all, unless their employer is particularly generous.

That basically means that a mother has the choice between sending her child to daycare at 12 weeks (they actually have infant daycare facilities for extremely young babies in the US) or quitting her job altogether. Pretty lousy set of options, eh?

I pump at work these days. But I was able to stay home (at 80% pay) with my baby for eight months, and we still have five months left for her daddy to stay home with her. It’s nice that our baby can drink my bottled breastmilk, but far more importantly, she gets to spend her days with someone who loves her insanely, she gets to continue building a strong relationship with her daddy (and I get home at 3pm and get lots of time with her too!).

The point of Jill Lepore’s article isn’t that it’s bad to use a pump, it’s that it’s horrific that the right to pump at work is apparently becoming more important as a fight for parents’ and babies’ rights than the right to parental leave – for mothers AND fathers. Even if you don’t agree that parental leave should be paid (I believe that’s an important investment in our children and thus for our society) the right to get your job back after a year or two years on parental leave should be fundamental – otherwise mothers have to choose between a very limiting set of options: have a career or stay at home for years. I’m all for the right to pump at work. But if US parents are putting their efforts into pushing through legislation requiring employers to provide pumping rooms at work instead of working for good parental leave, well, that’s a pretty messed up set of priorities.

(The photo is by Cafemama at Flickr, and shows her pumping in the restroom at a US Airways lounge)

31. January 2009 by Jill

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