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Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Letter to the Principal

The following is the letter that I spent a week writing to the principal.  
I have spent the better part of the past seven years breastfeeding.  Throughout those years, I have wondered now and again if someone might someday say something negative to me for nursing in public.  Many women wonder if they will encounter this.  You hear about it from friends or read about it in blogs or magazines.  You know it happens to people.  Some of us hope it will happen to us, because we're lactivists and we will either use it as an opportunity to educate or relish telling someone off, on behalf of all the breastfeeding moms and babies out there.  Some of us wonder how we'll react - whether we'll rise to the occasion or wither.  Some of us live in fear of it, to the degree that we cover our babies under blankets or nurse only in our cars or in restroom stalls.  Or we just don't leave the house.  Or we just don't breastfeed at all.

Seven years.  I do not breastfeed on public toilets.  I have nursed my children walking through Costco pushing my huge cart with one hand.  I have nursed at playgroups, restaurants, museums, stores, the dentist, and the hair salon.  I've walked all of Disneyland nursing my babies.  I've breastfed between two large men - strangers to me - on an airplane.  I've breastfed at parks, festivals, indoor play gyms, and swimming pools.  No one - no one - has ever said anything negative to me in all those years, in any of the public places I have breastfed my kids.  Until now.

I do not recall your exact words.  I don't know for certain that you didn't ask me to go to your conference room.  But I know it did not feel like a question, or even a suggestion.   And it certainly did not feel like an offer.  It felt like a demand, and an accusation.  I felt as though I was being addressed as a child who had done something wrong.  A child who made you angry, and should feel ashamed.

I don't know what your perception of me was during our exchange.  I tried to be civil.  I held my tongue, knowing that it would be best to take time to cool down before addressing your concern.

I was one of the women who wondered if I might wither if confronted.  As angry as I was, I know if I had been anywhere else, I would have reacted much differently.  But this is the school where my oldest son is in second grade and my three-year-old is in speech therapy.  The school where I have spent countless hours as a volunteer, tutoring for Stampeding Readers, pulling books from the literacy library.  The school where I am a room mom and a co-chair of the silent auction.  This is the school my breastfed baby will attend in five or six years.  I'll have children in this school until 2023.

So I held my tongue in the moment.  I did not come home and mobilize to stage a nurse-in.  I did not alert the media.  But I began the rough draft of this letter, which is my diplomatic way of communicating to you that I will not require your conference room.  I will not prioritize anyone's comfort over my baby's.  I will feed him wherever I am whenever he is hungry.  It's called nursing on demand, and it is protected by law.

Sec. 165.002.  RIGHT TO BREAST-FEED.  A mother is entitled to breast-feed her baby in any location in which the mother is authorized to be.
http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/HS/htm/HS.165.htm

I do not know anything about your knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, your personal experience with it, or your professional experience with other breastfeeding mothers.  I can only guess that you may have believed you were offering me adequate support while avoiding discomfort that could be felt by other parents.  After all, breasts are over-sexualized in our culture, and many people have difficulty with the notion that their primary function is to nurture our offspring.  I can sympathize with your position, if not with theirs.  And while they may feel they have a right to demand that their children not be exposed to breastfeeding, I also have a right.  My child has a right.  And our right is the one that has legal protection.

I am a modest breastfeeder.  I guarantee that I will not pop my breast out of a tank top in the cafeteria one day.  I will always, as I did that day, carefully arrange my shirt around my child's face.  Even as he grows into a squirmy toddler who pulls at my shirt or becomes distracted while nursing, I will make every effort to keep my breasts under cover.  This is the best I can do to make others comfortable.  But I will not otherwise prioritize the comfort of others over the comfort of my baby, or even over my own comfort.  And I am not comfortable hiding away to feed my baby as though I am doing something shameful.

Six years ago I took my oldest son to a playgroup.  He had just learned to walk, but I knew I wanted to breastfeed for at least another year.  The World Health Organization recommends that babies be breastfed for at least two years, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby want to continue.  But once he was officially a toddler, stumbling about at 12 months, I was nervous about breastfeeding him in public.  We left the playgroup to nurse in the car.  Later I called on a friend, another attachment parenting mom who was breastfeeding her two-year-old.  She said that she feels an obligation to breastfeed in public, to normalize it.  And I knew I would no longer be putting my little boy off until we were in a car.  It became my obligation to help normalize breastfeeding.

But what if I were not experienced, unashamed, a lactivist?  What if that short exchange we had, those eight or so sentences we spoke to each other, had made me decide that I could not breastfeed my baby at school, or anywhere public, where I might again be shamed by confrontation?  What if as a result I had spent most of my time at home and the isolation brought on postpartum depression?  Or what if I began to use formula when I went out, and my supply became inadequate, and in a matter of weeks my child was no longer able to benefit from my breastmilk?  That is the risk that was taken.  Because a request alone is enough to discourage public breastfeeding.

Do you know that breastfed children have higher grades and higher IQs, and are less likely to get sick, than formula-fed babies?  Particularly advantageous benefits as far as schools should be concerned.  Since I have children regularly bringing home germs from school, I'm thankful that my breast-milk contains antibodies to the germs I'm exposed to, protecting my baby from a lot of what he might otherwise contract. Breastfed babies have less constipation, diarrhea, and vomiting, and fewer and less serious respiratory illnesses.  When they do get sick, they are less likely to become dehydrated.  Breastfed babies have fewer problems with reflux and eczema, are less likely to need braces, and have better vision.  They are less likely to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  They also have a decreased risk of developing:
asthma
allergies
juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
acute appendicitis
multiple sclerosis
obesity
stroke
heart disease
sleep apnea
ear infections
type 1 diabetes
ulcerative colitis
Crohn's disease
pneumonia
meningitis
urinary tract infections
salmonella
e. coli infections
and childhood cancers.
More information can be found on the website askdrsears.com, and at http://www.notmilk.com/101.html there are 101 benefits listed with references cited.

No one can claim a right to deny someone else's baby these benefits - there are just too many, and they are of too much importance, for anyone's desires to outweigh them.

Likewise, a parent who does not want his or her child to see a baby being fed as nature designed, does not outweigh my right to less postpartum anxiety and depression, and a decreased risk of osteoporosis, uterine and ovarian cancer, and breast cancer, which killed my mother when she was 43 years old.

For all of these reasons and more, breastfeeding is recommended by, among others:
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Dietetic Association
The American Academy of Family Physicians
Association of Women’s Health
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
United States Department of Health & Human Services
UNICEF
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
Links to position papers and so much more can be found at http://kellymom.com/pregnancy/bf-prep/bf-benefits/ .  The CDC published "The CDC Guide to Breastfeeding Interventions," (http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/BF_guide_9.pdf) in which they address the need for interventions to increase public acceptance.  Among other things, it highlights curriculum developed by New York state in which education regarding breastfeeding is integrated into other subjects for K-12 (http://www.health.ny.gov/community/pregnancy/breastfeeding/education.htm).  But it's difficult for mothers to follow the recommendations of so many educated professionals when we are not made to feel that breastfeeding is socially acceptable.  And when a woman is asked to nurse in private, whether intentional or not, the message is that it is not OK to nurse in public.

You are in a unique position as a principal.  You are the authority figure of authority figures at school.  You have a great impact on the lives of our children, one that I trust will continue to be positive for my own children, because you are a professional and their success is important to you. In a school so large, you are likely to have another exchange regarding breastfeeding in the future, and your words will carry a lot of weight.  I hope that through sharing my perspective, you realize that even just asking a mother not to nurse in public risks ultimately damaging that woman and child's future breastfeeding.  I don't know how you came to know that I was discreetly breastfeeding my 12-week-old in the virtually empty lobby.  I can only imagine that someone complained.  You could see more of a Disney princess's breast than I show of mine when I am breastfeeding, but presumably someone complained, or for some reason mentioned it to you.  If that should happen again, I hope that instead of addressing other mothers in this way, you will consider informing anyone who complains that she is protected by law.  As for me, if ever again you receive a complaint, I would happily and diplomatically field that myself.  I would also happily type up a flyer or make a presentation at a meeting to educate people on the benefits of breastfeeding and the influence of barriers such as requesting privacy of a publicly breastfeeding mother, if you would permit it.  But regardless of the impact of this letter, I need you to understand that I will be breastfeeding my son whenever he needs to be fed.

Respectfully,
Krisdee Donmoyer

This letter was going to be published in a newsletter to serve as a resource for other mothers who are harassed when nursing in public.  I reserve no rights.  Any part of this letter MAY be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means.  If it can help you to educate and persuade someone, feel free to tailor it to your situation as needed and use it.  (This permission applies only to this letter.)

51 comments:

  1. Fantastic letter. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. This letter is WONDERFUL! Very well written! As a breastfeeding mother, I must say that I am very inspired and motivated! After all, we DO all wonder if "today will be the day" that someone says something to us when we feed our child. I only hope that I do not wither...

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    1. Thank you, Brandy! I have faith in you. Maybe if you know what you might say - "No, thank you, we're comfortable here," or something like that, you'll feel a little more prepared and at ease? Like having an escape route in case of a fire! :)

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  3. You are such a talented writer, especially when you have such a noble cause. I am proud of your professionalism (yes motherhood is a profession!). Have you contacted La Leche League to see if they will lend you some legal support to sue the principle and school district for discrimination?

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    1. Thank you so much!

      This is what I'm thinking right now regarding litigation:
      I really don't want my district spending money on lawsuits, I want it spent educating our children. And even in light of the form letter response people started getting yesterday, I am not deterred. I still feel growing public pressure to follow the law can have an impact. My concern if lawyers are involved is that public pressure will stagnate around a lengthy litigation process. And if we "lawyer up," - that's Waxler's world (he's the chief of staff and is responding to our letters), and we are at a disadvantage there in a way that we are not while out here spreading the story and expressing our disapproval.
      If a case is brought to trial, the intent of the law can be clarified, but if we lose, that's not good. And if we harness this grassroots movement to convince legislators to support an enforcement clause in the next legislative session, we'll be on stronger ground.
      I do want to try to spread the story through La Leche League, though I don't yet know how to go about doing that.

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  4. I have to say that I actually started crying reading this. I didn't have my baby until I was 37 years old, and I had no idea in all that time, just how difficult breast feeding would be. I knew I wanted to do it for all of the reasons you cite here, but I thought it would be easier--it's "natural," after all. But it wasn't easy-- it was very difficult: it was painful, and constricting and time consuming. But I persisted because I knew it was so much better for my baby. But because it was, for me, such an act of self-sacrifice, it was especially hurtful and then infuriating, when people would make me feel like I was doing something embarrassing or shameful. But I didn't have the courage to tell them they were wrong, I just carried my baby away and cried, and stayed home more and more frequently. But oh, how I have resented those people (some of them family members). So thank you for trying to make the world a better place for cowards like me, and for our precious babies.

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    1. I always thought how to eat must be the one thing a baby would come knowing, until the first time I saw a mother try to breastfeed her newborn. It prepared me for my own baby, and I tapped into my stubborn side. I actually consider myself really lucky, because there were a lot of problems I didn't have. Even so, there were several issues that could have derailed me, which could have affected my younger boys then, too. Breastfeeding is HARD. We shouldn't have to deal with people who stigmatize it and make it harder. So I don't see a coward, Sheila. I see a mama who lacked support and persisted through difficulties to give her babies the best nutrition she could. Every ounce counts!

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  5. Just posted to my Facebook page. I want every nursing mom to be able to use your letter as a model. Think of how many moms you'll be helping by making your story public! Yay, Krisdee!

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    1. Thank you! I am disappointed that it didn't have the desired effect (yet) for me, but I am very happy to know that it is resonating with people and might someday make the task of communicating a little simpler for someone who would prefer to tweak it than start from scratch. Thank you for sharing it!

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  6. Thank you for standing up for all nursing moms- and their babies!

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  7. Excellent letter. Thanks for fighting for nursing moms!

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  8. I felt a surge of pride reading this letter. As a breastfeeding mom of two sons I still worry what other people think when I nurse in public. Next time I feel the urge to head for the bathroom or my car when my baby's hungry I will remember your well written words..smile and stay put to nurse. Thank you so much for helping build my confidence.

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    1. You brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

      What this has taught me, what I knew but maybe hadn't acknowledged, is that there is more support for breastfeeding out there than there are people who complain about it. This blog has around 12,000 page views, mostly in the past week. The facebook page has 585 "likes," and the petition hit 600 signatures in just over 48 hours. If ever you get nervous, remember - there are a *lot* of people rooting FOR you! :)

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  9. I love this. I will continue to NIP with pride and help to normalize breast feeding. I will also help to educate others whenever possible!! Thank you!!

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  10. "I felt as though I was being addressed as a child who had done something wrong. A child who made you angry, and should feel ashamed." Let this be a warning to nursing women that there ARE blockheads in the world who seek to manage you by tapping your emotions. Knowledge is power. I love loving mothers!

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  11. I think its absolutely absurd that anyone would find breastfeeding in public inappropriate. I am sure you just didn't whip it out for everyone to see. I made my RN mother of 40 years embarassed when I nursed at a restaraunt with my baby under a nursing cover. I think that people are so misinformed when it comes to breastfeeding and it should be celebrated not something to hide in the corner (or a conference room!) Excellent Letter!!!!

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  12. I never breast-fed. I tried, but wasn't able due to medication I was put on for high blood pressure immediately after I gave birth to my son and the acts of of a politically connected psychotic and devious ex-husband who had plans to raise our newborn with another woman. Despite this (or perhaps because of this), I could not be more sympathetic. For this to happen in a state-funded institution (in Austin, no less!) is truly alarming.

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    1. That sounds like it must have been awful! I'm so sorry you went through something so difficult!

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  13. I think this article brings up the issue of control of women's bodies in general. It's ok for men to go shirtless, for example...this is a cultural norm here, but there isn't any particularly logical reason for women to stay completely covered in public, particularly in breastfeeding situations. It's silly... minimalist bikinis are ok at the beach, but no breastfeeding? What is so scary about a nipple? In many other places in the world, breastfeeding is accepted and embraced. As long as breasts are viewed as sexual objects only, or something to be ashamed of, breastfeeding in public will evoke some people's ire, and I think that makes it more difficult for women to commit to breastfeeding.

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    1. I think I recall that Austin, TX allows both men AND women to be shirtless. At least, that's what I was told when I saw bare breasts at Barton Springs pool, a city park. I was told that Texas does not have a state law against being topless, but some cities have enacted them, Austin not being among them.

      I just did a cursory google search to verify and found corroboration on a TX attorney's website. How ironic that a woman may walk down the street topless but the school district feels the need to ridicule a modest and covered mother feeding her baby because breast milk happens to come from breasts.

      I'm a TX mom of 2 who never breastfed because of lack of support and fear of facing public reactions. I knew if I encountered an idiot principal, my baby would be hungry. I wasn't willing to take that chance, so I believed my only options were to stay home or to bottle feed. I'm glad you are making sure other women know that they don't have to choose between mom being agoraphobic or baby starving should they choose to nurse. The reasonable, rational, conservative, healthy, obvious middle way is one that is not so obvious to some, so kudos to you Krisdee for gently and consistently spreading the word!

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  14. I appreciate that you pointed out your discretion. As a mother with a very low supply being able to nurse on demand is essential for a nursing relationship to continue. I too have nursed each of my 4 children while doing most all of the actitivites you described. One time while at a mall in Austin with my oldest (about 1 month old) an older man made a comment to me about exposing myself, ironically I had my dd in a sling and had only "exposed" my shirt But he knew what I was upto. Usually though I just get looks. once while on a plane a few people thanked me because my baby was quiet while the bottle fed baby a few rows away was crying most of the flight. I had a teeshirt made for my youngest (just to be funny) that says "why don't you go eat in the bathroom?"

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    1. Thank you for nursing in public, Kelly. You're helping to normalize it for all of us & future generations!

      You've probably seen the shirts that say, "If breastfeeding offends you, put a blanket over *your* head." Those are pretty funny, too. :)

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  15. WONDERFUL letter. I am in total support. I know if this happened to me, Annville, PA would be in an uproar!

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  16. Thank you so much for sharing! I shared it on my FB with family and friends!

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  17. Curiously, The only time I had a negative comment in public was at the local high school, waiting for my daughter IEP meeting to start. The superintendent has yet to respond to my second letter asking if every baby who was eating was required to be fed out of sight. The first she stated that since the school is not a public property, they did not have to follow state law. :P

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    1. That's ridiculous! If you'd like to email me at KeepAustinNIP@gmail.com maybe I could help in some way? Or perhaps someone could make her aware of this situation. Maybe if she realized how quickly her reaction & ridiculous assertion could garner negative attention nationwide, she might change her tune. We're still holding out for that here, but I believe it will happen.

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  18. I nursed my first 2 children for 5 years combined. No complaints about this. I had good support at work, from La Leache Legue and my family. When I had premie twins in my mid fourties I was shocked to find that the support for breastfeeding in the NICU was about as dense as the poster about kangaroo care. There was no real support beyond some posters and pump rentals. My babies got a feeding tube in when they nursed just fine and could use a bottle. The staff seemed annoyed that I was there at all hours to nurse. They liked the schedule they had and insisted my kids burned calories by my nursing vs being tube fed. They harassed me constantly. Once they denied my using a chair late one night, claiming they had sprayed them for cleaning and couldn't dry one. A nurse violently grabbed my babies head to "stimulate her" as she wasn't drinking vigorously enough. The lactation specialist told me she'd love to help me, but she'd lose her job. Finally they reported me to Child Protective Services for denying my children nutrition, and exposing myself. The caseworker saw what was going on. I was horrified. Insurance doesn't cover mothers milk, so beyond what I could produce, I'd purchased myself. It was terribly expensive. There was not a system in place to have it delievered, so daily we'd have to go get it. To deny newborns and an experienced Mom a supportive environment to breastfeed in a hospital was outrageous me. I am surprised any inexperienced Mom ever manages to breastfeed sucessfully in a hospital setting. Dispite all we know about the need for children to breastfeed, somehow this attitute persists, even in a healthcare setting. That a school is an issue is no surprise to me at all, but I am glad you a re fighting for your childs right. I had too many worries about my babies health to make much more than a stand just for us. They got sent home with a beginnings of RSV and I did CPR on one the day after discharge. They performed CPR in an ambulance all the way to the ER. I told them in the NICU they did not seem well the day of discharge and was told I was having anxiety about caring for them at home. They both needed to be on life support for a couple more weeks at a Childrens hospital. Just FYI they are healthy and happy 5 year olds now. It is so important that we advocate for what is best and make sure we are listened to when we know what is healthy for our kids. Instituitions are detatched and so tend to forget what their purpose is. It is our job to remind them.

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    1. That must have been such a terrifying and frustrating experience. I'm so sorry you did not get the support and respect that you needed and deserved. I have met some fantastic health care professionals recently in our state & local breastfeeding coalitions. I wish they were the type of people you'd had in your hospital. Hopefully as more hospitals become Baby-Friendly, there will be less of that detachment among the people who make up the institutions.
      Thank you for sharing your story. Your children are lucky to have such a strong mother.

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  19. Just posted on my FB page as well. We must have courage and you do.
    Bravo.

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  20. This is fantastic - sharing it on twitter & facebook. THANK YOU! <3

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  21. I just shared this on my Facebook page!! So encouraging - thank you for making a stand :)

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  22. Thanks Krisdee! An excellent letter! I am a lactation consultant here in Austin and just shared it on fb. I have been reading the notes coming across HMHB, but hadnt read your story until this morning! 25 years ago, I nursed my children all over Austin as well. I never ran into any problems. It seems so weird that it has gotten harder to breastfeed in public! Now that all the doctors and scientist are finally enlightened to how extremely beneficial breastfeeding is and we have research to back up all the claims ... you would think it would be accepted across the board! Our society is so screwed up it just baffles me! Why is it not ok for a mom to discretely breastfeed her baby no matter where she is ... but it is ok for "Leslie" to strut around Austin is a thong, and its ok for whoever the man is around 40th street to ride his bike in only a skin colored thong, and its ok for women to walk around town and to be in public places scantily clothed .... Really? Come on people! Let the mommas breastfeed their babies! They show WAY less than any of the aforementioned!

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  23. Hearing you in Ohio! Just wanted to let you know your story is spreading! I tried to breastfeed my twins but had threats of cps coming in and such if I didn't give them formula. Btw my twins were 36 weeks and no NICU time! I BF'd for 3 months with no avail and I tender it everyday because I didn't have enough suppily due to being scared to feed around anyone and them making me use formula so much! Awesome letter!!!

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  24. Thank you for your efforts. I also ran into problems more than once in Kansas in the 7.5 years I breastfed, and it is so frustrating. I never forgot it, and a few months ago I made these to help spread the word (there is one for every state with laws): http://www.cafepress.com/breastfeedinglaws/9515402

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  25. Krisdee,

    This is an amazingly articulate argument for breastfeeding (and breastfeeding in public). Keep up your hard work - your arguments are being heard! My little one isn't in an AISD school yet, but I would hope that when he is, if he has a sibling, that I would have the strength that you have shown. I realize now how much I stayed home (and was isolated) because of the fear of someone reacting to my feeding him in public. Your kiddos are lucky to have such a strong advocate, as are the rest of us!

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  26. Such an incredibly perfect letter! Very diplomatic and yet honest and resolute! I would love to share this (giving you credit and your story) on my own blog? I am breastfeeding my 2nd baby and still struggle with fear about nursing out in public - I do it, but worry constantly and I don't think the emotional turmoil is fair to my baby nor to me as a mother trying to provide my baby the best I can. Thank you for your work!

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    1. I would be honored! You are not alone in worrying about NIP. According to the Lansinoh 2012 Breastfeeding Study, for 40% of women it is their greatest barrier to breastfeeding. But, only 1/3 of women view it negatively. So there are way more women who accept it, & fewer women who disapprove than fear it. I think in general odds are lower that we'll be harassed than we perceive them to be, & every time we nurse in public, we improve the odds by normalizing breastfeeding. So keep on keeping on, mama! You're paving the way for your daughter!
      The Badass Breastfeeder has a free e-course you may want to take - www.badasspublicbreastfeeding.com

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