The Natural Goodness of Mom: The rights of mothers who breastfeed

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In my Facebook feed, among all the photos of friends with their smiling babies, I’ve recently come across another, very different kind of image of mother and child. It’s a disturbing series of photos of young mothers nursing their babies in dirty public bathroom stalls, with the caption, “Would You Eat Here?

The photos are part of “When Nurture Calls,” a campaign developed by several art students to support a Texas bill that would protect breastfeeding mothers from harassment and discrimination. And it has gone viral. The photos are a far cry from the typical images we see of mother and baby. But in many ways, these images are more real than all those perfectly posed photos of maternal bliss.

All too often, women in the US are forced to feed their babies in public restrooms and other uncomfortable, unsanitary locations. There have been a number of high-profile stories recently about restaurants – and even airlines – ejecting mothers simply for breastfeeding their children without covering up.

But is forcing breastfeeding mothers out of public places legal? It depends. Federal law permits women to breastfeed in federal buildings, but that only protects moms who happen to be breastfeeding on federal property. For the average restaurant-goer or traveler, it all depends on what state you’re in. Some states, like Vermont, have progressive laws permitting mothers to breastfeed in places of public accommodations and giving mothers the right to file suit to enforce the law.

But the laws in most states, including Maine, simply state that mothers can breastfeed their babies in any location where they are otherwise authorized to be, but don’t provide any mechanism for enforcement. That means that although mothers technically have the right to breastfeed in public in Maine, there’s little they can do if they’re denied that right. A woman kicked out of a restaurant or movie theater for nursing cannot go to court to seek damages, and the offending restaurant or theater can’t be held liable for penalties.

Women often face even more intolerance when trying to pump breastmilk at work. Without the ability to pump during the workday, working mothers have little hope of continuing to breastfeed until the recommended first birthday. I’ve heard all too many stories of women – often working at seemingly progressive employers – who have been forced to pump in closets, bathrooms, and utility rooms.

Again, is that legal? As of 2010, federal law requires employers to give nursing mothers break-time to pump breastmilk and a private place to do so. But the law is far from perfect: it doesn’t require the break-time to be paid, it generally only applies to companies with over 50 employees, and it doesn’t have any clear enforcement provision. In other words, a woman fired for pumping at work would likely have no remedy.

About half of states, including Maine, give some additional protections for working mothers. Maine law requires employers (including those with under 50 employees) to provide break-time for pumping in a clean location other than a bathroom. And it also prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who pump at work.

But the Maine law is still far too weak. Women have no private right to sue to enforce the law in court, and although the State can assess a penalty on employers who violate the law, it is no more than a slap on the wrist – up to $500. Last year, a bill cleared both Maine houses that would have strengthened Maine’s law, allowing women to file discrimination complaints if their employers refuse to provide a clean, private place to pump during the workday. But the bill was vetoed by Governor LePage.

It’s time that we strengthen protections for working women who breastfeed their children. Until then, I hope that photos like the “Nature Calls” campaign force us to confront the sometimes unpleasant reality that so many breastfeeding women face.