Advocacy – Breastfeeding in Public

I’ve been doing more advocacy work in several areas lately, and working on my terror of journalists… (I’m queer, poor, out about my mental health challenges etc… a member of various groups often not treated well by media) It’s a little bit of an experiment to see what I’m capable of and what the costs are for myself and my family. I’m pretty comfortable with being my own media but handing control over words and images to someone else, and being vulnerable to having your story fitted to their ideas, values, and perceptions is a very different thing.

Breastfeeding parents deserve much better support. I’ve been unfortunate to find myself in a couple of difficult situation, and fortunate in that the journalists who I’ve spoken with have been friendly and not misrepresented me. So a while ago I was interviewed for a snippet on the Channel 7 news which was also shared to their Facebook page. I watched the social media storm once the story went up. I wrote this blog post and then held it in draft for a few months to let things calm down.

Most of the online conversation completely missed the point, sadly. Which is simply this:

I don’t think it’s okay for a business to:

  • Refuse to own an unusual policy and blame others instead (‘we wish we could but we can’t because they won’t let us’)
  • Keep their policy quiet so many people who it will impact are not aware of it
  • Ask people who have fallen foul of their policy and only found out at the last minute to take down a polite post in the event page online informing and cautioning others it will impact
  • Not release a public statement about their policy once they realise people are not aware of it, but instead continue to allow people to discover it at the gates of the venue where they are denied entrance because of it
  • Randomly enforce their policy by allowing some people to bypass it if they argued it was discrimination

That seems crystal clear to me, and I think most people would agree it’s bad form. That’s why I spoke up. Whether the policy itself is legal is still unclear to me, a call to the Equal Opportunities Commission wasn’t able to clear that up.

What most people were arguing about is:

  • Whether the policy itself is a good idea
  • What ‘good parents’ should be doing

While these are important topics, from my perspective they are not actually the point in this situation. If the policy is legal, then any business that has it should have the decency to own it, be clear and consistent about it, and make sure the people it impacts know about it. That seems simple to me.

I knew that a social media backlash of some kind was likely when I agreed to be interviewed. Breastfeeding, and babies inconveniencing other people are hot topics, and the internet can be a scary place! Don’t read the comments is the mantra for a reason. I’ve been doing more advocacy in various ways lately and I’m slowly extending my capacity and working to reduce my vulnerabilities. I usually follow a fairly careful – praise in public, criticise in private approach with my online sharing, but I do make exceptions when I feel it’s warranted – in this case I’ve already complained directly and been shut down, and this is important to talk about.

The policy in question?

Not allowing babes in arms at an outdoor picnic concert – Missy Higgins and the Australian Symphony Orchestra, because it was an 18+ event. Here’s the context:

  • Here in Australia it is normal that babes in arms can attend many 18+ events, free. They can be brought into pubs or other venues that serve alcohol, they can come to concerts and music events, they can even travel free on domestic flights. It’s generally understood that babies are not benefiting from the event so they don’t need a ticket, and they need to come because they need to be cared for – especially those who are breastfed and like Poppy won’t take a bottle. This is a lot more common than many people think. At the time, if she couldn’t go somewhere, I couldn’t go there.
  • We have strong laws to protect breastfeeding in Australia; it is illegal to prevent someone breastfeeding their baby. These laws are essential because there is a lot of hostility from some people. Mums still have issues with being asked to leave restaurants, told they have to feed in toilets or go home, or being harassed and even abused by strangers while nursing – all kinds of things that make being a breastfeeding Mum really hard. So the laws are important because some people have an intense ‘ick’ reaction to breastfeeding and try very hard to make those of us who do it feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or even unsafe when we try to go about our normal lives. The Equal Opportunity Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone in customer service “because they have a child with them or need to feed a child (including breast and bottle-feeding)“.

Remember the issue at hand – if you’re going to have a policy, own it, be honest and upfront about it, and do your best to make sure people affected are aware of it and don’t get caught out by it.

The Story

So, I’m home with Poppy tonight, while lovely Rose goes off to the concert we planned to attend as a family. Back in August, friends all teamed up and bought us both tickets to a beautiful outdoor concert of Missy Higgins and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as a ‘welcome to the world’ gift once Poppy safely arrived. We’ve been planning tonight for months. Rose has been playing Missy Higgins music to Poppy so she’s familiar with it. We bought baby headphones which we’ve used successfully at other events in case it was too loud. We have infant safe insect repellent in case of mosquitos. Rose especially has been super excited because she’s really into Missy and has been since forever. When they sold out of hampers and we were broke because Rose’s wallet was stolen, she was worried because their website said we were not allowed to bring our own food. So she called them and said I was breastfeeding and couldn’t possibly go 6+ hours without eating, will there be other food available on the night? They said yes and we planned to put a little borrowed money aside for a meal.

So it was a nasty surprise when our mates contacted us and said – so sorry we’ve just found out no babies allowed! We were sad and upset and called the venue to check. They confirmed this and said it was not their idea, they would love to have babies there, but the liquor licensing laws prevent it. We were pretty upset that even when we called them and mentioned breastfeeding, they hadn’t told us about not allowing babies. They said it was on their website under FAQ’s but when we checked those went up months after the tickets had been purchased. Rose put up a sad but polite post on Facebook in the event letting other breastfeeding Mums know they couldn’t bring their babies. Another Mum found herself in the same position and people started to make phone calls to try and figure out who was responsible for this policy, why none of us knew about it, and if it could be changed.

The liquor licensing people said it was nothing to do with them, vendors set their own policy. The local council likewise. Missy Higgins team said they can’t overturn a decision by the vendor. The Equal Opportunity Commission said they are uncertain if a venue has the right to deny entrance to a baby under these circumstances. We got worried about our tickets to see Amanda Palmer next year and checked in with them – yep, babies are fine, please just take them out of the room if they cry. Phew! That’s the usual scenario, and exactly what we planned to do.

So we went back to the vendor and said hey, council and liquor licensing say babies can attend an 18+ event like this, can we please bring her. Vendor still says no and still insists it’s not their policy or fault. Then they ask can we please take down our post letting other parents know about it. That’s the point at which I got really cranky, because it’s one thing to have a policy like this, and it’s another entirely to not tell people about it! We ask for a refund of my ticket and venue says they will do that.

Phone calls and emails are going back and forth and things are kicking off on social media. People are getting the wrong end of the stick and arguments are breaking about out whether a venue can prevent a Mum from breastfeeding (they can’t and they weren’t trying to, they were preventing the baby from coming) or whether a concert is a suitable venue for a baby, which is a whole different kettle of fish. This was about a baby not being allowed in when usually they would be, and the venue handling the situation in a way I found distressing.

A friend of mine who went along on Friday night messages me to tell me that there is a baby there and they’ve been let in. They go and chat and find out that they were confronted with the ‘no babies allowed’ policy at the door. Shocked, they argued that was discrimination and were let in with their baby, but told they might be asked to leave by security at any time. They let my friend take a photo of their baby to prove they were allowed in, in case it helps us argue to be included. Venue continue to argue it’s out of their hands.

One friend emails a journalist who then reaches out to Rose online. I’m madly anxious about the media and worried about the shit storm that’s developing online, but I’m also angry about how the venue have treated people and the misinformation that’s going on. Harassing parents with babies at the gates is rubbish. So a lovely journalist and a cameraman turn up to my house to interview me. I run home from the blessingway (baby shower) I’ve been at and change out of my pants which have baby poo on them (parenting is glamorous) and stand on my porch to talk about how badly this has been handled. They tell us about the media statement from the venue, which to my mind is waffly and vague and implies they are unaware of the issues and unsure how to proceed. It sounds suggestive that maybe they are now letting babies in after all. Rose calls them again and is told that they are not now and have not ever let babies in for this type of event, not do they plan to. They continue to blame licensing despite us having verified directly with licensing that they wrote the license specifically allowing children to be present. When Rose also tells them she knows they let at least one baby in yesterday, they bizarrely claim the baby must have been smuggled in by its parents. Baffled and frustrated, we give up.

Our friends turn up with icecream. They leave the icecream as consolation for me, and take Rose off to the concert. I get a bit teary about staying home. I jitter my way anxiously through dinner, watch the snippet when it comes on the news and feel hugely relieved about it. A couple of words I wouldn’t use (Poppy isn’t a newborn, and I wouldn’t describe myself as devastated) but they’ve been true to the situation. Phew!

I hang out with Poppy, nursing and helping her nap, and when the clip goes up online have a quick look at the comments which are mostly negative, hostile, and missing the point. My Mum comes over and we play board games. It’s hardly the worst thing to be home with Poppy. 🙂 Rose comes home and shows me a video she took of Missy singing a lullaby she wrote for her baby boy. It’s stunning, we both get a little teary. I’m sure Missy wouldn’t be okay with any of this if she knew about it. It was a truly beautiful night.

What do I think of a policy of not allowing babies into events like this?

As to the points people are mostly arguing about – obviously I personally think the policy is not a good idea. A picnic orchestra is hardly a thrash metal mosh pit and seems to me to be a perfectly suitable place for a baby. I’m concerned that banning babies effectively bans the Mum and the breastfeeding, which may even be the covert intention when people insist on policies like this, who knows? I wasn’t the only person unable to attend because I was nursing a baby.

Policies and laws around things like this are trying to balance a few things – parents rights to inhabit venues and public places with their babies, the need to keep babies safe, and the rights of other people to also inhabit and enjoy events and places. People interpret them in slightly different ways and weight them differently which is fair enough. I get that a crying baby on a bus for example, is stressful and no fun for anyone. However parents and babies need to be able to get places, so we are legally protected to be able to use public transport. There are certainly places it is not safe or suitable to take a baby, and it’s reasonable to exclude them from construction sites and surgeries for example. The venue in our case not allowing babies in appears to be a bit of a grey area.

Personally I think it’s fine to bring a baby to a picnic concert, and I’ve done so more than once. We’ve attended concerts indoors and outdoors, as well as the cinema, restaurants, the beach, swimming pool, my workplace meetings, and a camp with friends. We are considerate and take Poppy elsewhere if she is unsettled, we use baby earphones if the volume is loud, and we have a good time together. It’s important to me to include and support parents, and especially to help support and normalise breastfeeding.

Here we are together at the free Neil Finn picnic concert in Elder Park – which was absolutely full of families, children, and babies having a great time. It was the first big concert Star had ever been to and we had a lovely time. (Yes, that is a multicoloured floral stormtrooper headband, Rose is an incredible shopper)

What do I think ‘good parents’ should be doing?

People’s ideas about safety and good parenting also vary, which is healthy diversity when it comes to their own choices, but often needless shaming when it comes to policing other people. If you think having a baby outdoors in the evening is inappropriate, you are welcome to stay indoors. If I’m happy to sit under the stars with my little one, it’s hardly the kind of ‘safety risk’ that warrants shaming. There’s more than one ‘right way’ to raise a baby. Some families love camping. Some parents are into cosplay. Some like music. How wonderful!

There are things that are clearly dangerous to children, then there’s just the huge range of diversity of human interests and passions. We shouldn’t be judging difference as if it is all dangerous. One person who attacked us compared taking Poppy to see Missy Higgins as the same as taking her into a sex shop. I’m not sure Missy Higgins would appreciate that comparison!

The news snippet was brief of course, so people have misunderstood some details or jumped to the wrong conclusions. There was a mess of hostility. Attacking me for everything from my haircut to not being willing to ‘sacrifice’ going to a concert for the sake of my baby. As if Rose and I have not made sacrifices for her – our first little baby after 7 losses! I find it really interesting that there’s this backlash from some people when parents try to participate in their communities – that being a good parent is about missing out, and staying home with your little one. There are many things I’ve sacrificed for both of the lovely girls I’m blessed with, (dealing with a grade 3 tear leaps to mind!) but I really don’t feel that picnics need to be among them.

If Poppy was a more sensitive baby who was easily overstimulated, then obviously we wouldn’t take her to long, noisy events. But Poppy so far is very social and gregarious. She loves hanging out with people and is more than happy to snuggle to sleep in our arms with crowds or through movies.

As many families at that time of year prepared their children for evening, outdoors, noisy carols nights with fireworks, it seems faintly ridiculous to judge Rose and I and the other parents who planned to bring our babies to a picnic with an orchestra. I don’t think that needless sacrifice or exclusion make people better parents. I think they might make people lonelier parents, or sadder parents, or even perhaps more self-righteous parents. But staying home with Poppy while Rose went out to the concert was not character building. It was hardly the worst night of my life – a night with Poppy could never be that! But it was sad and it made me resent breastfeeding and being at home while a great many of our friends were out having a lovely time. Doubly so that it was a gift from our friends celebrating Poppy being part of our family. Hardly the ingredients for a parent who is content and connected to their baby and their community.

Funnily enough there were also other takes on what being a good parent requires. For some people it was sacrificing going out anywhere kids can’t go, for others it was sacrificing having the kids around, so still going out but leaving them with someone else. You actually can’t get it right as a parent. I’ve seen shaming along each of those lines in different scenarios. The shaming can intensify into virtual lynching if something goes wrong in any of those scenarios (such as a babysitter harming a child). Too often, being a ‘good parent’ means ‘parenting exactly the way I do’, and being fortunate enough to have nothing go wrong. What a load of crap.

This feels like a familiar dynamic to me – the way that otherwise basically kind kids will join in bullying the most vulnerable without really being able to articulate their primitive, instinctual understanding that if they don’t, they might be next. Kindness, ‘live and let live’ acceptance and friendly curiosity about diversity do not thrive in environments that are hostile and unpredictably aggressive. We support parents most like us and shame those ‘others’. We shame each other because we have been shamed, because we are hurting, because we feel we need to justify or own choices, and because we are afraid of being shamed. It’s a cycle that costs us all.

I think good parents celebrate diversity and don’t shame each other for harmless differences. I think good parents participate in the things that are important to them in ways that suit their families. I think good parents make sacrifices when it’s needed and don’t get hooked into an unsustainable culture of self sacrifice and disconnection from their own needs and the wider community.

What did this cost us?

The online storm was distressing enough that Rose and I disconnected from the internet for a few days. Friends were mostly supportive and confused by the vitriol. I found myself curiously invulnerable to a lot of the hostility but it distressed Rose terribly to see people being cruel to me. Some friends were so enraged by our preference to be able to attend the concert with Poppy that they attacked us and then cut us off. This isn’t the first time seemingly minor parenting choices have triggered an unusually​ aggressive response and the destruction of old friendships. It’s bewildering and sad, needless and infuriating. It feels to me like there are deep wounds beneath these responses.

Other friends rallied groups of parents to get into the comments and push back against some of the misogyny and shaming. I wrote this post to clarify what was going on and why but shelved it to not draw any of the hostility to my blog or personal Facebook page. After a few days the sense of exposure to people’s dark underbelly started to ease and life went back to normal. I hope the massive swell of support would help any other parents feel that there’s a lot of people who do get this and would back them.

Why did I do it?
I did it knowing the risks of a backlash, because breastfeeding has been difficult for me, for many reasons. If the venue had said no babies allowed, my friends would never have bought us tickets and I wouldn’t have been in the middle of it. Having found out about it at the last minute, I also think it’s an inappropriate policy for this lovely event, I think the venue handled the situation very badly, and I think we need to treat parents with more dignity. I believe that our culture puts stupid pressure on parents, shames and devalues mothers, and makes breastfeeding more difficult than it needs to be. There’s a real vulnerability to this, and an assumption by some that Mums can be mistreated because we don’t have enough of a voice, enough time, or enough energy to make a fuss about it. There’s a lot of misogyny in this. Social media can help connect us as well as vilify us.

Because I chose to be visible in this situation, other Mothers heard about this policy over Facebook – before they turned up and were sent home again. The downside is that anyone who saw the backlash may be even more reluctant to advocate for themselves, but after a few days the supportive comments outnumbered the hostile and rude ones. Mothers and allies banded together and backed each other. 

We are not alone anymore and we can back each other up. It’s not okay to treat us as second class citizens, deride our writing as ‘mummy blogs’, our effort to raise our kids as ‘not real work’, and the vulnerability of breastfeeding as something we should be embarrassed about. It’s not okay to tear each other down. I feel like I’ve been brave and gone and handled some fire. I’ve had my eyebrows singed off but my house is still standing, so I feel pretty lucky considering. If I’m very lucky I might even get across a small point or make some kind of difference, even if just to the other Mothers who find themselves being devalued in situations like this, or on the pointy end of our brutal culture of shaming, blaming, and excluding. We have every right to participate, to parent in a variety of ways, and to be supported to breastfeed. I’d stand up and say that again. 

2 thoughts on “Advocacy – Breastfeeding in Public

  1. Absolutely agree with you sarah. As a single mum, who breastfed for several years, I needed to be able to attend events and bring my baby otherwise you are excluded and that isn’t good for anyone. I’ve always taken mine to festivals and outdoor concerts without problem.
    Sorry to hear about the online backlash, it us very distressing and effects what I choose to blog about, although I try to be brave and push those boundaries when I am feeling up to it. There is a fantastic spoken word poet here in the uk called holly mc nish who does a great poem on bf in public https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=KiS8q_fifa0

    Like

I appreciate hearing from you

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s