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Staples CEO to breastfeeding moms: “You’re ruining the economy! Are you happy?”

February 9, 2012

UPDATE: Stemberg is no longer the CEO of Staples. He vacated his post at the company in 2002. He is the co-founder of the company, as well.

Tom Stemberg, the co-founder of office-supply store Staples, recently complained about the chilling effect on the economy of a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that states that employers must provide a private space that is not a bathroom and adequate break time for mothers to be able to pump milk for one year after the birth of their child. For information on this provision, visit the Department of Labor’s website here.

“Do you want [farming retailer] Tractor Supply to open stores or would you rather they take their capital and do what Obamacare and its 2,700 pages dictates – which is to open a lactation chamber at every single store that they have?” he asked.

“I’m big on breastfeeding; my wife breastfed,” Stemberg added. “I’m all for that. I don’t think every retail store in America should have to go to lactation chambers, which is what Obamacare foresees.”

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), this section of the Affordable Care Act affects approximately 19 million female workers, basically any woman who is not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s provisions on minimum wage and overtime wages. This essentially translates to hourly workers.

“In 2006, mothers with family income less than 100 percent of the povertyline, with less than a high school-level education, African American mothers, and mothers under the age of 20 were least likely to breastfeed. IWPR’s estimates show that these are the same groups that have the highest rates of coverage under the ACA breastfeeding protections.”

Increasing the rates of breastfeeding (initiation, duration, and exclusivity) in the United States is part of a very important public health goal, which in turn could save as much as $13 billion per year, according to a 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics. It could also save 900 American babies from death each year, the study noted, but Stemberg is clearly focusing on the monetary side of things, so we’ll stick to that. The study, which has been reviewed by numerous independent sources and declared sound and reasonable, also only bases these savings on the US attaining a breastfeeding rate of 50% of babies being exclusively breastfed at age 6 months. Currently, only 12% of US babies fall in this category. Larry Gray, a pediatrician at the University of Chicago, however, notes that it is unfair to shame mothers who do not breastfeed, “because their jobs and other demands often make it impossible to do so.”

So, it would seem that requiring break time and private space to pump at work would be quite effective at increasing breastfeeding rates among a population with statistically low breastfeeding rates, right? I would be very interested for someone to compile how much money it would take for employers to actually comply with this provision, so we could stack it against the $13 billion in savings we could reasonably expect to see (again, let’s not concern ourselves with the 900 saved babies, as Stemberg clearly does not). I suspect that the cost to comply to each business would really pale in comparison to the benefits that we, as a society, could expect to see, but I guess the issue for Stemberg is that it might put a slight ding in his company coffers. And hey, his wife breasfed, it’s not that he’s against breastfeeding; it’s just that if you are not of a sufficiently high enough socio-economic level to have the privilege of either staying at home during the early part of your child’s life, or to be at a level in a company where you probably have a private office and people don’t watch what you do with your time quite so closely and make you punch in and out, well, then maybe breastfeeding is not such a good idea. At least for Staples’ balance sheet.

Let’s talk for a moment, too, about the mocking tone that is implied in the phrase “lactation chambers.” I’d be a bit more inclined to have a serious, respectful discussion about the costs and benefits of a law like this with someone who had not gone and used that term. Because all that terms serves to do is ridicule the whole notion of breastfeeding and pumping, like it’s so silly and embarrassing and bizarre that we need a specially named room, nay, chamber, in which to do it. Not a nursing room, pumping room, mother’s room, mother’s lounge, but a “lactation chamber.” I don’t know about you, but another verb that I readily associate with the word chamber is “torture,” but maybe that was unintentional on Stemberg’s part.

When I went back to work after maternity leave with my first, I was very lucky. I had an office with a door that locked and reasonable, supportive coworkers and bosses. I didn’t stay there long, as I decided I didn’t want to work full-time, and I found a part-time job. I didn’t have my own desk for the two days a week I came in and certainly not a private office. I told them that I would need to pump milk occasionally (and this was when my daughter was just about a year, not a newborn), and you know what they came up with? A ginormous empty office suite with a private bathroom. It used to be the CEO’s office until they moved the headquarters to a different city. Contrast that with the time I walked into a bathroom in O’Hare airport and there was a woman sort of huddled against the wall near the back by a baby-changing station. I sort of looked at her trying to figure out what she was doing, because, honestly, she looked almost suspiciously off–darting eyes, obviously trying to use her body to shield something from my view, and you know, we’re in an airport in post-9/11 times. Yeah, well she was trying to shield her poor breasts, while holding the pump horns to them, from my view, and she kept looking towards people as they came in and away, seeming pretty uncomfortable about the whole endeavor. I tried to look her in the eyes and not tip my head down to her chest and give her an encouraging smile. And to be honest, think for a moment about how glad I was that I did not have to make a choice between doing that every day, several times a day and not feeding my child breast milk.

 

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Baby in carrier, cocktail in hand?

December 14, 2011

So, we are smack dab in the middle of the holiday party season and many people may be in the position of having recently had a baby and staring down a handful of party invitations, wondering “Should I go? Am I comfortable with a sitter? Could I bring my baby?” This situation is one, admittedly infrequent, of those times I think babywearing is so darn brilliant. I believe it’s really important for new moms to be able to maintain some semblance of a social life, and if you typically enjoy attending a few normally grown-ups only parties this time of year, I don’t think that having an infant should necessarily stop you. With babywearing, you can carry a pre-walking baby, potentially throughout an entire evening, enjoying some adult conversation and fancy mini-quiches at the same time. (Maybe skip the hot spiced wine or cider and the fancy chocolate volcano dessert fountain.)

Tips for bringing baby to a party:

  • If the party is at a person’s home, call up the host and tell them how much you appreciate the invite and that you’d like to come with your baby. “Hi! Thank you so much for inviting us to your party. I’m really looking forward to seeing you and having some grown-up conversation. Little Madison is already 6 weeks old, can you believe it? I’m planning to come with her in a baby carrier, she’ll probably sleep the whole time! I just wanted to tell you ahead of time and make sure that won’t be a problem.”
  • If the party is at a public place, take your cues on whether bringing your baby is a good idea from the location. The party room of a restaurant you would dine at with children? For sure. A fancier restaurant, but still a private room? Yep. A bar or dance club? Maybe, maybe not. I would consider the likely noise level (loud music and very loud conversation will startle baby and could harm his ears), whether it will be smoke-free, and who the other potential patrons not associated with your party may be.
  • Assure your host that if your baby has a meltdown, you will excuse yourself, whether temporarily or by calling it an early night. It’s fair for adults to want a time and space where they can step away from the demands of raising children.
  • If your baby needs a diaper change, go to a private area and always put a mat or blanket down on whatever surface you use. If you use disposable diapers, take it with you to dispose of later (unless you know the hosts *really* well and feel ok asking to dispose of it in their garbage).
  • Your little black dress might be AWESOME but it is probably also really hard to breastfeed while wearing it. For maximum babywearing-party-going efficiency and enjoyment, try dressy pants and a dressy button-down blouse. Maybe a pretty scarf or pashmina would be useful for coverage or to block distractions for baby. A ring sling tail will do the same. The hood on a carrier like the pikkolo, or other SSC, can serve this function as well.
  • If you have an alcoholic drink or two, there is typically little to worry about with regard to breastfeeding. Alcohol can inhibit let-down but if this is not usually a problem for you, drinking a little likely won’t pose a problem. Also, you do NOT need to pump and dump your milk if you drink, unless you are uncomfortably full and not yet ready to nurse baby. Alcohol does not stay in the milk, it dissipates just as it does from the bloodstream. Blood alcohol levels peak within 30-90 minutes of consuming a drink (faster without food, slower while eating). Most doctors advise consuming no more than 1-2 drinks and waiting a minimum of 2-3 hours to nurse again. There is also a product called Milkscreen, which you can use to determine if there is any alcohol in your breastmilk if you are concerned. (See Thomas Hale’s Medications and Mother’s Milk, 1999, for more information on alcohol’s interactions with breastfeeding.)

So, would you take a baby to a party? At what age would you think twice, or say “no way!” For me, I would only take a pre-walking baby that I knew would be content in a carrier for at least an hour (and hopefully more!). Beyond that and I think the experience would be more stressful than fun. 



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When extended breastfeeding and etiquette columnists collide

November 30, 2011

Slate posted a “Dear Prudence” advice column on Monday that had a woman writing to ask what to do about the fact that her new sister-in-law breastfed her 5-year-old (who has severe allergies) at the dinner table. Some people were probably still picking up their jaws as soon as they read “5-year-old” and “breastfed” in the same sentence, and as soon as they did they promptly began making contorted faces and sounds mimicking a cat trying to expel a hair ball to convey their disapproval. Other people (no doubt often called names like “the breastfeeding police”) were jumping on the person writing the question and on the answer Prudence supplied, and taking to the internet to spread the word about the awfulness of Prudence.

I am a breastfeeding advocate. As many people have rightly pointed out, anthropological and biological study show us that a natural weaning age around the world is typically between 3 and 7 years, severe allergies or not. So while I may not wish to breastfeed a child of 5 years, I cannot say that it is “wrong,” as so many people did. I am not going to say “I’m all for breastfeeding. . . . a BABY.” I’m actually more interested in the *tone* of Prudence’s response than the actual advice. Because if you distill the actual advice down to about one or two factual sentences, it would be this: “Tell your brother, ‘we were all really uncomfortable that your wife breastfed her son at the dinner table, especially considering it was the first time we met her. I understand he has allergies, but would you ask her if she can step away from the dinner table if she needs to breastfeed him again at a family gathering?'”

When you say this matter-of-factly, it doesn’t sound too bad to me. I know that some people feel that the mom should breastfeed her son whenever and wherever she wishes, and I can respect that opinion. If the son in question were an infant or toddler, I’d be more inclined to agree. But breastfeeding a 5-year-old, even if anthropologically and biologically normal is not typical in our culture. Add in the fact that this was done in front of people you’ve never met (even if they are now your family, by marriage), and I am ok with suggesting that a more private location is a better choice.

But the tone of the response is mocking, condescending, and derisive. It suggests that because the mother breastfeeds her 5-year-old son (you know the child that she carried to term and birthed), that she is going to gleefully attempt to serve her unsuspecting guests her breast milk in lieu of cream for their coffee (which probably comes from cows, but yet that’s not weird?). She mocks La Leche League and then makes a completely unscientific declaration that 5 years old is too old to “still be at mommy’s breast.” When, she says, your kid can tell you to lay off the garlic, then it’s time to throw away the nursing bra (to which I say, hey, if it still fits, wear that sucker, because does she know how hard it is to find a good bra and those things are expensive and why, yes, I’m wearing a nursing bra even though my youngest hasn’t nursed for 2+ years). This sounds pretty much like the oft-heard “if they can ask for it, they’re too old.” What does “ask for it” mean anyway? “Nee-nees, pease?!” coming from a 18-month-old is asking for it. Is a 10-month-old who can sign “milk,” asking for it? Sorry, but when you get down to it, rooting, a behavior that is exhibited minutes out of the womb, is “asking for it.” The instinct to breastfeed is just that–instinctual and distinctions that have to do with the method of communication to express that human need and what they have to say about breastfeeding’s appropriateness are completely arbitrary. Then Prudence suggests that if the husband won’t ask his wife to nurse the son in a more private setting that the other family members run out of the room while doing their best imitation of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” rather than suggesting that the writer just say calmly and politely to her sister-in-law, “Can I ask you to give your son breast milk in the other room, we feel awkward having you do so at the table?” I mean, you can have a discussion about whether or not that is fair to ask of her, but it’s a heck of a lot less hysterical than the juvenile responses Prudence suggests. The woman could even suggest pumping milk for her son before coming to a family gathering. I know that this may not be an option; some women cannot get much, if any, milk by pump, but only by nursing. And yes, it’s way less convenient. But politely suggesting a different location or a pump is a lot less offensive than the attitude displayed in the column.

Prudence closes by praying that this woman find her son a milk substitute (by which, to clarify, she means a substitute for the cow’s milk that most people drink, which is a substitute for the milk of our own species, since the woman’s son is allergic to cow’s milk), because “[i]t would be bad for him socially if she had to come and give him nourishment to get him through his SATs.” We all know that no child has ever had his mother have to breastfeed him through his college entrance exams, but hey why miss one more opportunity to marginalize the parent outside the norm of the culture as a crazy, possibly pathological, child-ruining monster? I suppose that reasoned, practical advice isn’t what advice columns are for anymore.

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