An Australian member of parliament just breastfed her two-month-old daughter in the parliament’s chambers and the world did not end.
Larissa Waters, a Green Party member from Queensland, Australia, became the first MP to benefit from a new “family friendly” rules change made in February 2016 for Australian parliamentarians.
That rule specifically allowed breastfeeding MPs to bring their infants into the chamber of parliament — and, obviously, feed them. Prior to that ruling, because children were banned from entering the chamber, breastfeeding mothers were often forced to miss out on important parliamentary duties and had to delegate their voting power to other members to vote in their absence.
When the Australian parliament vote passed last February, the Leader of the House Christopher Pyne told press the rule would ensure that “No member, male or female, will ever be prevented from participating fully in the operation of the Parliament by reason of having the care of a baby."
The opposition leader, Tony Burke, was also on board. “It'll be a long time, and possibly never, before this job is truly family-friendly, but this is a significant way of trying to improve,” Burke said upon the law’s passage.
It may have been a first for Australia, but a handful of worldwide parliamentarians have also tried, of late, to meet the needs of new infants with their government duties — to mixed effect.
When Spanish MP Carolina Benscansa breastfed her son in parliament last year, a conservative parliamentarian accused her of taking a “lamentable” action, and a socialist MP called it “unnecessary.”
In October 2016, Icelandic Parliamentary member Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir not only fed her child in parliament — she brought the infant, still feeding, up to the podium and spoke. Her colleagues didn’t seem to mind one bit. Later she said that her daughter “was hungry, and I wasn’t expecting to speak, so I started feeding her.” Taking her off the breast, she said, would have made the child cry — and thus been far more disruptive.
And back in 2010, Licia Ronzulli brought her daughter — then seven weeks — into a vote in the European parliament. She was widely lauded for continuing to bond with the baby. Ronzulli was bemused at the time: “It's bizarre. We've been doing a lot, a lot of work in the European parliament and there was no interest in the press,” she said. “Then I come with my baby and everybody wants to interview me.” She also told reporters that her original choice was not a "political gesture but a maternal one.”
Since then, the Italian politician has brought her daughter to work several times, and it has been well-documented. And it’s not just Europe — in Argentina, Victoria Donda Perez breastfed her eight-month-old in parliament, and the reactions were mostly supportive.
One place where it’s not happening is the United States.
Kids need to eat. Moms need to work. What’s the issue?
The issue of breastfeeding and separation from infants is a worldwide phenomenon. The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not federally mandate any paid leave for new parents. Among the benefits specifically listed under Obamacare were the options to use insurance money for breast pumps, the right to nursing areas, and the right to breaks for pumping or nursing. This was a definite improvement, to be sure, but nursing infants need so much milk, and so often, that women are often at a loss to keep up — unless their child is by their side.
But breastfeeding in the States has long hovered in a strange space between scandalous and essential. While the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have long suggested women should exclusively breastfeed for at least six months, getting to that point can be immensely complicated for women forced to return to work immediately and those who have no space to pump.
In addition to work problems, American women breastfeeding in public have faced harassment and prejudice. Breasts, it seems, often get in the way of breastfeeding.
Which makes Ms. Waters’s accomplishment all the more remarkable for being, frankly, unremarkable. She has a new baby, the baby was hungry, she fed her. She has a job, the job required her to be in office to vote, she voted.