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Breastfeeding rights under scrutiny

As a nursing mother I was denied my right to nurse my child as needed. Despite Michigan's “Breastfeeding Antidiscrimination Act," I was directed to nurse only in a small study space. Grand Rapids Public Library needs to take steps to create a a safe, welcoming breastfeeding environment.

How GRPL could take steps toward a more friendly nursing environment

1. Encourage the library and other places you frequent to place placards, letting everyone know that breastfeeding is welcome. Free signs can be found here.

2. Show support by making a public statement that the GRPL not only follows the Michigan law supporting women’s right to breastfeed but letting the public know what specific steps they are taking to make sure women feel safe to nurse.

3. A suggestion from a dear librarian friend of mine: a prominent, branch-wide, patron-created book display on breastfeeding combined with legal rights, accompanying photos of breastfeeding and art books that depict breasts in all kinds of situations!

4. The GRPL library system should share this experience with other Michigan libraries so that other library directors can reflect on ways to support breastfeeding and avoid the situation I have experienced. 

Cruising the GRPL Stacks

Cruising the GRPL Stacks /Linnea deRoche

Author nursing child

Author nursing child /Amelia deRoche

Print by Sarah Scott: "I'll Nurse Where I Damn Well Please"

Print by Sarah Scott: "I'll Nurse Where I Damn Well Please" /Sarah Scott

This week, for the first time in my life, I felt uncomfortable in the library. More than just uncomfortable, I felt embarrassed, belittled and unwelcome. After being a patron of the Grand Rapids Public Libraries for my whole life, one might wonder what happened that could possible make me feel so humiliated.

While looking for a book hiding somewhere on the shelves, my little one let me know it was time to nurse. I was wearing two shirt layers and a sweater; my typical nursing-friendly outfit. Since the library was fairly empty, I knew my baby would not be distracted.  At the time, I thought nothing of letting him latch while I continued my search. I sat down, double-checked my note, and continued to hunt for the book. The next thing I knew, a security guard was coming down the aisle.

“Hi,” I said to her with a smile. I have always had positive interactions with the library security guards. With an uncomfortable stammer, the security guard directed me to a little study room that they had unlocked for me.

“Oh, I’m okay, thanks,” I replied. I assumed she was being considerate and maybe thought I would be more comfortable sitting to nurse rather than carrying a baby and looking for books. Some moms might have a baby who prefers to nurse in a quiet space. I am certain, however, that sitting in a tiny room with three children was not going to work in my case.

“You can keep doing what you’re doing,” she stammered, in the study room.  The euphemism was clear but why didn’t she say “breastfeeding,” or “feeding your kid,” or “nursing?” I felt that she was uncomfortable, but I was stunned. I could not believe this was happening. My mind raced as I searched for what I could say.

Michigan’s “Breastfeeding Antidiscrimination Act” explicitly permits breastfeeding while in places of “public accommodation or public service.” Aside from the blatant ignorance about the legal right to breastfeed in public, I would still expect that of all places, a public library would properly instruct its staff to not just permit but welcome and encourage breastfeeding.

In a free and democratic society, the public library by its very nature stands as a critical bulwark against ignorance, discrimination and censorship. Above all, a library should be seen as a “safe” place that welcomes rather than discourages the presence of all patrons including, certainly, the very youngest. Surely no person should be subjected to the humiliation that I experienced in the library.

I have complete respect for whatever ways a parent feeds a child. Parenting can be a challenging job and there is no need to be divisive on the topic. After eight years of baby feeding experience, some of my babies did better with a bottle, but this one wants to eat directly from the breast. I have nursed in a lot of places; churches, restaurants, busses, airplanes, theatres, grocery stores, parks, and yes, libraries. I guess it comes down to the simple fact that babies tend to get hungry wherever they are.

 “Okay, thanks,” I think I replied. My ears started buzzing and my face felt flush. I got up but instead of going to the little room, I gathered up my young family to leave. The older two were confused why we were leaving without books and by now the younger one was screaming loudly.  I was unable to adequately explain what was happening. Though I tried to remain calm, my older children were embarrassed and worried that their mom was in trouble. They could not understand what had happened and no child wants to see their parent in a conflict. My baby was completely agitated by now and I no longer felt welcomed at all.

The librarian reminded me that she had unlocked a study corral. I told her that I shouldn’t have to go in a tiny room and she left to check something. She returned to confirm that I was, indeed, welcome to nurse throughout the library. However, I do not need her permission, or anyone’s permission to nurse wherever my baby is hungry. Michigan protects my rights as a breastfeeding parent, and I want my library to do the same. My mind flashed to a powerful print by Sarah Scott that declares, “I’ll nurse where I damn well please,” but I struggled to find that confidence.

We managed out to the car, where I finished nursing in the cold. As I sat there, I became more frustrated with the situation and more disappointed with myself. I did not raise enough of a question or stick up for my baby or myself. I just left. I am usually a pretty confident person and have plenty of experience nursing in public. If the situation left me feeling so deflated, how much worse might a less seasoned breastfeeder feel?  I want that mother to feel comfortable at the library. I want her to know that without question she is welcome to feed her baby in public without a problem.

My mind wandered back to the security guard who, while probably well-meaning, was not even sure what to call that “thing” I was doing.  I want her to know what to call breastfeeding and to recognize that there are lots of books at the library with more breasts than what you’d see from nursing. Finally, I want the staff at the library (and everywhere quite frankly) to know how to support breastfeeding moms.

I love the Grand Rapids Public Libraries. I proudly opened my first GRPL library card at age 5 and have not stopped using a library card since. I have always felt at home among the stacks and want everyone to be empowered and welcomed at the library.

Eventually I spoke with a representative from GRPL who assured me that all are welcome to nurse at the library. Clearly though, the message has not been spread. This week is the first time that I been made to feel so uncomfortable in the library and I sincerely hope that what I experienced will not happen to anyone else.

More than making this a teachable moment, I see this as an opportunity for the Grand Rapids Public Libraries as a whole system to take steps toward creating a safe space. I want the library to publically and visibly make it clear that in addition to following the law and protecting legal rights, that breastfeeding is welcome and supported wherever a child needs to be fed.

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