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July 30, 2010 / MrsH

Nursing in Public

Outrageously, a mother on my local yahoo mom’s group was told to stop breastfeeding her 3 month old baby at a local YMCA.  I know this stuff happens but have never experienced anything but positive attention for my nursing in public, and so this mother’s experience was shocking.  It was a hot topic of discussion on our list ever since the incident happened, after which she sent the letter posted below.  Liz was also interviewed for a news story.

What is most shocking to me is not that this incident happened, but that a smart, polite woman, acting with integrity and with the law on her side, wasn’t successful in convincing the childcare workers to let her stay and nurse her baby.  I can’t see anything she could have done differently to avoid being so dis-empowered by the staff at the Woburn YMCA.   I’ve wondered: “what would I have done?” “how could I have handled the situation?” and “what would my feelings be if it were me?”  For the last one, I think I’d have been a crying mess and can only pray I would’ve had the grace and insight to handle the situation with such thoughtfulness and integrity as Elizabeth Gomez did.

I look forward to the day when my daughters are able to breastfeed their children in a society that embraces this form of nurturing and feeding.  A society where our rights are so fully embraced that they don’t need to be fully protected anymore (though of course they would still be).  A time when any mother gets free, basic lactation support and ready access through insurance-covered individual lactation support where needed.  A society where seeing a nursing baby’s head bobbing in the chest area isn’t deemed inappropriate, but is deemed part of the miracle of life, and where any passersby join the baby in her delighted grunts, smiles, laughter, or applause. Even if that means a nipple is showing.

Letter from Elizabeth Gomez to Woburn YMCA
To Whom it May Concern,

I am writing this letter to follow up on a conversation I had yesterday with Amy Turner regarding my legal right to breastfeed in the Child Watch daycare portion of the North Suburban YMCA in Woburn, MA.  My overall goal in addressing this issue is a peaceful resolution, but staff education on the local level, and attention brought to this issue within the regional/national structure of the YMCA, are also extremely important to me.  Upon researching this issue over the last day, I have come across numerous incidents that have made the news regarding the YMCA and breastfeeding in recent years.  It is clear to me that a national policy needs to be established.  Though I am aware that this is not within your control on the local level, it is within your power to educate your own employees, and to post signs within your establishment that support and encourage breastfeeding in all areas where mothers and children are otherwise allowed to be.

To restate the chain of events yesterday for anyone other than Amy who may read this letter:

I returned to child watch to pick up my three children, Ricky, 5, Caroline, 2, and Christian, 3 months old. Christian was hungry so I sat down to nurse him in the Child Watch area. I was told in no uncertain terms that I could not feed him there. I informed the workers that what they were telling me was illegal, and that I am allowed to breastfeed wherever I am able to be lawfully present. They insisted that the “no eating within Child Watch” policy included breastfeeding.  She also stated that I would be “exposing myself” and the “kids would see it.”  I again told them that they were being discriminatory and that my right to breastfeed is protected by law.  At this point the other childcare worker stepped in and agreed with her coworker, and they both told me that I must go into the hall in order to breastfeed, and that I needed to take it up with the director if I had an issue with this policy.  At that point I left with my hungry baby to find another place to nurse. It was safer to leave my two year old daughter screaming in Child Watch than to try to chase her around the Y while nursing my baby. She was obviously upset by this turn of events and was crying as I left.

When I spoke to the director about this issue, Amy Turner, she assured me she would look into the issue for me, and she seemed to take my complaint seriously.  During our initial conversation, when I informed her that the YMCA’s actions were illegal, she also made it a point to tell me that my “membership can be terminated at any time, for any reason.”  This statement concerns me very much, because I value my YMCA membership, and do not want my membership terminated.  On the other hand, I do not want to be pressured by the threat of losing my membership to not follow up on this violation of my legal rights, and I feel strongly that staff education on this matter is of the utmost importance.

The law that I referred to yesterday in my conversations with various YMCA employees was passed recently in Massachusetts.  It is MGL chapter 111, section 221, and it states,  “A mother may breastfeed her child in any public place or establishment or place which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public* and where the mother and child may otherwise be lawfully present.  No person or entity shall “restrict, harass, or penalize a mother” who is breastfeeding her child.  *with the exception of houses of worship or places of religious instruction.”  In my conversation with Amy yesterday, I read the law to her, and she expressed that it was possible the YMCA was covered under the religious exemption.  However, since no religious classes happen at the Woburn YMCA, and certainly not in the Child Watch area, and it also cannot be considered a “place of worship,” the religious exemption under the law does not apply in this case.

Any private establishment that invites patronage, like the YMCA, is included under this law.   It is my greatest hope that this mistake can be rectified by the YMCA, by first and foremost changing the policy on a local level in the Child Watch center, by finding ways to educate all current and future employees on the legality of this issue, and by posting signs which reassure and encourage breastfeeding mothers so that they know the YMCA supports breastfeeding within their establishment.  On a national YMCA level, I would like attention brought to this issue and my complaint copied and sent to all relevant parties, so that the YMCA can work on its overall policies in order to avoid this kind of situation in future interactions with mothers and their children.

Elizabeth Gomez


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