Happy Mother's Day, nursing mothers, you now get to sit in a pod. Four pumping and nursing stations have been installed in New York airports just in time for the big day, reports The New York Times. The pods are sponsored by the eco-friendly household and baby care product company, Seventh Generation.
The pods appear to be shaped like giant cans of tuna turned on their side, not much bigger than a photo booth and with none of the kitsch factor. They have a stark white interior and more-than-ample Seventh Generation branding both inside and out. There's a full-sized door that closes to maximize both privacy and claustrophobia. The press release dubbed them "lactation suites," but I'm pretty sure we can all agree that's a stretch.
Nonetheless, I understand why this seems like a good idea. There's been recent pressure on airports to provide facilities for lactating mothers to breastfeed or express milk in privacy and several have set up nursing stations.
Many women simply do not feel comfortable breastfeeding in public for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes it's the baby who doesn't do well in public and needs a quiet space to keep focused on feeding. Sascha Mayer is the co-founder and CEO of Mamava, the company that created these pumping and nursing pods. She says, "I personally had a child who would breastfeed anywhere, and a second child who needed a calm quite place to nurse. Many moms are nursing one baby in a public place and trying to keep track of a toddler. Our units have space for everyone to be comfortable and contained."
And almost everybody wants to pump breastmilk behind closed doors. For lactating mothers who are travelling for business (or travelling without their baby), a clean, discreet space is welcome. "The USA has no paid maternity leave," Mayer reminds me. "Moms in America have been pumping in bathrooms."
But not everybody is a fan of the nursing pod. The Times' Facebook share of this story received many comments criticizing the idea for making it seem like nursing mothers "need to hide." "People need to get over themselves," says one commenter. Another adds, "Omg. Americans are so phobic. Prudes!! Get over it already."
On the face of it, it does seem downright rude to suggest that breastfeeding mothers need to go sit in what one person described as an oversized tin can. Even if the nursing pods are only intended to be an option, won't at least some nursing moms feel like they're supposed to be breastfeeding in there?
There's also a larger concern, beyond an individual mother's comfort. Activists have long said that public breastfeeding is important because it helps to normalize breastfeeding. The more women are seen breastfeeding their babies in public, the more normal breastfeeding seems, and the more comfortable everybody will be around it. Any sort of separate feeding station will only serve to underscore the idea that breastfeeding is great, as long as we don't see you doing it.
Annie Urban is a prominent Canadian blogger who writes about parenting, feminism and social justice at PhdInParenting.com. "Mothers should be encouraged to nurse wherever they and the baby feel comfortable, whether that is in private or in public, covered or uncovered," Urban says. "So in theory, nursing pods are a great option for moms who desire more privacy and are certainly a better option than using a dirty washroom. In practice, however, when a designated space for nursing exists, it promotes the idea that breastfeeding should be hidden away. It also increases the likelihood that airport staff will ask or demand that mothers nurse in the pods instead of in public spaces."
Mayer thinks that far from covering up breastfeeding, the Seventh Generation-sponsored Mamava nursing pods publicize it. "We think of it as a billboard communicating that there are many, many breastfeeding moms who could use all the help they can get, actually bringing the discussion into the open," she says.
In any case, new moms have enough on their plates without feeling like they have to change the culture every time they need to feed their baby. If a mom prefers privacy for feeding, it's wonderful that she's not forced into a toilet stall at the airport. For the large number of working mothers in the U.S. who are pumping on the go, those pods look fantastic.
Of course, if the United States introduced longer paid maternity leaves, fewer moms would have to leave their nursing babies, but that's a topic for another day.