The story started like so many dozens of others – but it ended better than most. After a mother spoke up about illegally being asked to cover up while breastfeeding in a small Illinois town restaurant, all hell broke loose on social media. But the painful experience led to learning and offers a model for other businesses who will inevitably find themselves in the similar situations.
Briefly, a woman at Big Fish Bar & Grille in Wilmington, Illinois, had begun breastfeeding her 6-month-old shortly after ordering. The restaurant was pretty busy that Sunday night, owner John Mathias told me in a phone call, and Kristal Snow Tomko, the mother, wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook wall that her baby was ready to eat and throwing a tantrum until she began nursing.
Shortly thereafter, the manager and then Mathias asked her to cover up, citing the discomfort reported by several other patrons. When Tomko refused – her reasonable and legal right – Mathias offered another dining area or the bathroom. Tomko refused again. Illinois Public Act 093-0942 states, “A mother may breastfeed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breastfeeding.” (Also, please read this article by Annie Reneau on the many reasons it is unreasonable to request that a woman use a cover while breastfeeding.)
“I was made to feel embarrassed and shamed, as if I were doing something wrong,” Tomko wrote on her Facebook post. “I went quietly and quickly to my van where I cried and nursed.” Her post was shared more than 1,000 times, and individuals from all over the world commented on that thread, on the restaurant’s Mother’s Day post and on the page itself. Two nurse-ins were planned, the first to be held Friday. Tomko was right to name and shame – the strategy is one of the most effective in raising awareness – but justified outrage eventually needs to transition to education, which is precisely what Tomko called for in her post: “The host and other staff need to be made aware and trained on how to handle future instances properly. To inform the ‘offended’ table of two, a simple ‘Illinois law prohibits asking a breastfeeding mother to cover or move, I can seat you differently if you’d like’ would be sufficient.”
When I spoke to Mathias, he seemed genuinely disturbed not only by the response – he had inexcusably received threats of violence and vandalism – but by how Tomko had felt. He also seemed baffled. “It was meant with respect,” Mathias said of his request. “It was done politely. I didn’t deny her service, I didn’t ask her to leave, I didn’t ask her to stop breastfeeding.” He said many past women had breastfed in his establishment but covered up without being asked. “She was completely open,” he said. “Breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural thing, but I just politely asked her to respect everyone else as well. I think it was a reasonable request. It wasn’t meant to embarrass her or anything else.”
At this point I told Mathias of my experience, barely a year ago, being told to “go somewhere else” or cover up in a much loved establishment while I was nursing my 3-month-old. (Again, please read why it’s not appropriate to request that mothers cover up if they have not already chosen to.) I’m an outspoken, often intimidating, loud feminist. And when I left that establishment about a half hour later (and after informing the employee they were breaking the law), I was shaking in the car so badly I had to pull over, and I began bawling. Breastfeeding can be hard, mothers are constantly judged, and many are in the midst of a hormonal rollercoaster of emotions or may be suffering postpartum depression. Even emotional health and breastfeeding experience do not necessarily protect against the shame, confusion, frustration and anger of being asked to cover up when a mother is simply feeding her baby. There is no polite, reasonable or respectful way – at all – to ask a woman to cover up or move elsewhere while breastfeeding.
It was clear to me on the phone that Mathias was listening and learning from the social media response, if painfully so. He knew breastfeeding was legally protected but hadn’t known the law also protected uncovered breastfeeding. He had been concerned about the patrons who felt uncomfortable without realizing his responsibility in politely informing them of the law, a law that protects breastfeeding mothers but also returns breastfeeding to the normalization it enjoyed for centuries – see BuzzFeed’s awesome photo-listicle of normalized breastfeeding throughout history – before formula arrived on the scene (and saved thousands of babies’ lives).
Then Mathias showed the best possible way a business can respond in these circumstances: a succinct, thoughtful statement on the restaurant’s Facebook page offered a sincere apology and announced that restaurant employees would receive awareness training regarding “the rights and feelings of nursing moms.” Big Fish Bar & Grille is hosting a nurse-in on Saturday at which the first 50 nursing mothers to attend will receive Big Fish onesies. Further, “all mothers who bring a child will also receive a small token to show our appreciation for mothers everywhere, whether they choose to breastfeed or not.” With one well-crafted post, Big Fish appropriately apologized, turned a PR fail into a PR win, helped to normalize breastfeeding, and, remarkably, did all of this while respecting all women’s choices in feeding their infants.
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