Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Providing privacy for lactating mothers is ‘no-brainer’

Monica Toranzo-Howell and her baby Celeste, in their Miramar home, September 19, 2014. Howell and other teachers are campaigning for Miami-Dade schools to establish policies to allow lactating teachers time and space to pump breast milk.
Monica Toranzo-Howell and her baby Celeste, in their Miramar home, September 19, 2014. Howell and other teachers are campaigning for Miami-Dade schools to establish policies to allow lactating teachers time and space to pump breast milk. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Through the unenlightened 1980s, women like me who chose motherhood and career had few choices. We were expected to stop breastfeeding too early and return to work or risk losing the job and future opportunities to the dreaded “mommy track.”

For the next generation of working women, however, there was the job-protecting Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 – and the advent of sophisticated breast pumps. Thanks to strong advocacy campaigns, some workplaces in Miami-Dade, including mine, adopted more family-friendly policies.

The hum of the breast pump simply became a part of life in the women’s bathroom.

What a throwback to the dark ages it is to hear that women – our teachers, no less – are still fighting for the right to pump breast milk after they return to work from maternity leave, a task that can ensure long-term health benefits for their children.

But in ours, the nation’s fourth-largest school district, where 80 percent of the teachers are women, it takes a union fight to establish a system-wide policy that would allow lactating teachers to take a break to pump milk. Hourly workers already have this benefit under federal law, but salaried professionals like teachers don’t – unfairly so.

This is a matter the Miami-Dade Public Schools Board could have easily fixed by voting on the policy instead of leaving it at the lame expression of “encouraging principals” to allow the practice on a need basis.

That leaves teachers at the mercy of their administrators. One has to be naïve or out of touch to believe that all administrators would do right by their teachers.

All too often schools are insular little worlds that operate like dysfunctional families. Leaving what should be established rights to the whim of a principal or assistant principal is a terrible idea. Plenty of anecdotal evidence gathered by the Miami Herald and WLRN shows that teachers are treated differently depending on where they teach and who’s in charge.

Teachers told the Herald that they pump anywhere they can find a private spot – from closets to hot cars – without asking for permission out of fear of being banned from doing something that’s so good for their newborns.

Seriously, in 2014 women have to hide to breastfeed?

The school board claims that making the practice official requires a bargaining session with the union. Well, what are they waiting for? Schedule it.

This is not a school district that can afford not to do right by its teachers.

In a week when a high school student knocks out and rapes a teacher and two middle school students are caught bringing two loaded semi-automatic guns to school and showing them off on campus, one has to wonder why anyone would want to embark on a teaching career.

It’s a job that demands too much, pays too little, and when a simple benefit is requested, there’s a tussle to be had with the union.

It’s a no-brainer that teachers should be allowed time and a private, safe space to pump breast milk. Breast-feeding is, after all, only temporary.

If men could lactate, there wouldn’t have ever been a discussion, nor the need for advocacy campaigns – not in my time, and not now. There would’ve been a lactation room in every workplace in America from the dawn of industrialization.

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