Yesterday a friend posted a link to a Facebook group I'm in about Jaielyn, a high school sophomore in Delaware whose school won't let her pump or store breast milk at school. I read the article and my head spun.
I've been here before.
I got pregnant at the end of my sophomore year of high school and by the time I got back from summer for junior year, my belly made it clear for everyone to see. Like the mother in Delaware, I was a good student and an avid bookworm. I was in all honors classes, considered 'gifted and talented', and one of very few juniors in calculus - but my teachers couldn't seem to see past the belly.
They acted like my uterus had swallowed my brain, my ambition, and my worth. Never in my life have I been more expected and encouraged to fail than when I was a pregnant and parenting teen. My calculus teacher told me that I would be better off dropping out and getting a GED. Now there is nothing wrong with a GED, but as a privileged to be 'book smart' and passably white kid, that was not a path that had ever been suggested to me as anything other than terrible. Suddenly, as a teen mom, that was the best I could hope for.
A week into the school year, I went into preterm labor. I was put on home-bound education. A teacher came to my home each day, but many of my teachers never sent her any work. She called them. She emailed them. She dropped by my school. Nothing. She and I would hang out in my tiny studio apartment and talk about the war in Iraq and The Daily Show. After she left, I'd lay in bed with my belly working through the Calculus syllabus and translating the Aeneid.
By the time my son was born, the semester was almost over and I was so far behind there was no reason to return. I dropped out for the rest of the fall and switched schools with the new semester. The new school was amazing. They had child care for staff and students. They had calculus. They were definitely squeamish about me nursing at school but they made sure I had a place to pump. The college counselor and an English teacher were also nursing. The counselor let me use her office when it was available and a staff restroom when it was not. The English teacher and I would chat about how nursing was going, how our babies were doing and what we were reading these days. They helped me find scholarships for college and I finished high school second in my class.
According to Jaielyn's story, the school said she couldn't pump. The pump is loud. It'd be distracting. She might get made fun of. They'd have no way to know she was really pumping.
The words said "You can't pump." But they meant, "You don't belong here."
The school has infrastructure for pumping. They have to. It is a state and federal regulation that they must offer reasonable accommodations for their breastfeeding employees. All they'd have to do is extend those accommodations to Jaielyn. In previous cases like this, principals have provided empty offices, theater green rooms and other un- or under-utilized spaces in the school environment.
It is undisputed that breastfeeding is best and breastfeeding rates in the U.S. are much lower than they need to be to reach our country's health goals. Teen moms who choose to nurse should be lauded, not discriminated against. Jaielyn will miss less school because her child will be sick less often. She will be offering her kiddo the best start.
I called Jaielyn's school yesterday and left a message for the school nurse. I'm guessing a lot of folks have done the same because they came out with a response to feedback they've received on allowing her to pump at school. Suddenly they are all for it. But tucked into the response is that same insidious message.
"Our teen moms have access to the DAPI program in Camden which is specifically designed to support pregnant teens. There they can take their classes, take their baby with them, breast feed and pump whenever necessary. A student who chooses to leave that environment and return to regular school also chooses to leave behind a certain level of support."
Young mothers have a federally protected right under the Title IX Education Amendments to stay in their home schools and be educated among their peers. The right to pump milk should be a reasonable accommodation. And any school that tries to bully young women into leaving should be ashamed of themselves.
Charlie Rose is a MomsRising fellow. She graduated from Smith College in 2011 with honors and a six year old. Charlie is an advocate for pregnant and parenting minors and a member of Girlmom.com.