Larissa Waters continues to plow through barriers for mothers in government, becoming the first woman to breastfeed her child while passing a motion before the Senate. Her response to the occasion was typical Waters, quipping that three month old Alia Joy had “moved her own motion just before mine”. Waters had previously made headlines in 2016 as the first parent to breastfeed in the Senate Chamber.
Breastfeeding during work hours (particularly as an elected representative) shouldn’t be considered revolutionary enough to have news articles devoted to pondering its significance, but here we are. With Australia’s (mostly white) male leadership, the fight for a more diverse political arena doesn’t begin and end with a white woman breastfeeding on the parliament floor, but nor is this moment insignificant.
Which is why I found it surprising to see so much negative commentary about an otherwise completely ordinary event. The sanctimommies were in particularly fine form, banging on about the need to have a ‘quiet space’ for mother and baby to ‘bond’. Christ, have any of them ever breastfed a newborn baby? There’s only so many times you can bond during a day where breastfeeding will take up at least a third of it.
Others argued that breastfeeding at work was unnecessary, suggesting it was a political stunt on Waters’ part (as opposed to, you know, just getting the job done). In one particularly baffling moment, I saw someone say that you wouldn’t breastfeed in a commercial kitchen, so why should you breastfeed in the Senate? Gosh, I don’t know – maybe because there’s a huge safety difference between being surrounded by hot oil and by hot air?
The fact is, accommodating the needs of parents with small babies (but particularly mothers and particularly breastfeeding mothers) in the workplace is a political issue. I realise I speak from a position of enormous privilege (not least of which is because I work for myself) but I had to return to work almost immediately after the birth of my child last year. In fact, the first work engagement I had was when they were 17 days old. I was speaking on stage at an event and, when my baby started to cry, I did what I had to do to provide food and comfort while I continued speaking.
When my baby was eight weeks old, I embarked on an intense national book tour that encompassed numerous interstate flights, countless radio interviews, hours spent on stage and at book signing tables and late nights cramming dinner into my mouth when it was all done. And through all of that, I breastfed. There’s archival audio of me all over the country speaking about issues like domestic violence, sexual assault and mental health, and it’s punctuated by the sound of a guzzling, gurgling baby latched on.
In writing this piece, I asked friends to share photographs of their ‘getting on with it’ moments. There’s Kate Miller-Heidke pumping milk while running a development workshop for her upcoming Muriel’s Wedding musical at the Sydney Theatre Company. A friend shared an image of her friend breastfeeding while doing the harvest in her job as a winemaker. My friend Lily Paskas-Goodfellow, breastfeeding mid-rehearsal as a dancer in a Finucane & Smith production.
Others, friends of mine from roller derby, sending photographs of them feeding their babies during half time, sweaty faced and exhausted. Yes, privilege plays a huge role here and that isn’t to be discounted. I am not so ignorant as to think that what is possible for me is possible for all mothers, nor would I suggest that my success in challenging these norms is where the fight ends.
But this flexibility and incorporation of children into working life rather than their segregation from it should be exactly what we are striving for.
It’s absurd that this is something that even prompts debate, but it does so because there are still too many people who think women should be content to remove themselves from public life once we’ve fulfilled our supposedly ‘natural’ destiny of bringing a new human into the world. Politics in particular needs to be far removed from the traditional notions of who is equipped to hold power and dictate legislation. Making it impossible for women to continue participating in this process once they’ve had a child isn’t something we should accept as an unfortunate reality – it’s something we should vigorously oppose as not bloody good enough.
Why should Kate Ellis be forced to retire from federal politics because the parliamentary sitting year is so hostile not just for parents but mothers especially? Why should an elected representative like Larissa Waters be expected to recuse herself from her job until her child is old enough to leave with someone else because of regressive ideas around separation of family and state?
There are women all over Australia (and this is an issue that extends well beyond the white middle class) who would bring so much more to politics than half of the potato-headed old men currently holding office, but the barriers to their participation remain so deeply entrenched.
This is simply unacceptable.
Waters might not be changing the world by pointedly getting on with the job of mothering while working (and doing a damn fine job of it too), but she is changing something. And halle-bloody-lujah – it’s not just nappies.