When I saw the story in my Facebook feed I had to click. Who wouldn’t, right? In case you haven’t yet, this poor woman in Iowa, new mom Angela Ames, came back from maternity leave to her job at an insurance company where, among other indignities, she was denied access to the nursing room, as well as a sick room. When Ames went to her boss, she was told to go home to her babies—and her boss dictated a resignation letter!
In January, the Supreme Court passed on the chance to review Ames’ case—pretty much sending her back home to her babies—but here’s why it went viral: In the initial ruling, the one upheld by two courts, the judge said that not only didn’t Ames prove that she was fired, but even if she had, it wouldn’t have amounted to sex discrimination because, in a nutshell, men have milk ducts and the hormones to make them work.
First of all, ew. But also: What total, utter nonsense—on both counts. As I read the ACLU post about the case, I couldn’t help but remember the feeling of needing to nurse and not being able to. I’m aching just thinking about it now. Breastfeeding is so stressful. Forget about all the societal/judgment crap—the pressure of having to feed a baby or pump every few hours or else you will literally burst…Well, it was too much for me. I stopped when I went back to work because I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I wish the judge—any of them—had put him- or herself in Ames’ nursing bra. It’s your first day back at work, you didn’t realize the paperwork to get a pass to the lactation room takes three days to process, there’s nowhere private for you to go—and you’re totally engorged. Who wouldn’t take the pen (that her boss handed her) and sign the resignation (that her boss dictated)?
And oh yeah, the insult to go with that injury: After the judge decided she wasn’t coerced into quitting, he adds that little gem about male lactation. If only I’d known about this when my twin girls were nursing—I could have gotten my husband to share boob-duty! Why didn’t the lactation consultant who showed me at the hospital how to do two at once ever mention this possibility?
We’re no longer in touch, so I asked the Internet. According to Scientific American, here are the kind of men who can lactate: men who are transitioning, men who have pituitary tumors, men who take certain medication, and men who have been imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps or Japanese POW camps. In other words, a pretty big, totally unremarkable group of guys. Oh wait… The idea of male lactation is so ludicrous it’s even got its own proverb, milking the bull, which means an act of futility. It’s so ludicrous it went viral!
But the thing is, what gives this story its freakshow absurdity isn’t the notion of men nursing. It’s the notion that a judge, a grown-up who went to law school and can read and write and probably turn on a computer and tie his own shoes, thought this was reasonable, relevant, not nuts. Even if it was a minor point, an aside, it’s something that judge came up with all on his own. It’s one more example of why family-workplace issues—be they related to nursing or leave or childcare—continue to be my problem or your problem, instead of the big-deal, gender-and-class-transcending problem we all know they are.