Feeding frenzy

Breast is best, but not at Wandsworth council meetings. When Councillor Kate Prichard began feeding her son Owen, Mayor Tina Thompson told her to leave. So much for mothers at work.

When Kate Prichard took her seat at last week's evening meeting of London's Wandsworth Council, she was expecting debates on education and housing. Not a furious argument about whether her eight-month-old baby, Owen, should also be in attendance, fast asleep beside her. But Ms Prichard, a Labour councillor, had not reckoned on the new Conservative mayor's attitude - no babies in council meetings, and definitely no public breastfeeding.

As Owen slumbered, the mayor got tough. Mother and baby were asked to leave. Ms Prichard refused. Owen slept on. Tony Belton, leader of the Labour group, backed his colleague and accused the Tories of being out of date. Eventually the meeting was adjourned in uproar so officials could check the rules. Owen went home, snoring.

The row was all the more surprising since the figure in ceremonial chain was not some handlebar-moustached, die-hard fogey but a mother of two herself. "It's a rowdy and noisy place," declares Tina Thompson, 53. "He should have been tucked up in bed. I'm sorry, but I'm old-fashioned." And she has little sympathy for Ms Prichard's desire to breastfeed Owen in the chamber. "Meal times," she says, "should not take place on a battleground."

Against which Ms Prichard, 37, a portrait painter, counters that it was in Owen's interests to be there with his mum, even if it was 9.30pm and way past bed-time. The mayor's ideas are "Victorian" and "absolutely atrocious", she says. "This idea that babies should somehow be put away and brought out only to look at them as pretty things is so out of date." In any case, she says, Owen was experiencing "separation anxiety", typical of a child his age, who does not want to let his mother out of his sight. It would have been worse to leave him at home.

The controversy is a telling example of how the British still can't stand having children around in public places. Any parent can tell you their shock, upon producing offspring, at being barred from their favourite restaurants and pubs. They quickly learn that it is best to eat Mediterranean - Italian, Greek or Turkish - if you want a high chair and a smile for the baby. And when they take holidays abroad and are welcomed in cafes, they know the relief of being released from British purdah.

Breastfeeding in public still seems to embarrass many. One in three British restaurants says it would ask a nursing mother to leave, or take her baby to the lavatories, if a fellow customer objects. To the lavatory - one of the dirtiest places in any building, and hardly one where you would wish to feed a vulnerable child. It is still common for women on buses and trains to be asked to stop breastfeeding their children.

There is also a curiously dated feel about the Wandsworth debate. After all, Helene Hayman became the first woman to give birth while serving as an MP, back in 1976. Harriet Harman breastfed her children in front of colleagues at Westminster. In America, Pat Schroeder showed clearly 10 years ago that you would not be politically marginalised by being an active mother. She was chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, while also co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues, and became the first woman to breastfeed in the US Congress. With these well- established precedents, one would think that surely we had sorted this issue out by now.

Many hope that the presence of 101 women among Labour's 419 MPs means that the needs of working mothers will be met with a more child-friendly environment. Ruth Kelly, Labour MP for Bolton West, who gave birth to Eamonn just 11 days after the election, has shown that the "motherhood tendency" is at last beginning to change Parliament. She has been allocated a special office with en-suite bathroom, which has a bath with a wooden top to it for nappy-changing. She can expect a more helpful attitude than Helene Hayman, who could not persuade even Margaret Thatcher to set up a pairing arrangement for her. Nevertheless, the Commons has a long way to go. The system of voting, with the division bell sounding at all hours of the night, remains unreformed.

Likewise, Ms Prichard, whose babysitter let her down on the controversial night, has to conform to a largely unchanged council culture, which schedules all the most important meetings in the evening, if she is to do her job properly.

A major problem is that mothers are being given two strong but contradictory messages: that they should breastfeed and that they should get back to work. In the existing culture, it is almost impossible to combine the two tasks. Experts advise mothers to breastfeed for up to a year, if they can, to provide, for example, maximum protection against asthma. Yet large numbers of women are back at work within a few months of giving birth.

Helen Wilkinson, of the independent think-tank Demos, says that even in those still rare firms which have nurseries, the office culture makes it difficult for a woman to carry on breastfeeding once she returns to her job. "It should be as easy as going for a cigarette or a coffee break," she says, "but it is difficult to do in the work environment."

Given our culture, both Ms Prichard and the mayor are making good and valid points. By bringing Owen to the council chamber, her workplace, Ms Prichard was doing precisely what many child experts say is vital, staying with her child at the time when they are most psychologically vulnerable. At Owen's age, a child is just beginning to understand that his mother comes and goes, according to Eileen Orford, chair of the Child Psychotherapy Trust. "They are noticing the possibility of separation and need to hang on a bit more. The child really needs to be made to feel safe. He clings a bit, and if Mum deals with it sensibly, the child will eventually feel OK, confident that she will come back when she goes away. But if she does not deal with it well, difficulties can begin that carry right through into adulthood."

The mayor's solution is that instead of bringing children into an unreformed, hostile workplace, parents should keep them at home and stay with them there. It is, as she says, an old-fashioned solution; one that accepts the world as it is, rather than trying to change it. But her instincts will be endorsed by many parents who know how distracting it is for a child trying to sleep amid a hubbub and feed when there are lots of people about making noise. "It is very difficult to square the circle," says Mrs Thompson. "There is so much pressure on women to have a career and to be the perfect Mum."

Helen Wilkinson, author of Time Out, a study of parental leave published next week, seems to straddle the divide between the two women. She thinks that it may be time to think again about the balance that is currently struck between work and family. "Parents do need to spend time with their babies away from work. There should be accommodation of women who need to breastfeed, but we need to get the balance right between working and caring for children."

The missing element in all of this is men. They designed the public, child-hostile world, in which women and children are having to make so many compromises. The presence of women in the workplace and Parliament is slowly altering the ethos in such institutions. But the changing attitudes of some men may in the end have a bigger impact. The increasing emphasis on active fatherhood and its requirement of shorter working hours, child- friendly work and more time at home may well help to create a new atmosphere. One in which it is both OK to breastfeed in the council chamber and once again a respectable and admirable choice to stay at home with your children n

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