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 Tony Belton, leader of the Labour group, backed his colleague and accused the Tories of being out of date.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 "This idea that babies should somehow be put away and brought out only to look at them as pretty things is so out of date."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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

    £34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

    Developer - WinForms, C#

    £280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform