Mother nursing her baby at center of controversy over public breastfeeding
“I have not had a chance to patronize your restaurant yet, but I plan to very soon. And all this nonsense about the nursing mother who was obviously trying to cause a sh**storm will not slow me down.”
Those are the words of one of the many people weighing in on the Facebook page of the Pour House restaurant about Nichole Avery, a young mother featured on KHSL-TV’s evening news June 6 after she was asked to cover her exposed breast with a napkin while nursing her baby inside the eatery. Manager Sam Steyer had made the request after receiving complaints from several customers. Avery chose to leave rather than comply.
The story, as KHSL pointed out the following day on its website, “generated a strong reaction from many viewers.” Partly at issue was whether or not Steyer had the right to ask Avery to cover her breast while feeding her child.
“Nichole is a new mom. She’s shy. For her to be the one to be told she was nursing wrong and needed to cover up, it’s a tragedy,” offered 27-year-old Rosie Wiklund, a friend of Avery’s and one of the organizers of a June 9 “nurse-in” at the Pour House to raise awareness about breastfeeding in public. Attendees held signs saying such things as, “This baby needs my milk, not your approval,” “Breastfeeders can sit next to me!” and “Eat local,” featuring a stylized image of a baby nursing.
Wiklund and fellow nurse-in organizer, 28-year-old Shayna Ozer, were among the 30 or so men and women who brought their children to the event, for which the Pour House set up a table offering free fruit salad and ice water. Avery was conspicuously absent.
The women attending the event did not perform any sort of synchronized nursing of their children, and instead passed out information about California Civil Code 43.3, which says “a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present.”
The info sheet suggested alternatives to Steyer’s handling of the incident, including: “The staff might offer to reseat a customer with a complaint, to wit: ‘Would you like me to find you a table where you would be more comfortable?’”
“I wanted to build a lot of support around nursing mothers so they wouldn’t feel they had to stay in their homes nursing,” said Wiklund, who cited a list of well-documented reasons to breastfeed, including mother-and-child bonding, reduction of the risk of breast and uterine cancer for the mother, and reduction of the risk of the child developing cancer, diabetes, childhood obesity and allergies.
“It takes a certain amount of bravery to nurse your child in public, especially for a new mom,” Ozer said. “To be told what you’re doing is wrong or disgusting or gross can be really disheartening, and can make any future attempt to nurse in public really difficult.”
According to local attorney Michael R. Bush, California Civil Code 43.3 “does not create on its face any authority to impose any limitation on the right to breastfeed in public.” In other words, Steyer had no legal right to ask Avery to cover up, Bush said.
“I suppose the woman couldn’t sit there totally naked and say, ‘I’m breastfeeding’ … but you have the right to breastfeed in public,” Bush said, “and my reading of [the statute] says it couldn’t be limited by requiring a certain kind of clothing or that you face a certain direction or are in a certain part of the restaurant.”
Nevertheless, a gray area exists. There have been “no cases interpreting [the statute],” Bush said, and KHSL interviewed two lawyers, each of whom interpreted it very differently. One said it is illegal to ask a nursing mother to cover up while breastfeeding in public, while the other said it is legal.
“Neither the Pour House nor Sam [Steyer] did anything wrong or illegal,” said Pour House owner Gary Lewis, in a telephone interview. “We’d had complaints from three tables that were uncomfortable with the situation. Sam only politely asked [Avery] if she’d be willing to use a napkin to partially conceal herself.
“This isn’t a question about whether a California Civil Code [statute] was broken or not, because it wasn’t. I think it’s more of a question about common decency and respect for others.
“We’ve had countless women who have breastfed in public here—all of which have used more discretion—and never had a complaint … We never intended to make the woman upset.”
Avery, who did not respond to a number of requests for an interview, did have this to say in a June 6 post on her Facebook page: “As many of you know, I have anxiety issues, and there is no way I would go out of my way to ‘flash’ myself or cause drama or attention to breastfeeding. I didn’t think so many people would look at it the way they have, as an ‘unclassy’ and shameful thing. I wish this would all blow over by now.”