On the first morning of the first day of the 41st Parliament of Western Australia, the state’s first female speaker Michelle Roberts declared that members would, from now on, be allowed to breastfeed children in the Chamber.
She didn’t so much as change the rules – as the parliament had previously been discussing doing when the issue was last on the agenda back in 2019. Rather, she said they would just interpret such rules a little differently, to “reflect the realities and values of the 21st Century.”
Roberts added that while she wasn’t aware of any members who are currently in the situation of needing to breastfeed a child, she does “not want to see this become an issue in the future.”
Back in 2019, Planning Minister Rita Saffioti had told WA Parliament about the treatment she’d received in 2010, as a new mother. She recalled how she went to the then-speaker to ask if it would be ok to bring her daughter into the chamber if she happened to be breastfeeding her at the time of a division being called. The speaker said no. Not only that, Saffioti said that those in the Nationals and Liberals had a “field day” while she was struggling with her firstborn, with one member saying he’d be happy to declare there was a “Stranger in the house” if she ever took her baby into the chamber.
The fact this issue needed a “debate” back in 2019 is disappointing, as it was back then to hear that parliamentary members would delight in declaring the “stranger” word should a parent take a young child into the chamber.
And to think that such a rule would still be in play in 2021 actually preventing a mother from breastfeeding or child, or any parent from feeding a child when they need to, is ridiculous.
So Tuesday morning marked a small win for new parents on breastfeeding and managing a newborn at work, and followed a win earlier this year when the South Australian government passed legislation allowing children to be brought into the House of Assembly when necessary.
But what’s surprising is that in 2021, we’re still talking about these wins.
Indeed, the news that WA has a new interpretation of the rules came after an unrelated but much publicised issue on the topic in another state.
Last week in Queensland, a mother was breastfeeding her newborn son outside a couple of luxury shops at Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast, when she was told to move on.
Shannon Laverty, a local mother of two, detailed on social media how shortly after sitting down to breastfeed her son at a public lounge area, a concierge approached her and asked if she knew that “there’s a facility for that”. Laverty says the woman also told her the facility included hot water and milk powder, “so you don’t need to use your body.”
Laverty told ABC that she responded, “I’m fine here,” but was then told that if she wasn’t going to use the “facility” then she’d need to move on, because she was sitting in front of stores like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Laverty says she said no another three times, and eventually the woman walked off.
Pacific Fair has since said it will “re-train” staff following the incident, with management declaring it was a “misinterpretation” and apologising for what happened. Meanwhile, Laverty organised a large group of breastfeeding mums to show up to the same couch at the centre, and breastfeed their children.
Over the past few days, we’ve had a couple of readers sharing their experiences following what happened on the Gold Coast, with one woman tell me that her daughter has been pulled up twice in six months for breastfeeding on a shopping centre couch. These incidents are not always as blunt as being told to “move one” but often involve staff members telling breastfeeding women that there are facilities available. Yes, they might be trying to harmlessly help, but to a woman who is breastfeeding such comments can quickly sound like something else: like you’re not actually welcome in the comfortable chair or couch or wherever is your baby has decided they need to eat.
Yes, shopping centers should have facilities, just as workplaces need to have their own considerations for women who’re breastfeeding or need to express during the day.
But facilities should not be the expected option for parents, because so often the baby just needs to get fed. Nor should facilities even have to be the preferred option, because it should be about whatever is comfortable, practical and simple. The default must be to welcome new mothers – and moving all rules, expectations and ‘misinterpretations’ on how and where she can or should feed a child is essential.
Dealing with a newborn can be an isolating and extremely challenging time. In some cases, a trip to the local shopping centre or café may be a new mother’s only opportunity for adult interaction and something outside of the monotony of feeding, changing and settling. More than one in seven new mothers experience postnatal depression each year in Australia. Suicide is now one of the leading causes of maternal deaths, according to the Obstetrics Clinical Committee. Feeling welcome and accepted — and like you can take your baby out and tend to their needs as needed — can make a big different to someone’s day.
Having breastfed three babies over the past seven years, and made numerous apologies to those around me as I did so, there’s one particular incident that stands out to me across the many restaurants, cafes, offices, shops and public areas we visited.
It came from a café in Newton, Sydney, where I ordered a coffee, sat down and commenced the process of attempting to breastfeed my newborn. The barista walked to me with the coffee and a glass of water. “Next time,” she said, “please don’t feel like you have to order anything. You’re always welcome to just sit.” I thanked her, holding back the happy I-feel-so-welcome tears.
That’s the kind of thing we want all new mothers to feel.