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You could make the argument that the biggest local news this week didn’t involve Plum Creek’s road easements, the opening of the legislative session or the beginning of Anthony St. Dennis’ trial. Instead, the simple act of nurturing a child managed to divide the city, dominate message boards and dictate water cooler conversations.

We’re referring to the breastfeeding brouhaha that recently went down at the new Red Robin in Southgate Mall. As reported in last week’s Missoulian and bantered about extensively in the blogosphere since then, a restaurant manager chastised a Missoula mom for breastfeeding her 20-day-old son at the table. The manager reportedly said that other patrons were “losing their appetites” and that the mother should have the decency to at least cover her breast. One problem: Montana law clearly gives mothers the right to breastfeed anywhere, at any time, period. It even stipulates that covering up isn’t necessary.

The manager was obviously in the wrong. Red Robin issued an immediate apology, and corporate execs surely turned the color of the chain’s logo considering the company prides itself on “an extraordinary approach to guest services known as Unbridled Acts.” Dressing down a legally breastfeeding mother doesn’t sound like the sort of “random act of kindness” Red Robin had in mind when they adopted the “Unbridled Acts” philosophy.

But worse than Red Robin’s ignorant actions was the ensuing public debate, which made little sense and managed even less decorum. What seems like a simple issue gone awry suddenly turned bottle feeders against breast backers, the easily offended against the often maligned, outraged onlookers against unapologetic lactivists. Almost nothing constructive came from the viscous back-and-forth except for the understanding that, save for a handful of local breastfeeding advocates, no one really knows about the state law.

The responsibility to educate the public falls, in part, on the Missoula City-County Health Department. They currently print “license to breastfeed” cards, which, unless mothers wear the cards around their necks, do little to help publicize a mother’s rights.

But the general public can step up where the department has not. Anyone can encourage local businesses to display the International Breastfeeding Symbol in their storefronts. The symbol, which can be downloaded for free at www.breastfeedingsymbol.org, simply lets mothers and other customers know that breastfeeding is allowed inside. Some stores in Missoula already display the symbol—Blackbird Kid Shop and Nature Boy, to name two—but not nearly enough, in our opinion.

Perhaps Red Robin should lead the way by displaying the symbol on their front door. That’s a random act of kindness we’d appreciate.

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