Council Member Laurie Cumbo, the author (right), with her son, Prince (photo:@cmlauriecumbo)
If we are truly committed to the health, well-being, and economic advancement of mothers and babies, we must examine our public spaces, work places, and cultural biases when it comes to supporting and accommodating a mother’s choice to breastfeed. As of only a few weeks ago, mothers can now breastfeed legally in all 50 states without fear of violating laws pertaining to indecent exposure or public obscenity. This is a low bar for celebration, and cause for a critical examination of our own local laws and societal norms.
The benefits of breastfeeding are long-known and widely accepted in the medical community – the World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfed for at least the first six months of their lives. The health benefits for babies include lower rates of obesity, SIDS, asthma, and other conditions, and can even be traced to higher IQs. For mothers, breastfeeding lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes, and certain types of ovarian and breast cancers. It is for these reasons, and for the purpose of defending a mother’s right to choose what they do with their bodies and how they take care of their children, that we must remain diligent in our efforts to identify and break down any barriers for mothers who choose to breastfeed.
Those of us holding elected office must all leverage our positions and platforms to advance breastfeeding rights and awareness. We must make sure that mothers know all the facts about breastfeeding, what they are entitled to and what resources are available to them, should they choose to breastfeed.
Here, in New York, we have strong laws and we are increasing our investment at the state and local level in support of breastfeeding mothers. I am proud to have made breastfeeding rights a focal point of my time in office, with legislation advancing greater education and access for those who need to breastfeed or express milk in public or in the workplace. Right now, the Mother’s Day Legislative Package, which I was proud to spearhead on my very own first Mother’s Day, has pending legislation that will expand accommodations for breastfeeding mothers in certain city spaces and in workplaces, as well as establish a standard lactation accommodation policy. I thank my colleagues, Council Members Robert Cornegy and Carlina Rivera, for their leadership and partnership on these breastfeeding bills. I am committed to seeing through these efforts and ensuring that our physical structures reflect our values of equity and inclusion.
As a mother of a now one-year-old myself, I have a new appreciation for and understanding of the literal and figurative structures that play a role in the lives of New York mothers. From pre-natal care to childbirth and child rearing, there is a culture of expectation that women are just supposed to know how to take care of themselves and their children based on instinct alone. Far too many women are not getting the resources they need. Further, as recent research has shown, health concerns expressed during childbirth are often not taken seriously, resulting in a much higher mortality rates for black and Latina women. The truth is, we all need guidance and support throughout the pregnancy, birthing and nurturing process, which is why we must continue to expand and center the needs of mothers in public and working spaces. Every mother is different, as is every child, and our ultimate goal should be to support and uplift all mothers, regardless of whether they choose to breastfeed.
One personal breastfeeding experience of note was when I was able to use one of the Department of Health’s “lactation pods” at Brooklyn Children’s Museum. What struck me about my experience was how welcoming the environment was. Breastfeeding is often framed as an inconvenience, but in this instance, I felt proud and encouraged. The unfortunate reality is that this is an uncommon experience for breastfeeding mothers. More often than not, new mothers in the workplace have to seek out any space they can find — some report even having to pump in a closet. This is inexcusable and detrimental to the dignity and well-being of working mothers everywhere.
It is going to take a dedicated, comprehensive approach and a fundamental reimagining of working motherhood, but I know that we can achieve it. Moms continue to show up for each other, time and time again, but it is time we show up for them. We must stand with them and do everything in our power as individuals and as a collective society to better support their needs. Breastfeeding takes a village. It is a mental, physical, emotional, and logistical act. August is National Breastfeeding Awareness month, and so there is no better time than now to commit to a better tomorrow for mothers and children in New York City.
Laurie Cumbo is the majority leader of the New York City Council. She represents Brooklyn communities of Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights and parts of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant. On Twitter @cmlauriecumbo.