Another negative nursing in public incident. When will these stop?!
On Sunday, May 3, Kristal Snow Tomko went out to dinner with her family to celebrate her brother’s new job and upcoming move to Colorado. As the orders were taken, Mrs. Tomko’s 6 month old son, Ronan, became hungry and Kristal began to do what she’s done hundreds of times in his life – she began nursing him. At this time, the family was approached by a hostess with a napkin and asked Kristal to cover while nursing. After Mrs. Tomko relayed the Illinois state law protecting her right to nurse in public however she is comfortable, the hostess left the table. Next, the waitress came by and apologized for the interaction, relieving the Tomko’s feelings. When the chef came out from the kitchen, the situation changed and, while only addressing Mr. Tomko, the man later identified as owner John Mathais cited that there were customers who were uncomfortable seeing breastfeeding and that Kristal needed to nurse either in an empty banquet room or in the ladies room. Finally, Kristal left the table with her son and retreated to her car where she cried from the embarrassment this interaction had given her. Not wanting to take away from her brother’s celebration, Kristal and her family finished their meal (with yet another nursing break in the car), and went home.
That night Kristal went home and posted the facts about what transpired on her Facebook page. The post instantly went viral in the breastfeeding community, reaching thousands overnight. Negative reviews flooded Big Fish Bar & Grille’s Yelp, Facebook, and other review cites. One Facebook message to the restaurant was returned by the owner with comments citing that he’d do it again. Progress, it seemed, was not in the cards for this situation. A nurse-in was planned for the restaurant by some local advocates. (Read on, this story has a surprise ending!)
Sadly, this story isn’t unique. How many times have we heard of nursing in public negative interactions in businesses? And in this particular case, the mother had knowledge of the laws created to protect her and even with that was still repeatedly harassed! For reference, the Illinois state law says:
(740 ILCS 137/10)
Sec. 10. Breastfeeding Location. A mother may breastfeed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breastfeeding
It’s worth noting that Illinois does have a law that gives the breastfeeding law some “teeth”, though it’s not much:
(740 ILCS 137/15)
Sec. 15. Private right of action. A woman who has been denied the right to breastfeed by the owner or manager of a public or private location, other than a private residence or place of worship, may bring an action to enjoin future denials of the right to breastfeed. If the woman prevails in her suit, she shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees and reasonable expenses of litigation.
Why is the only retribution for denying someone their legal rights in this instance a day in court and compensation “if” she’s successful? Last we checked, if you violated someone’s rights or break the law there’s some sort of interaction with government officials either through arrest or fine. Saying that a civil suit could take place and a mom “might” win hardly seems fair nor does it give ANY motivation for businesses to uphold the law.
When approached with this situation, Michelle Hickman, who runs our Nursing in Public hotline, points out that big businesses don’t take on training programs for this issue because to them it’s not really a legal issue thanks to lack of recourse. In the past, Best for Babes has approached major corporations with violations in various states (such as Target and Walmart), to propose training programs and sensitivity training for employees. Each time, Best for Babes has been reassured that the business or company in question does have a policy in place, the incident has been addressed with the employees, and the door to further discussion is closed. Not surprisingly, these very businesses find themselves in hot water again when a nursing mother, or even employee, is harassed despite the “policy” in place. It seems that these businesses don’t feel this issue is important at all since there’s no “teeth” to these laws. This simply isn’t important to them yet, and that is exactly why constructive, peaceful nurse-ins and thoughtful, measured actions are so necessary.
The very good news in this situation is that when we reached out to Big Fish Bar and Grille owner John Mathais, he had already begun to educate himself about the law, realized he had made a mistake, and was VERY willing to undergo sensitivity training himself, provide it for his staff, as well as develop a breastfeeding-friendly policy. Mr. Mathais also has indicated interest in creating a written pumping policy and a pumping space for his employees, most of whom are single mothers. We were very impressed with Mr. Mathais’ desire to take the right steps to prevent another incident, not just because of his business, but also because of his employees. “I don’t want my staff to suffer because I made a mistake” Mathais states, “this won’t ever happen again. If a customer complains, I’ll tell them about the laws”.
As of this writing it’s unclear if the planned nurse-in is still planned, but at Best for Babes we’d like to propose something a little different. “Let’s not go with fire in our eyes, but with love in our hearts” Michelle Hickman suggests. Best for Babes proposes that rather than conducting a nurse-in on Friday, that breastfeeding advocates give the Big Fish Bar & Grille an opportunity to show that they are sincere in changing the climate at their restaurant. Stay tuned . . . as soon as we can report that an effective policy is in place, and that every current and new employee will be educated about the law and undergo sensitivity training, Michelle Hickman and Best for Babes would love nothing more than to encourage our following to give patronage to Big Fish Bar & Grille to thank Mr. Mathais for recognizing his mistake and being so willing to make changes to ensure protection of the nursing mother.
One last, and very important concern we have, that must be addressed NOW, is the unacceptable way some breastfeeding advocates are handling cases of harassment. We understand that breastfeeding advocates are increasingly frustrated with the lack of “teeth” in breastfeeding laws, and repeated, egregious incidences of harassment, intimidation, bullying, and discrimination in restaurants, airports, malls, and museums, or repeat incidences at some of the same establishments. However, we do not condone behavior that is aggressive and seeks to bully in response to feeling bullied. In our conversations with Mr. Matthais, he shared with us that he began receiving threats to both his property and life, and was concerned for the safety of his employees. Let us be perfectly clear: we absolutely do not condone or support any advocate who threatens, bullies, intimidates or harasses in response to a nursing in public incident. Advocates who use these tactics are stooping to the same level as those who harass breastfeeding mothers, and are actively damaging the breastfeeding cause.
Do you think Big Fish Bar & Grille will follow through on their pledge? In the meantime, what can you do to help prevent negative nursing in public incidents from occurring, and from re-occurring?
- Educate yourself on your state’s laws.
- Start talking to local breastfeeding coalitions regarding their work at the local/state level government to help give teeth to current breastfeeding laws (and to create breastfeeding laws if you’re in one of the few states who don’t have one!).
- Utilize our Nursing in Public Hotline for all your incidents (855-NIP-FREE) and give us the opportunity to work with the business in a constructive, professional manner while holding the business accountable for change.
- Donate to Best for Babes to help us fund projects like our Hotline and conducting training and sensitivity programs for businesses.
- Empower other breastfeeders by giving them one of our “Thank You for Nursing in Public” cards.
As for Kristal Snow Tomko, when asked about why she was able to so calmly assert her rights that day, she cited that she has a lot of breastfeeding friends and is an active La Leche League member. “It makes all the difference in the world to have a support group!”. If you’re looking for a group we recommend that you find your local La Leche League today! We applaud this Babe for speaking up and speaking out to make a difference for other parents!