An Open Letter to Maegan Shoemaker: Public Breastfeeding Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

You’ve probably heard about Maegan Shoemaker by now. Maegan is the 25-year-old Niceville, Florida,  mom recently banned from Plew Elementary School for asserting her right to breastfeed her 8 ½ month-old daughter in public. I would love to have interviewed Maegan for this story, as I dislike pulling information off the internet. Unfortunately, I was unable to reach her through newspaper sources or Facebook.

Maegan Shoemaker and daugther Arya. Photo by NICK TOMECEK | Daily News

Maegan Shoemaker and daugther Arya. Photo by NICK TOMECEK | Daily News

According to a Nov. 6, 2014, story in, Maegan was breastfeeding her baby at an outdoor school event when Principal Carolyn McAllister reproached her for it.

Meagan said she had been using her baby carrier to shield herself while nursing on the top bleacher. She later entered the school to inform the principal that Florida law protected her right to feed her baby in public, even without a cover.  After leaving the building, a school resource officer approached her with a “no trespass” order, banning her from the school attended by her niece and nephew.

On Monday, Nov. 10, however, the paper reported that McAllister had rescinded the ban. “It was my decision,” McAllister said. “I want this to go away because we need to focus on what we do best, which is educating our students and taking care of their well-being.”

As a mother – and now grandmother – who is passionate about breastfeeding, I decided to write Maegan this open letter…

Dear Maegan,

You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger.  Walking into the principal’s office and asserting one’s right to breastfeed in public is something I would have done – and without batting an eyelash. I wasn’t just passionate about breastfeeding. I was militant.

But you know, public breastfeeding may not be

the main issue at all.  It’s that Principal McAllister misused her authority. Instead of keeping a cool head and telling gawkers to turn around and have a nice time, she let them control her.

Why do people allow others to control them?

They didn’t use to. But now leaders react out of fear. It seems they feel an urgency to take the part of anyone who perceives a threat. After all, isn’t that a leader’s job?

Actually, the answer to that is “no.”

A leader’s job is thinking through and solving problems.

Besides, you were never a threat to anyone. You weren’t carrying a gun or knife. You weren’t even shouting profanity. Only feeding a baby.

According to www.nfwdailynews, “McAllister said she approached Shoemaker on the bleachers after receiving a complaint from a parent about her breastfeeding in sight of fifth-grade class using the track.”

I can see that busybody mother in my mind’s eye, the one who put a bee in McAllister’s bonnet. Some people, Maegan, can’t tolerate anyone doing anything they wouldn’t do themselves. In fact, they’re offended by the world at large. And so they create problems where none exist.

But don’t you be that way. You still have a lot to accomplish in this world.

I’ve been around a while, and I can tell you that in this case, calling the resource officer was not an act of true leadership. If she were a real leader, the principal would have dealt with whoever got her panties in a knot by gently redirecting her attention to the event. She could have said that everything was fine and that you were not hurting anyone up there on the bleachers.

Unfortunately, in our current “flattened” society, true leadership is frowned upon. The hierarchical structures that used to exist took a forgiving and nurturing view of the young.

Nowadays, people in “leadership” positions take reactionary measures over minor incidents that in the past would have been either overlooked or dealt with evenhandedly. Today, principals, teachers, doctors, politicians –  all are terrified of making mistakes, losing their jobs, losing support.

And in this era of zero-tolerance, when spit wads are classified as projectile weapons and kindergarteners suspended for kissing a classmate, I guess even the human breast is cause for alarm.

Another reason school employees are hesitant to lead is because they might slip and expose their personal views. What if they allied themselves with the wrong social trend, philosophy, or political party? Heaven forbid if McAllister expressed an unpopular thought. In our click “like” society, a person could be exposed.

Unfortunately, some people expose others.

Ever hear of “human flesh searches?” They’re popular in China. Anonymous posters go online and call out anyone whose behavior they disagree with – without working out problems between people. Intended at first to expose corrupt officials, this form of social networking has mushroomed, and is used to track down home addresses and harass private citizens.

Here in America, Maegan, we now live with the backlash of people’s fear. (Notoriety is more or less instantaneous, as you well know.) Fear creates stress, and stress hormones disable cognition and rational thought. Take, for example, kids from homes where there is domestic abuse. They have more trouble learning, and often develop behavior disorders. You can Google how it works. But it’s a fact.

And here’s an interesting aside: university research has shown that right-wingers have a lot less tolerance for stress than liberals. Just something to dust off when you need it.

We now know that early childhood experiences play a huge role in shaping the brain. When it comes to nature vs. nurture, nurture holds more cards than previously thought, due to epigenetics – the science of how environment impacts the genes.

By meeting your child’s nurturing needs now, and meeting them on demand – even in the bleachers – you are creating a human being who feels safe in the world, and views the world as a positive place. It’s every child’s birthright, but fewer and fewer young children are receiving this invaluable attention.

Those who wanted you gone from the school are not passionate about that goal, not the way you are. They don’t understand that early nurturing is the answer to just about every problem they see in school, and the answer to most of society’s problems.

Sadly, instead of calmly telling you to come in and sit down when you asserted your right to breastfeed, and offering you a cup of tea (something the nurses in the memoir-based BBC series, Call the Midwife, would have done) the collective cortisol level of the Plew office staff flew off the charts. It seems their rational brains ceased functioning and they sprang into fight or flight mode.

They are the sad ones, Maegan. Not you.

Last night I realized that I raised four kids without feeding any of them from a bottle. Never even bought formula. The thing is, breasts have been sexualized, gone commercial. But with breastfeeding, there’s nothing to buy.

When a mom practices exclusive breastfeeding, she usually stays home to care for her baby. Therefore, she’s often not earning any money and becomes a sort of liability to the economy: without the extra paycheck, the family may not be able to consume as much “stuff.”

But the benefits are far greater than any losses. With breastfeeding, there’s no formula to buy and no environmental waste. Fewer doctor bills and better mental and cognitive health for her child. Plus, you are lowering your cancer risk the longer you breastfeed.

But there is another issue at stake here. Most education bureaucrats (dare I use the term “educrats?”) see themselves as experts who think they know what is best for children, families, and possibly the entire world. Unfortunately, they often view parents, especially stay-at-home moms – including those with college degrees – as uninformed.

Like doctors, school administrators do not like having their authority challenged. They count on parents moving up with their children, and eventually going away. Believe me, they will outlast you. Their agenda is fluid, changing with the latest education reform movement to come down the pike. But that is not your agenda . So keep your focus on what is relevant to you and your family and what makes you strong.

I read many of the comments attached to your story. So, to all the idiots who think breastfeeding is the same as defecating or having sex, please do not add to the gene pool. As a society, we need to normalize breastfeeding so that all children grow up knowing that the real function of women’s breasts is feeding babies, not for making sweaters stick out and titillating consumers. If more mothers breastfed, children would quickly learn what breasts are for. By the time they are adults, they would know better than to stare or snicker at the sight of a baby latched onto a nipple.

I find it ironic that no one thinks badly of mothers bottle-feeding in public, or pities the bottle-fed infant. Yet we know that the bottle is a mere substitute for the real thing. It’s the elephant in the living room, so to speak, which, to our national disgrace, we are bent on ignoring.

I’m so sorry you are feeling afraid right now, Maegan. I have been where you are, slapped down for speaking out. It’s a pretty uncomfortable place to be. But here’s what separates the women from the girls: humor and grace. Humor will carry you though. Let Principal McAllister see that you are not afraid to smile, or say, “Whew! Glad that’s over!”

Grace will help you walk with dignity, and people will respect you for that. If you stay home and skulk around the neighborhood, they will remember this thing till the cows come home.

My take is that you are passionate about what you believe in. So remain passionate, but positive. Guilt is a “false emotion.” Really, it’s fear of disapproval.

Sometimes, though, we need a crutch, a way to wobble through the muck until we steady ourselves and come out on the other side. So think of all the moms who heard about your story and who are applauding you. Imagine they are all poured into a single walking stick. And every time you go out, you can lean on them. They are your sisters.

Finally, Maegan, you are an intelligent and articulate young woman. Know that lesser minds may not understand you. They may feign offense, label you and try to blackball you. But try to rise above small-minded people. They aren’t as lucky as you. And don’t disappear from the conversation. Speak with knowledge and conviction and remember that you have much to offer. Raise your children well, because what you do as a mother is the most important work on earth. FFG

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