By Ellen Jean Hirst and Meredith Rodriguez
Working mom advocates blasted a major Chicago trade show’s weekend decision to throw out a businesswoman who brought along her 10-day-old baby, calling it insensitive to the plight of nursing mothers and an example of the difficulties women face when trying to jump back into the workforce.
But the trade association has defended the decision, saying the rule barring children isn’t anti-mom, but rather simply a safety issue.
Although Kristin Osborne said she knew the show’s rules for this weekend’s National Restaurant Association trade show — no children under 16 — she didn’t think it would apply to her breast-feeding newborn, who while at the show for about an hour was wrapped closely to her chest, sleeping.
And as the head of marketing for her family-owned winery, Osborne, 31, said Sunday that she didn’t believe she could afford to miss one of the year’s biggest promotional events for her winery.
How mothers can “lean in” both at work and at home is a hot topic these days, with no shortage of studies, self-help books and panel-debated opinions on whether modern mothers need abandon professional ambition for family responsibility. But parents’ efforts to reconnect at work as soon as possible can prove challenging to businesses trying to accommodate multitasking mothers, and in some cases could run counter to some experts’ advice on health and safety for children if parents are trying to include the children in their work life.
“I understand that you are not allowed to have kids running around,” Osborne’s husband, Justin, said Monday at the show. He stayed to work the business‘ booth after his wife returned home to Minnesota this weekend. “However, if there is a child who needs nursing … I feel like it is misapplication of the rule.”
Kristin Osborne declined to comment further Monday.
As for this weekend’s convention kerfuffle, working mother advocates say the situation could have been handled better, or avoided, with common sense.
Osborne was asked to leave the convention Saturday after she was spotted by security with her child.
On Monday, another family, Chris and Carrie Walters, of Holland, Mich., said they reserved tickets for the show six weeks ago.
But when they arrived, they said they weren’t allowed in because they had their 8-month-old daughter, Ella, with them.
“It was a surprise that I’m not allowed to take my breast-fed baby with me,” said Carrie Walters, a Burger King manager. “I’m outraged. This is ridiculous.”
A spokeswoman for the restaurant association said its main concern is safety.
“There are knives. There are ovens. There are cooking demonstrations with open flames,” said Sue Hensley, National Restaurant Association spokeswoman. “There’s all sorts of equipment that could be very dangerous to a child to have any interaction with and certainly not an infant.”
Additionally, health guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that babies younger than a month old should avoid large crowds. While not a hard-and-fast rule, it’s solid advice, said Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin-based pediatrician and author of “Baby 411,” a book about health for children age zero to 1.
“We tend to tell people to not make too many trips out with a baby under 4 weeks of age unless absolutely necessary,” Brown said. “It’s definitely fine to take your baby outside. Being around other people, you would want to limit.”
Still, working mom experts say common sense should have prevailed. Emilia DiMenco, president and CEO of the Women’s Business Development Center, said infants who need to breast-feed should be exceptions to blanket “no children” rules.
“I understand that at certain events for safety you don’t want small children running around,” DiMenco said. “But a 10-day-old infant is glued to her mother’s chest. That’s how she’s carrying her. You can bring an infant like that to a meeting at work. They sleep. … So when does common sense come into play here?”
Considering the growth in working mothers, DiMenco said, trade shows should be more accommodating.
“I think the National Restaurant Association should be embarrassed,” she said. “I think with changing demographics and the generational shift that’s going on and given who (the association’s) stakeholders are and the involvement of women in that association, they should have been prepared for such a situation.”
Jake Marcus, a Philadelphia-based attorney who specializes in breast-feeding law, said the trade show has the right to ban Osborne because of her child, but he also said the association could have made an exception.
“In terms of legality there’s nothing unlawful about doing it,” Marcus said. “Obnoxious and lawful are not the same.”
Illinois law states that anywhere a woman is allowed to be she is legally allowed to breast-feed, but that law does not apply if the child is kicked out for safety reasons, according to Marcus.
“The adult’s right to be in a space and the child’s right to be in a space are not legally connected,” Marcus said.
On Sunday, Osborne said she felt excluded from a valuable opportunity to network and learn on behalf of her Four Daughters Vineyard.
“I’m disappointed mostly,” she said. “It was a really big deal they invited us to pour at the show. It was a really big deal for our little winery.”
Brian Casey, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, said barring children and infants from private trade shows is common practice.
Deborah Sexton, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association, said a well-executed and regulated environment keeps buyers and sellers coming back each year.
“I’ve been on the floor of the Restaurant Show many times — it’s (a) busy, bustling environment,” Sexton said in an email. “I appreciate their concern to protect the safety of everyone on the show floor.”
But some conventions allow “babes in arms limitations,” Marcus said, making exceptions for children who are carried.
Trade show security guards suggested that Osborne leave her baby with someone else so she could work the booth, Osborne said. But she said that’s not something she could easily do because her son needs constant breast-feeding.
“I can’t separate from him,” Osborne, who said Sunday she left her other two children, ages 2 and 4, at home. “I understand not having kids run around or not having strollers — that I understand. A tiny breast-feeding infant, I hope would be an exception to this rule.”
Jen Anderson, a lactation consultant, said a baby has no nursing schedule at 10 days old, and it would be extremely difficult for Osborne to give the child to somebody else at that time to feed.
“Physiologically, yes it is very normal that she needs to be with her baby,” said Anderson, who is also executive director of Mothers Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes in Schaumburg.
The challenge Osborne faced — trying to jump back into work while also trying to nurse a newborn — could be a challenge more working mothers are facing today. The number of moms who try breast-feeding is on the rise, Anderson said, with 75 percent of all new moms choosing to breast-feed.
“More and more moms are interested in breast-feeding and want to give it a try, and there are stumbling blocks that are difficult for them,” Anderson said. “Being able to nurse in public is one of them, and being able to be near your child while you’re working or being able to take sufficient time off from your work — integrating that mothering schedule however that works best for you. We haven’t done a good job figuring that out.”
While Osborne worked for a family-owned company, Marcus said the controversy nonetheless highlights a glaring problem in the United States in that many employees can’t afford to take all of the 12 weeks of unpaid leave they are allowed for the birth of a child under the Family and Medical Leave Act.