Erika Gorman is a mom of three, her latest born at home on July 14, 2016. That day, with husband Grant by her side, Gorman placed the infant on her chest to feed. Moments later, her 20-month-old toddler entered the room. Still breastfeeding, the toddler joined her newly born brother. A picture was snapped showing the happy family, the two children in what is known as tandem feeding.
The picture was shared on the family’s social media accounts, setting in motion a chain of events that would change the way Erika views not only her family’s privacy, but also the culture in which she resides.
On July 20, an officer from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department visited. It was a Wednesday. Erika watched from the window as her husband talked to the officer on their front lawn.
“He looked like there was something really wrong and my husband looked like he was defending himself,” said Erika. “I remember being concerned.” Erika opened the window to better listen in. “It became clear there was some accusatory behavior going on surrounding our behavior around the children.”
An anonymous call to the Ventura County Human Services Agency had netted a house visit by not only the sheriff’s deputy but, a few days later, by a social worker from the Agency. Erika said that she and her husband had been accused of drugging, beating and engaging in child pornography with their children. Erika says that once family services visited and interviewed her 4-year-old, the mood lightened up, and the officers realized that the family was healthy.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department did not have a record of this visit, and state law prevents the Human Services Agency from sharing information on particular allegations or child welfare cases, said Jennie Pitman, HSA administrator.
Erika says that because of her experience, which led to self-isolation for a period of time, she wants not only to raise awareness of the legality of public breastfeeding, but to change the culture that allows such law enforcement-related actions to be taken over an innocent photo of a family doing what comes naturally, i.e., breastfeeding a child. In support of her movement, Erika has put together a “feed-in” for an undisclosed time and place in September, wherein mothers will breastfeed their children in a public setting, and launched a website dedicated to tandem feeding, offering support for mothers like herself.
“There was this feeling that we were the ones that were wrong in sharing what we had and that we somewhat invited the situation because of our poor behavior,” said Erika. “For me, that shows the state of the culture, that for some reason, someone in a state of instability felt that this was a legitimate reason to contact an authority figure, and I feel like I would like to be a part of changing that cultural landscape.”
The American Society of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for up to one year and for however long thereafter, while the World Health Organization suggests breastfeeding for up to two years.
In California, public breastfeeding is legal and protected in the workplace as well, according to California Civil Code, section 43.3, which reads that “a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private.” That hasn’t stopped controversy from rearing around the subject.
A mother in Roseville near Sacramento was asked to stop breastfeeding her 5-month old infant at a post office in December of 2016, an act that left her feeling “mortified and shamed, embarrassed and angry,” as reported by ABC10. The mother, Casey Reed, was reportedly told that the act was “inappropriate.”
“American culture has viewed and promotes the breast as a sexual object, so when we see a woman breastfeeding, it’s hard to get past that and simply see a mother feeding her baby,” says Heather Camarena, board chair of the Breastfeeding Coalition of Ventura County.
Camarena says that dialogue, awareness and education can go a long way toward ending the stigma and letting families know that there is support available for new mothers. The Coalition has special thank-you cards to be given to mothers seen breastfeeding in public to help build confidence. The Coalition is over 20 years old, but became a nonprofit 501(3)(c) four years ago. In its time, Camarena says, stories like Erika’s (though not always as extreme) are more common than are reported.
“Maybe with exposure like in this article more mothers will be willing to come forth and talk about this, because it is an issue,” said Camarena. “If it is happening, we want to make sure these mothers feel safe talking about it and know what their rights are and feel supported.”
Over 50 mothers have expressed interest in Erika’s September event, she says. For now, Erika says, she wants just one simple thing.
“I want to sit in a park and breastfeed in public without having a heart attack, or feeling that I’m about to get arrested.”
For more information on the Breastfeeding Coalition of Ventura County, visit www.breastfeedventura.org. For more information on Gathering in Tandem and the September event, visit www.gatheringintandem.com.