Nursing at Starbucks: An Interview with Lorig Charkoudian by Jackie Regales

This summer, Lorig Charkoudian sat down in her local Starbucks and began to nurse her 19 month old daughter. Shortly after she began, she was asked to move or leave by a manager, even though no customers had complained, and her state of Maryland has legally protected the rights of mothers to breastfeed in public. Fully aware of her rights, Charkoudian returned later that week with over 100 supporters, including over 30 nursing mothers, held a "nurse-in," demanding that Starbucks serve as a corporate leader and make a friendlier environment for nursing mothers. She was astounded at the amount of attention the nurse-in received, resulting in the requests for interviews from as far away as Japan and Finland after the Associated Press picked up the story. I spoke with her on the phone several times during her busy workday in conflict resolution.
Jackie: So, how happy are you with how the nurse-in turned out?
Lorig: I'll tell you, in all my years of activism, this is the kind of response you dream of, national press, lots of individual responses, immediate reaction from the corporation, and even other groups taking our cue and doing nurse-ins in their own community. It's been amazing.
Jackie: I know you've had a history of being involved with activism. What kind of causes have you worked with before, and how is this experience different?
Lorig: Well, my experience with activism began in the fifth grade, when I ran a campaign to save our junior high school, so I guess you could say I've been doing this all my life! Later, I was involved more in issues like campaigning against the death penalty, working with human rights issues, and dealing with things from an economic perspective, which is my academic background as well. In recent years, I've been very involved in conflict resolution to solve community problems, which is currently how I earn a living. In some ways, this campaign is an extension of what I've always done, but in others ways it's been extremely personal for me.
Jackie: Could you tell me more about that? Do you think the difference is connected to our cultural ideas about motherhood?
Lorig: Yes, definitely. I've been reading Shannon Malamud Smith's book, A Potent Spell, recently, and it's all about how our connection to and immense love for our children inherently is a fear of harm coming to them, which has historically been used to control women. You know, it's that whole idea of "We want you stay home, be a good mother, raise your children correctly and keep them safe." It's very threatening to a lot of people to bring motherhood out into the public arena, and women are subject to these intense feelings of shame and embarrassment when they are recognized as transgressing those boundaries.
Jackie: It's especially hard to talk about issues surrounding motherhood, because once you put your own mothering choices out there, it's all up for grabs and subject to attack.
Lorig: Yes! I was amazed at how many of the responses we have gotten about the nurse-in have really been trying to shame me for my choices, and make these really personal attacks on me and my choices as a mother. One group of five mothers sent me a pile of information on the dangers of caffeine and how I shouldn't be drinking coffee if I'm nursing anyway. One woman wrote, "Shouldn't you be at the zoo, doing something educational for your child, instead of lounging at Starbucks? Others were more along the line of, "How dare you be sitting around drinking coffee, why don't you get a hobby or a job," not realizing that I do have a full-time job outside of caring for my daughter.
Jackie: Right, it's that whole attitude that if women are discontented, the solution is that they must have too much free time on their hands, not that their concerns are actually valid or serious.
Lorig: One of the dominant threads in the responses also was the idea that our protest was petty, about a petty issue, while there are children dying of hunger in the world, and wars being fought, and so on. Others thought it was ridiculous that we expected a company like Starbucks to care about its customers, while our point was that Starbucks has the power to change industry thinking on issues like public breastfeeding, and should use that power wisely.
Jackie: Tell me about some of your favorite responses or stories from nurse-ins.
Lorig: One of my favorite stories has to be from a nurse-in that was held by a group of mothers in Austin, Texas, who were inspired by our success. They showed up at their chosen Starbucks with about the same amount of people we had, which was about 30 nursing mothers in a group of over a hundred people, total. While they were, two women came in, one with a very young baby. One of the nurse-in organizers engaged her in a conversation and found out that it was her first time out of the house for an extended period, and that she was really frightened of potentially nursing in public. She felt that the presence of all the women there was really empowering. And I just thought, you know, how lucky that it happened to be that day, and that place, and she got such a strong message that "It's okay to do this," that she didn't need to be ashamed or afraid.
Jackie: That's such an amazing coincidence. It's a good argument for regular nurse-ins too, which I heard the Austin group is planning on.
Lorig: Yeah, that's part of what they want to do, which I think is just great. It's surprisingly easy and fun to do a nurse-in. I'd recommend it to everyone, at least once in their life!
Jackie: Had you always been a supporter of extended and public breastfeeding, or did this experience make it clear for you?
Lorig: I first heard about nurse-ins a few years ago, and I remember thinking, "Well, isn't that just the best idea? So creative!" And this was way before motherhood was even on my radar, so I think the seed was planted then. And when my daughter was born, she came to work with me for the first seven months, so I breastfed her in meetings, conferences, in my office, anywhere I had to. I was so committed to breastfeeding everywhere, I went to malls, churches, did it in front of all my family members. My father and father-in-law both were very uncomfortable with at first, but they're used to it now. My grandfather used to ask me to hide it, but once he accepted it he told me this amazing story, about how he was nursed until he was five, because it was in the middle of the Armenian genocide and his mother had to nurse all four of her kids because they needed it for sustenance. So that was a really amazing transformation to see.
Jackie: So you were a committed solider in the cause from the start. That's inspiring to know.
Lorig: Well, it may be inspiring, but I'll admit, the very first reaction I had at Starbucks, before the anger and the rage, was this fleeting moment of shame. Even though I was so prepared, and so committed, and had heard such terrible stories from other women. "Just let them try," I used to think, but my first reflex was to feel like I had been caught doing something shameful. It's amazing how internalized this stuff becomes.
Jackie: All the more reason to keep putting on nurse-ins, right? What future plans do you have for the website?
Lorig: Well, we really set up a web site just to handle the incredible amount of response that we were getting. I think at this point we've had about 27,000 hits, which is just huge. We've got some resources up there now, like sample letters and postcards people can print out, and we'd like to find a way to let people hook up and make connections through our website. It's been inspiring to see regional spin-offs like the Austin group, so we'd love to encourage that as much as possible. We would also like to see the movement grow past Starbucks and be more about corporations in general. I think there's an incredible amount of energy out there, and I'd love see that harnessed and realized. I'd love to see regular nurse-ins all across the country. Again, I think everyone should be in a nurse-in, at least once in their lives, even if you're no longer nursing!
Jackie Regales lives, works and writes in Baltimore with her partner and twin daughters. Her work has appeared in Hip Mama and off our backs, and she is currently working on a book about motherhood and activism.