Monday, 28 January 2013

Tales from Elsewhere: No comments please, we’re British

I work for the National Health Service as research administrator at a Bristol hospital – no Florence Nightingale me.  I’m a number-crunching, spreadsheeting, mail-merging, envelope-stuffing, letter-writing, one-end-of-the-site-to-the-other-walking, glorified filing clerk, with four years behind me in the job, and probably 6 years to go till retirement.  The NHS is on the whole a kind employer keen on equal treatment for all, though perhaps a little anal on paperwork and bureaucracy generally (and don’t get me started on the parking problems).
What I’d like to tell you about today is a typical NHS situation and the equally typical British attitude towards it.
Last week I had to attend the latest monthly meeting to do with the new hospital which is soaring up relentlessly around us, and which will be finished in the spring of 2014. How and where we will all fit is a giant logistical jigsaw puzzle, and this meeting was to discuss with the architects where the various research departments will be located.  I attend representing my department, and report back to our professor what was said.  This time however I was in a mental fog as I left the meeting – I couldn’t possibly relate what the ‘salient points’ were.
Christmas interrupted the monthly routine, so it had been a couple of months since the last meeting when Gretchen, a laboratory technician, had turned up with her month old baby, a sweet little boy who slept angelically in his carry-cot throughout the whole meeting.  We had already started the meeting when she arrived 20 minutes late, so we stopped to ooh and aah at the baby and she told us how she had had a natural childbirth (ouch).  She was still on maternity leave, but had insisted on attending to represent her department and spent the next 20 minutes whispering about babies with her neighbour as she constantly tossed her waist-length brown wavy hair, while we tried to resume the meeting. 
This time we had been located in a meeting room which could comfortably seat 6 people, however by 09:30, the start time, 12 had appeared (to the surprise of the organiser) and we had all gradually shifted round the table, squeezing together to make room for newcomers.  Three architects (one short, one tall and thin, one tall and corpulent) were present on this occasion, and they shuffled their huge plans around as steaming coffee mugs were hastily withdrawn and put on the floor.  

Twenty minutes later we were discussing the placement of offices, desks, windows and doors when in came Gretchen, a rucksack on her back which was full to bursting, and the (now three-month old) baby on her arm.   Everything came to a halt once again as everybody cooed, and the architects shifted uncomfortably.  Thirteen adults and one baby competed for the available air – one fart and we would have had to dive out the window.
Mama then proceeded to relieve the rucksack of its contents as someone else held junior, and then she peeled off all the warm layers till she got down to a waist-length woolly poncho.  Five minutes later the large architect looked over the rims of his spectacles to check that he could start again, and the meeting resumed, while Gretchen had a further five minutes of whispered chat with her neighbour.  We were very cramped, with shoulders firmly touching, and I had a corner of the table wedged in my chest – one good shove from behind and it would have been death by misadventure.
Presently junior whimpered slightly, and mama fumbled underneath her poncho (no, I thought, surely not) and baby’s head disappeared underneath it.  Mr big architect’s face was a picture.  He faltered mid-sentence, got distracted, fumbled with the plans, stopped.  All three looked profoundly embarrassed.  Other people stepped in with questions, he recovered, resumed.  Gretchen asked questions too, tossing her (now thigh-length) hair.  I did my best to slam my jaw shut.   In the odd silences as we scrutinised the plans, sucking sounds were heard.

Then baby was whipped out from under mama’s poncho, his mouth was wiped and he was transferred to her knee, where she bounced him vigorously up and down for the twin purpose of burping (double check) and his entertainment (unimpressed).  About five minutes later the child whimpered again, and the whole procedure was repeated.
The meeting concluded at 11:00, and the sheet of paper in front of me was still as white as the driven snow.  If I was drooling it would have had nothing to do with the baby, but because I was slack-jawed for almost the entire time.  Aside from the initial minute when Gretchen appeared at 09:50, nobody said anything; no comment was made about what we had all witnessed. 
Oh to have been a fly on the roof of the architects’ car as they drove back to their office.
I asked one other administrator what she thought the following day when I ran into her and she confined herself to remarking ‘yes, it was a little distracting, I must admit’.
I consider myself to be liberal, laissez-faire, fine with natural behaviour such as breast-feeding in public and so on, but it struck me forcibly that there are times when it isn’t appropriate and when it is unfair on everybody else.  Gretchen wasn’t to know the room would be too small, but it clearly did not cross her mind to wonder whether we would find it distracting if she did not retire to the background.  I’ve noticed that mothers often sit in a back row to breastfeed, or go briefly into another room, express their milk into a baby’s bottle instead ... or leave the child with someone for a few hours.  What will it be next time – will she expect to change the baby’s nappy too?
The NHS adheres strictly to non-discriminatory behaviour for both patients and staff, which is admirable, but sometimes the non-discrimination can be mutually exclusive.  You can’t champion a mother’s rights to breastfeed if it also means you are neglecting your staff’s rights to hold an effective meeting, at which approximately half the time was spent being distracted from the work in hand for one reason or another.  The trouble is that mothers’ rights are such a Sacred Cow that no one would dare challenge them.  Earth Mothers and work don’t always mix.

The general response I received from colleagues was definitely non-committal, and from friends outside work to whom I made comments it was ‘aah, how sweet, why shouldn’t she breastfeed’ (hello?  Have you been listening to what I said?).  I admit I’m not brave enough to take on the NHS about this – unless Gretchen changes junior’s nappy at the next meeting. 

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

(John's way of reminding me that it's my turn
to do the gardening...)



Joyful said...

You had me laughing with a few of your punch lines.

I really felt for you and the other staff what with the uncomfortable meeting space, the cramped quarters and the side show. I personally don't have a problem with breast feeding in a public space but do believe the mother should be covered and also as unobtrusive as possible...that's just me...If I were Gretchen I probably would have left the child at home for two hours with some extracted milk. But it seems some mothers really want to be "in your face".

I'm fairly liberal when it comes to mother's breast feeding in most spaces. It seems a lot of people here are not so liberal and numerous times there has been an outcry when a mother has breastfed in a public place or in the work place.

simone said...

Great post Caroline, you made me laugh & described the whole situation so well that I almost felt I was there.

Obviously I'm a mother....but, although I support breast feeding in public, I never actually did it myself, I was just never comfortable with it. I always preferred to fnd a discreet place or a restroom designed for that specific purpose.

I also think that Gretchen was inconsiderate to the rest of you as her colleagues - she should have asked if anyone minded - and, you should have, quite reasonably been able to speak up if you did.

It is one of those odd Briish situations isn't it (ignoring the whole "pc" side of it) I read your post for some reason it reminded me of that old joke
About an old British Rail train & a couple being "intimate" in a rather full one said a word until afterwards when one of the young couple lit up a cigarette & finally another passenger piped up "excuse me, I think you'll find this is a no smoking carriage!!"

A very good post.
Simone X

Tina said...

Ditto with Simone's post-I am pro breastfeeding and even whipped my boobsters out a few times to do so in public. With my oldest I spend quite enough time in a public toilet to decide that sharing a flash of boob in public was probably more hygienic for all involved....However a meeting like that? cramped into a tiny room? I think I would have excused myself or like you said..left the baby at home. It seems as if the two mothers were there to show off baby more than they seemed to be really attending to the meeting. one-don't show up late if it is so important and then interrupt with baby..if you are going to need to bring baby at least get there early to get the oohs and ahhs over with before taking up everyone's time.

Of course we should also attend to the fact that the meeting maker was involved in the fiasco by cramming you in a tiny sounds like a pretty uncomfortable event that was a fail from beginning to end.

Coral Wild said...

Hello Caroline

an amusing, on the mark posting - I really enjoyed it:)

I can't really add to the previous comments on the breastfeeding "rights" involved, but want to remark that if we want to enjoy equal rights with others we have the responsibility to be equally considerate back....

Can't think of what you could say or do at the next meeting!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny, I wanted to make it vaguely amusing instead of angry, which I'm afraid is the way I really felt!

Love the joke Simone! Must remember to quote it. I reckon if she had asked us if we minded, none of us would have been brave enough (or had the presence of mind) to say 'yes actually I DO mind...'

Tina - She gave out an umistakeable air of smugness and 'look at me I can breastfeed, be at a meeting AND chew gum all at the same time...'

Like that phrase Sue - with rights come responsibilities too. I have to admit I'm worrying about the next meeting now...

Loved all your comments, thank you!


Bunny said...

Well I would definitely have shared a raised eyebrow with you in solidarity.

Simone's joke sums it up entirely!

Lonicera said...

Yes, it's good, isn't it... Thanks for the solidarity Bunny - will leave a comment on yours shortly, your post was so eloquent.

Lonicera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zanna said...

Thanks for your comment on my newly resurrected blog and also on the travel blog - glad you enjoyed it. It's off being made into a book now. I've been popping into your blog from time to time even although I've been too slack to comment - promise to try and do better!

Lonicera said...

Welcome Zanna - I'm so glad you still read my blog, even if you don't leave comments. I've slowed down a bit, but only because of external influences which I hope are temporary - I still love writing as much as ever.

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