It just didn't make any sense. Kasey Madden sat, trying to wrap her mind around what she was hearing. "I'm sorry, but could I just ask you to go do that over there?"
A 38-year-old mother of three from La Grange, Madden was sitting in the toddler section of her Burr Ridge gym's childcare area. Her 2-year-old daughter, Lizzie, was playing nearby while she tried to nurse her unhappy 6-month-old, Sadie. The "over there" to which the gym manager was referring was on the other side of a half-wall partition. Life Time Fitness' policy, he explained, allowed nursing only in the infants' area. But Lizzie wasn't allowed there.
"I had a choice," Madden remembers. "I could have two happy daughters or one screaming one, and it was a toss up as to which one was going to be screaming depending on which side of the half-wall I was on."
Upset by the manager's inexorable insistence that she move, Madden demanded, "Why are you segregating women? Why are you discriminating against breastfed babies?
"He said, ‘Oh, we're not. We just have two different areas that we offer you,'" she recalls. "And I said, ‘That's called segregation.' "
The good fight That was last October. Since then, Madden has managed not only to effect a policy change at Life Time Fitness health clubs nationwide; she also led a charge in the Illinois General Assembly to pass an act protecting a mother's right to breastfeed.
In the days following the incident, Madden worked her way up the company ladder at Life Time Fitness' Minnesota headquarters.
"The answer was always the same," Madden says. "They had to ‘protect the rights of people who found the sight of a breastfeeding woman offensive.' They always used the word ‘offensive' and the word ‘protect.' [As of April] I am a 39-year-old, stay-at-home mother of three. I spend my days changing diapers, playing with kids and shuttling people around in a minivan. No one needs protection from me."
Studies show that children who are breastfed for at least six months are less likely to develop ear infections and respiratory illnesses.
Madden did some research and found that 24 states protect a mother's right to breastfeed in public. In a letter to Lifetime Fitness' CEO, she pointed out that 15 facilities-14 in Minnesota and one in Texas-enforced the company's restrictive breastfeeding policies in direct violation of their states' laws. Two weeks later, she learned the club had instructed its employees nationwide not to disturb nursing women. As stated in the Minnesota code, a woman could breastfeed anywhere "she and her child were otherwise allowed to be."
Yet Madden was not satisfied. Illinois had no statutory protection for nursing mothers, and she knew countless other women were vulnerable to the same treatment to which she had been subjected. So she took her campaign to the next level.
Madden presented her case to state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park). A father of two with another on the way, Harmon responded the next day, agreeing to sponsor a bill similar to Minnesota's in the Senate.
"When I got Kasey's letter, I was stunned by what had happened to her," Harmon says. "It was easy for me to pick up the mantle based on the hard work she had done. Her decision to fight this fight is evident not only of her commitment to her own children but also to her commitment to motherhood and to all children."
Madden's husband Marty agrees. "Kasey didn't make this about her own personal situation," he says. "She looked at the larger picture and wanted to fix it for everybody."
Madden testified before the Illinois Senate on Feb. 26. The Right to Breastfeed Act passed exactly one month later by an overwhelming 52-1. Sent to the House of Representatives at the beginning of April, Harmon expects the bill will have passed into law by press time.
Close to home The Maddens always have had a strong sense of how they want to raise their kids. Though neither she nor her any of her six siblings were breastfed, Madden knew she wanted to try with her own babies. She also knew that when it came to discipline, she and Marty would never shame their children. Yet that's exactly how Madden says she felt treated at the gym.
"I felt my parenting was questioned," she says, "I was confident about what I was doing for my children, and [my breastfeeding Sadie] was just cozy, natural mother-baby time. But I was called out as if I was caught doing something really wrong.
"The most foolhardy position anyone can take is to stand between a mother and her child," she continues. "I made the choice to breastfeed my kids based largely on the positive impact I knew it would have on them. To be stopped because of some ridiculous, misguided sense of propriety-I don't know when breastfeeding became so vulgar-people have a mistaken sense of what is and isn't sexuality. This isn't an issue between a woman and society. It's between a mom and her baby."
A new era The tide may be turning when it comes to mothers' breastfeeding rights. A Burger King chain in Utah (a state that protects women's right to nurse) recently changed its restrictive policy in the face of local mothers' threats to stage a nursing sit-in. And in California, a woman is suing her swimming pool for forcing her to leave the premises to breastfeed. The first protective law was enacted in Florida in the mid-1990s; that nearly half the states have similar statutes just 10 years later is indicative of this issue's gathering force, Harmon says.
For Madden, "a silk purse has been made of a sow's ear." Not only has she taught her 6½-year-old son Joey a lesson in civic duty, she's made parenting a little easier for thousands of Illinois mothers.
"It's great to be a part of getting this legislative affirmation of the rights of moms," she says. "Mission accomplished."
But is she ready to take the fight to Washington D.C.?
"Bring it on," Kasey laughs. "I would love to see a national law-it's not good enough that it's only in half the states."
Not too long ago, Madden sat in her country club's lobby, breastfeeding Sadie. When an older woman approached cooing, Madden tensed, afraid she would once again be called out for nursing in public. Yet this woman, unfazed, lifted Sadie's blanket to get a better look, admiring the moment.
"We shouldn't be talking about a situation where something is ‘tolerated,'" Madden says. "Breastfeeding should be celebrated and embraced. It's a really tender moment. It's practical, it's simple, it's medically recommended, but it's always, always tender."
Illinois' Right to Breastfeed Act "A mother may breastfeed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother's breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breastfeeding; however, a mother considering whether to breastfeed her baby in a place of worship shall comport her behavior with the norms appropriate in that place of worship." The Right to Breastfeed Act also amends Illinois' insurance code, mandating coverage of a doctor-recommended lactation consultant's services during post-partum maternity care. The bill passed the Illinois Senate on March 26 and, at press time, was scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives.
Eryn McGary is a Chicago-based writer.