By Margaret Heffernan
First, the IRS ruled that breast pumps and other nursing supplies qualify for tax breaks. Now First Lady Michelle Obama, as part of her campaign against childhood obesity, is reportedly planning to encourage mothers to breastfeed -- not only at home -- but at work.
And the law is on her side. A provision of the new health care law requires employers with more than 50 employees to "provide reasonable break time" for an employee to nurse and "provide a place, other than a bathroom" to do the nursing.
It's incredible that anyone would quibble with a free health benefit, especially given that multiple studies show breastfeeding reduces illness and death. But expect the firestorm.
Already, the other day Rep. Michele Bachman, in a spectacularly humorless act of doublethink, decried the tax credit as the "nanny state" -- but it is breaks like this that let children get fed by their mothers and not their nannies!
There are always people (men and women) discomfited by and critical of nursing at work. Why? Plenty of CEOs do it. I did it when I was CEO. It wasn't exactly my idea of a lunch break but I wanted to do what was best for my daughter, and I wanted to do what was best for my business. And I saw no reason why the two could not peacefully co-exist.
We could discuss just how much money non-obese children save the nation as a whole. We could discuss how much employers would prefer not to lose so many days from sickness and doctor's appointments. And we don't even need to discuss the crying need to reduce the nation's overall healthcare costs. But I think there's a more critical issue here which is this: Children are part of society. And business is part of society too, not distinct from it. The work that we all do bolsters, underpins and sustains the institutions and organizations that make a civilized and productive life possible. We work to live well; we do not live just to work hard.
No business should be an island
So if we want a cohesive society, full of educated, creative, sociable and healthy individuals, children need to grow up in a world that recognizes their needs, welcomes and accepts them as part of the world. And the tax code is a perfectly appropriate tool to encourage what is best for both worlds.
Isolating business from society has always been a bad idea and recently we've been able to see just how dangerous it can be. The Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett illustrated this when she was chastised by a banker for claiming CDOs and other derivatives were opaque. All the information anyone could need, he insisted, was available on Bloomberg terminals. When she pointed out that such technology was not accessible to the public at large, he was baffled. He had, says Tett, retreated to his own Bloomberg cyber village on the island of London's Canary Wharf, utterly cut off from the real world. That such a vast sector of the economy had become untethered from the everyday realities of the society was one reason we're in the mess we're in today.
It isn't just mothers and it isn't just babies that need to be healthy. Everyone benefits when our kids - and the grownups and executives they become - are well looked after, healthy and integrated into our world.
How well does your office accommodate nursing mothers?
Margaret Heffernan is a blogger for BNET and has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom, including InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and iCAST Corporation.