Many of the women I know have made sacrifices to continue breastfeeding after they return to work. We do this despite the inconvenience and indignity of hooking ourselves up to a milking machine three times a day, because the health benefits for our babies and ourselves abound. This commitment also happens to be good for the economy with the potential to save billions in health care costs.
And yet, many of our employers and coworkers remain woefully ignorant about breastfeeding; without realizing it, they put us in situations that can be thoroughly humiliating.
Take my friend, Jackie*.
Jackie has worked for almost a decade for a large, well-respected non-profit in the Denver area. As you read her story, please keep in mind that she works in a state where employers are legally obligated to accommodate the needs of breastfeeding employees, at an organization where the HR department is fond of touting how "family-friendly" it is.
Jackie had a complicated delivery; her newborn son suffered trauma that required major surgery. It was as terrifying as you can imagine. Somehow Jackie managed to breastfeed, despite her son's surgery and lengthy hospital stay, and throughout her five-month maternity leave. She fully intended to continue breastfeeding when she returned to work for the recommended first year.
"I had a child with health issues, and there are so many health benefits of breastfeeding," she told me. "I wanted to give him every extra advantage."
When her baby was five months old, Jackie packed up a rented hospital-grade breast pump with the complicated mix of emotions that many new moms experience--sadness, relief, guilt--and returned to work.
On the first day back, Jackie remembers her male boss said, "You know, people are going to look at you differently now that you're a parent. Most people here don't have kids."
"I didn't know what he meant," Jackie told me, "but it totally freaked me out. The message I took from that was, 'Don't rock the boat.'"
Around that same time, a male coworker asked her if she'd "read any good books" while she was on maternity leave. The question was so profoundly out of sync with the five exhausting months she'd spent running back and forth between home and The Children's Hospital, she didn't know what to say.
"They think you're lying on a beach when you're on maternity leave," Jackie said. "They have no idea."
The family-friendly HR department didn't offer any information for moms returning to work. A lactation consultant had told Jackie that her employer was legally obligated to provide a private place to pump (not a bathroom). So her first day back, Jackie asked the HR staff where she should go.
The human resources administrator -- a woman without kids of her own -- directed her to a tiny, windowless "telephone" room with a chair, a phone, and an electrical outlet. The room had a sliding door that didn't shut completely. Anyone who cared to look could peek through the small crack, and it was far from soundproof. The woman proudly pointed out the cheap latch lock that had been installed after another nursing mom had complained.
"It was a basically a converted closet," Jackie said.
In theory a larger room was available, but it was in a wildly inconvenient location across the street in another building, and it was supposed to be reserved for people preparing to give presentations.
"I'd have to tell the guy who runs it, 'Hey, I need your room three times a day so you have to tell your famous lecturers they can't be in there.'"
Other nursing moms in the office had rejected these options, choosing instead to book the small conference rooms when they could get them. These rooms were more conveniently located, but lacked privacy.
"They have clear glass for about three feet from the floor, then frosted glass," Jackie said. "People are always bending over to see who has the room. Sometimes people barge in. Even if you want to use them, you can't always get them -- you have to book them in advance and they're in high demand."
Jackie talked with another nursing coworker who was in the same dilemma. Technically, the law in Jackie's state said their employer was required to provide appropriate accommodations that were not a toilet stall, but Jackie said the wording seemed to her a little vague. (Since March 23, 2010, the law has become more clear, thanks to the new health reform bill.)
The women decided not to complain. Their decision had less to do with the law and more to do with this: Both had carefully negotiated changes to their schedules that were not the norm at the office. There was no official flextime policy at their family-friendly organization; each person had to work out her schedule with her supervisor. The implication was that they were getting special treatment, which could be taken away at any time.
Don't rock the boat.
"We were on such precarious terms," Jackie explained to me. "Plus, I was exhausted. I didn't have the wherewithal to say 'This isn't acceptable.'"
Jackie decided to come up with her own solution.
After a thorough review of the office landscape, Jackie mentioned to her boss that there was no convenient place to pump. She suggested the most reasonable solution she could think of -- using her own cubicle.
Her boss's response was surprising for a man in his 40s with a wife and young children at home.
"He said 'Whoa! You can't be doing that,'" Jackie recalled. "'Those people who sit around you don't have kids. You're going to freak them out!'...He didn't offer to help or talk to HR with me or anything."
Jackie went ahead with her plan anyway, and her boss never said anything. An awkward stalemate, to say the least.
She bought a large drape and tension rod on Craigslist and lugged them into to office, along with several other new furnishings.
When it was time to pump, Jackie rigged up her new curtain and pulled it tightly across the opening of her cubicle. Then she taped up a sign written in thick, black marker that said, 'Please do not disturb. Privacy Please.' She draped a blue fabric sarong from Bali over the top of the cubicle so people couldn't peer down, then put on a Bebe au Lait nursing cover over her shirt. She turned on a portable fan she'd brought from home to disguise the moaning of the pump. She pulled her regular bra down around her waist, hooked on a hands-free pumping halter, wedged the plastic pump funnels in place, readjusted the nursing cover, and snapped on the machine.
"I could hear people walk by and say, 'Where's Jackie?'
"'I'm in here,' I'd say. 'I'm busy!'"
Now, I have to interject. As a mom who nursed two children for almost a year each, it never bothered me much when people saw me nursing my baby. I even breastfed my baby at work a couple times when I was just coming back from maternity leave. My boss at the time (another working mom, very pro-breastfeeding) encouraged this. I tried to be discreet, draping a small blanket over my shoulder, and decided that if someone was uncomfortable seeing me feed my baby, that was their problem. I told myself I was doing my part to educate them and make life a little less awkward for other breastfeeding moms who might cross their path in the future.
But the idea of someone seeing me pumping is horrifying. Something about the contraption, the bovine experience of being hooked up to a machine explicitly designed to pull the milk from one's breasts -- it is so particularly, uniquely undignified.
A few times people did walk in on me when I was pumping in the bathroom at work, before I insisted on taking over a small conference room. And once, a male (childless) coworker sent an email to the entire 40-person office complaining about the "bodily fluids" in the refrigerator. (Since no one was harboring a urine sample in the office fridge, it's safe to assume he was complaining about the baby bottles of milk I'd stashed on a lower shelf.) Despite all my confidence about breastfeeding, I was mortified by the experience.
I think about Jackie, exhausted from nighttime feedings, hunched over her desk, arms wrapped around her chest to hold the nursing wrap in place, hoping no one would walk by, and I have a visceral reaction. I want to cross my own arms over my chest. Pumping without complete privacy is about as embarrassing as having to pee in the hallway. No one should ever have to do that.
Not surprisingly, Jackie gave up after four weeks.
"It was just too hard. I nursed at home in the evenings, but gave up pumping during the day. And then, of course, my milk supply went down and I had to stop. I felt so guilty about it."
This all happened more than a year ago, but she still gets upset when she talks about it. Even over the phone I could hear the guilt and the anger in her voice. I suppose I was getting a little worked up myself.
"Did it occur to you while this was going on that you were working for a do-gooder organization?" I asked. "I mean, this isn't BP. It's a non-profit that's all about enlightening the public."
"I couldn't think about it at the time," she said. "I never really expected much from them. It was even worse for some of the other women."
Several coworkers were walked in on repeatedly while pumping, and one coworker was told she had to pump in a room full of foul-smelling solvents. Another had to report to a male supervisor who was so uncomfortable with the physical aspect of her pregnancy that he told her not to discuss it at work.
"He basically wanted her to be a floating head with no body," said Jackie.
Most of these women quit breastfeeding earlier than they had intended to -- it was just too awkward to pump at work. But one woman, we'll call her Sinead, managed to pump using the conference rooms and the telephone closet until her child was a year old.
I called Sinead and asked her how she managed to keep going for that long.
"I was just fiercely committed to it," she said.
Sinead, like Jackie, had a baby with health issues. Her daughter was born very small and couldn't suck hard enough to get milk. In order to make breastfeeding work, Sinead had to alternate feeding and pumping hourly, almost around the clock, for the first three months. She said she tried every alternative therapy possible to establish her milk supply, including acupuncture and massive doses of the herb fenugreek, which increases milk flow.
"One of the side effects of taking tons of fenugreek is that you smell like maple syrup. So for months I went around smelling like an IHOP," Sinead said with a little laugh.
When Sinead's daughter was five months old, it was time to go back to work. Like Jackie, Sinead discovered no one was going to make it easy. But by then she had worked so hard to be able to breastfeed despite her daughter's health issues that she decided nothing was going to deter her.
"Basically you have to be willing to do this very private thing in a relatively public place," Sinead said. "No one wants to be caught pumping. It's incredibly unattractive. It's not how you want people to see you."
When she pumped, Sinead would sit with her back against the door, and try to put her mind elsewhere.
"They say to increase your milk supply, you should think about your baby," Sinead said. "I used to imagine my daughter and I were in little boat that was floating in sea of milk. It was often a Hawaiian sea of milk.
"Sometimes I wonder if I had a comfortable space if my milk supply would have gone up. It's a shame that it's not a little easier for everybody."
I asked Sinead how her daughter is doing now.
"She just had her third birthday," she said brightly. "She's caught up in size. She had all the benefits of breastfeeding. She's just great!"
Jackie's baby, now age two, is thriving as well. I suppose this story has a happy ending, except that nothing has changed at the progressive, supposedly "family-friendly" office.
* * *
The benefits of breastfeeding are indisputable and they affect us all. Not only does breastfeeding improve the health of the mother and child, it can also save employers money in absenteeism and turnover, save billions in health care costs, and serve the health of our nation as a whole. And yet, only 14 percent of U.S. mothers are able to breastfeed exclusively for the doctor-recommended period of six months.
If we're not going to offer paid maternity leave, the least we can do is make it easier for new mothers to continue to breastfeed when they return to work. But to do that, employers need to stop pretending to be "family-friendly," educate themselves about the needs of their employees, and truly support breastfeeding mothers.
What do you think employers ought to know? What should coworkers know? If you're a new mom, what do you wish you had known before you went back to work?
*Names and some identifying details have been changed.
This blog is part of the Peaceful Revolution series that explores innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.