Returning to work after having a baby is overwhelming. In addition to feeling pangs of mom guilt and separation anxiety - not to mention feeling somewhat delusional since you’re insanely sleep-deprived - you’re trying to prove to your boss and colleagues that you’re just as competent at the office as you were post-baby.
If you’re breastfeeding, get ready for an even rougher transition (sorry.) Somehow during the workday you’ll need to take two thirty-minute breaks – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – to pump milk. And no, you won’t be able to type or take phone calls during these breaks, because you’ll need your hands (unless you’ve really mastered the hands-free thing in a way I never did).
So that’s one more lost hour in the day – and worse yet due to biological demands, it’s not during the lunch hour when things are quieter…it’s when other people are looking for you and expecting you to be in meetings or available. (But you’ll definitely need to use your lunch hour to catch up.)
Under the very, very best scenarios, pumping milk after you return to a corporate job is no easy task. It takes you away from your work at awkward times, it can be messy, emotional and even painful. Under the worst scenarios, it can be downright onerous and humiliating – in a room that’s ill-suited for breastfeeding, a long way away from your desk, or where there is little privacy.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends unequivocally that mothers exclusively breastfeed babies for six months. There is a litany of health benefits that are connected to breastfeeding for both the child (less illness, fewer hospitalizations) and for the mother (reduced risk of pre-menopausal cancer). In 2011, a government agency report reported that of women who take maternity leave, the average leave taken is 10.3 weeks. (An astounding 30% of employed women reported not taking any leave at all.)
So that implies that women who aim to comply with AAP recommendations need to take on the challenging and arduous arrangement of carving out that extra hour every day for on average 16 weeks.
And yet, the deck is stacked against them in almost every conceivable way. It is no surprise that 77% of mothers start breastfeeding after birth but only 16% of those mothers make it to that recommended six month mark.
First, being away from her desk for one hour or more away daily is problematic for even the most generous boss and the most committed mother.
Further, while there is federal legislation that requires employers to provide reasonable (but not paid) break time as well as a place other than a bathroom for employees to express milk, this rule is vague enough to contribute to the problem. And, employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempted from these regulations if they impose “undue hardship.”
Lactation rooms can be few and far between. Even large employers have just one for thousands of employees, so women must jockey for time in the pumping room and often wait their turn. Further, pumping rooms are frequently located farther from an employee’s desk than is convenient. I’ve heard about women who have to travel for up to 15 minutes to arrive at their lactation room, thus tacking on another hour to their daily pumping time.
And, if there is no sink in the lactation room/area, women are forced to clean their pump parts and supplies in either the public kitchen or bathroom – alongside other co-workers, who are inevitably making small talk as the woman blushes.
Then of course, there’s the telltale, outrageously loud groan of the pump – which, unless the walls are really thick, announces to anyone within a 20-foot radius exactly what you’re doing.
Having pumped milk at work myself for more than 12 months in total (after two pregnancies), I can tell you that if you want to successfully fulfill your breastfeeding goal, ultimately you just have to pretty much dispense with your dignity.
In my case, I couldn’t be troubled with the commute to the “official” lactation room (just 5 minutes, but it adds up to 20 more minutes a day in total) so I just parked myself in an empty visitor office nearby where everyone around me could hear the pump. Every time I went into or out of the room, the best I could do was flash a sheepish smile at my many male colleagues whose offices were just feet away from the room.
Another woman reported pumping in her office, which had a door that closed, but did not lock. And walls that were shared on either side by male co-workers who could hear whenever she pumped. Apparently, however, the noise was not enough to secure her privacy. Although she placed a big “do not disturb” sign on the door and a chair behind it, one day a male colleague still knocked insistently and almost barged in.
The cherry on top of all of this is the extra 15lbs in your bag, which you then must carry to and from work on the subway. And that’s in addition to your laptop, because you’ll inevitably have to do work after the kids go to bed to make up for the time you missed because you were pumping, and because you ran out before you were done to pick up your kids from daycare or just simply to get to see them before they fall asleep at 7 pm. Cue the back problems.
So while almost everyone agrees that breastfeeding is best for our children, the path to supplying breast milk after mothers return to work is ridden with obstacles and humiliations.
There has to be a better way – through better facilities, more support and less shame. So let’s call on employers to think of ways to make this difficult enterprise just a little easier for those new mothers returning to work.
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