Talk to a mom who has pumped breastmilk at work and you’ll inevitably hear some awkward or unhappy stories. While there are plenty of women who successfully pump at work and are supported by their colleagues and managers, there are still a lot of difficult workplaces for breastfeeding moms.
Brianna R., for example, told us this story:
"I was the first woman in my [high-end, luxury jewelry store] to ever have taken maternity leave and come back to work in its 32 years of existence. Everyone else who worked in sales was an older woman whose children were already grown up or who didn’t have them. Or a man.
As a commission-based employee, my livelihood depended on my relationships with my clients. My clients would regularly come to the store and it was understood that if your client came in, they would come look for you -- their regular salesperson -- about what they were looking to buy.
I pumped at work after a 12-week maternity leave and I was given a temporary utility closet to pump in (though I was walked in on, oh, about 6 separate times). Sadly, I was never one of those women that could pump two Medela bags full in 10 minutes like some of my friends. So I would go downstairs and each trip would take me about 45 minutes. I pumped 4 times a day and while my manager never said I couldn’t do it, she was completely unsupportive.
Whenever one of my regular clients came in, she told the rest of the floor team that they should just treat me as if I weren’t there. Meaning they were not allowed to tell me that one of my clients was there and interrupt my pumping sessions (which I would have happily done). Luckily, some of my girlfriends would text me to tell me to come upstairs for a client -- but they would have gotten into major trouble if my manager had found out.
Her attitude was, “If Brianna chooses to pump, that’s her choice. She’s not working during that time.” The worst part was that she was also a mom. She just had decided to feed her baby formula and I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t more supportive."
We’ve heard many different variations of this story. They almost always involve a boss who seems to make it unnecessarily hard on the pumping mom who is doing her best to be discreet and efficient.
As one woman described on this online forum, “I think what really irks me is that I have several colleagues who regularly call into these meetings or just not show up and I’m being singled out [for calling into meetings when I’m pumping].”
If you’re in a similarly tricky situation at work with your boss, when do you escalate the issue to HR or to your boss’ manager?
While every situation is different, in general it’s probably best to have a direct conversation with your manager about the conflict before involving third parties. Be prepared to propose solutions and try to reach a compromise with your manager if at all possible. If you have to point out uneven treatment, make sure you document it, particularly if your full plan involves escalation to the HR team or your manager’s boss.
It can be difficult to have these kinds of conversations without looking defensive, so be prepared to practice your approach and pick a good moment to have a cool-headed talk (read: not a stressful deadline period and certainly not before morning coffee or while you’re starving for lunch). Alternatively, if there are other moms at work you suspect may be in a similar situation, you might want to solicit their help and advice.
Asking other moms for their view can be helpful, since they are likely closer to the people involved or at the very least, understand your corporate culture. You can also consider trying to make changes via a group effort. We’ve heard of some women taking the initiative within their Women’s Network to upgrade their maternity leave policies as well as their lactation facilities and policies. Taking action as a cohort reduces the potential that you’re looking for “special” accommodation.
Finally, while it may feel horrible, unlike some other workplace issues, pumping is by definition a temporary situation. Depending on how long you plan on pumping, the issue may resolve itself within a matter of a few weeks or months.
On the other hand, your manager’s attitude towards your pumping may be revealing about what kind of workplace culture and support you will receive in general, going forward. Perhaps that culture was there all along but you simply didn’t feel or notice it in the same way you do now that you are a mother.
If you’ve already decided you’ll likely quit or start searching for another job, there may not be any harm in having a conversation simply to alert your HR department or manager. Perhaps you can explain that you simply didn’t feel supported as a working mother in your exit interview, give examples about how difficult it was to pump, and help other women who may have to deal with the same issues as you one day.