This post was written in mid-August, during National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but I forgot to post it before I went on vacation. Better late than never!
The poster in the elevator last week made me do a double-take. I was standing right next to it on the morning ride to my office, mentally preparing for the busy day ahead by struggling to figure out when I could squeeze in a twenty-minute pumping session. The poster declared: “Supportive breastfeeding policies and practices don’t just help nursing mothers and children, they also lead to higher productivity, reduced absenteeism and better overall health.” To reinforce the Department of Labor’s commitment to supporting nursing mothers, the Secretary emailed everyone later in the day to announce changes to agency policy intended to make it a more breastfeeding-friendly workplace.
The new policy cited the Department of Health and Human Services’ Blueprint for Action in Breastfeeding, a large proportion (70%) of working mothers with children under three years of age work full time, and repeated the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for at least a child’s first six months of life. It went on to instruct nursing mothers to “give your supervisor a one-time notice of your intent to take breaks to express breast milk during working hours” and “[w]hen you are no longer a nursing mother, notify your supervisor of discontinuation in the program.”
My employer’s National Breastfeeding Awareness Month show of support follows several highly-publicized private initiatives. Locally, the Washington Nationals baseball stadium recently opened a “state of the art” lactation room to mixed reviews, because some felt the new rooms suggest moms should not nurse their babies in their seats. [Personally, I think such rooms are a valuable addition. I have always nursed my kids from my seat in the stadium, but I’d be more likely to go to a game without my kids if I knew I’d have a private place to pump besides a bathroom stall. Moreover, the room was created in response to a change.org petition so obviously, there is a demand for such a space.] Nationally, IBM made headlines when it announced that it would enable working mothers to easily ship expressed breastmilk while traveling on business. [I hope this idea catches on!]
The business case for supporting breastfeeding by employees trumpeted by the Secretary of Labor is a subset of the “breast is best” campaign generally. Babies who are breastfed get sick less often so their mothers will require less time off work to care for them. And of course, breastfeeding has health benefits for the mom as well. However, there is a psychological component to expressing milk that goes beyond the benefits provided by the milk itself. Pumping at work allows a new mom to feel connected to her baby and, at least for me, ease the guilt that came with leaving my child by allowing me to “provide for him” throughout the day. Pumping at work is not easy. No matter how supportive a work environment is, it is always challenging to find time and space to pump. Beyond that, there is the significant effort involved in making sure the bottles are kept sterile and the milk is kept cold, and in carrying back and forth the various equipment.
One would think that after pumping at work for almost two years (15 months after my son was born and now 6 months since my daughter was born), I would have it down to a fine art. But I still worry about running out of the house on a busy morning without clean valves or forgetting my milk in the office communal fridge. And even after all this time, I still shirk being identified as a nursing mother. Although I have a rather conspicuous “Do Not Disturb” sign that I hang on my office door while I am nursing, I have never had the courage to decline, reschedule, or leave a meeting early in order to pump. This means that there have been many days when I have suffered through an appointment with stabbing pains and come home from work without enough milk to feed my baby the next day.
I know that the Secretary’s elevator posters, policy changes, and new lactation rooms are motivated by the best of intentions, but I am uncomfortable about being singled out for what may be perceived as special treatment. I do not doubt that my clients and colleagues would be willing to make minor schedule adjustments to accommodate my pumping schedule, but I do not want to ask any favors. It is hard enough being a working mother – I feel I have to work harder than my childless colleagues to demonstrate my commitment to my job, even though I make no secret of the fact that my family is my first priority. Similarly, I feel pressure to make sure my colleagues know I am working during my pumping breaks. I prefer to think of myself as just another attorney whose “open door policy” is suspended 2-3 times a day for conference calls and/or expressing milk, rather than someone who requires accommodations.
But the elevator poster made me wonder if perhaps I am doing others a disservice by keeping my nursing mother status “under wraps.” Just because I find it only a minor inconvenience to express milk at work, that doesn’t mean I could not serve as an advocate or supporter for others who are struggling. If I cannot ask that a meeting be postponed a few minutes, I can only imagine how another nursing mom might feel asking to leave her desk to go to the lactation room, or if she might bring in a small mini-fridge to store her breastmilk. Expressing milk is always an inconvenience, but it should never be an impossibility. I will do my part to encourage and advocate for other women who wish to pump at work so that they can support their families financially while also supporting their babies physically.