A Working Mom's Guide to Pumping: Talking with Jessica Shortall of 'Work, Pump, Repeat'

3 years ago

On September 1, my son will turn one year old. On that day, I’ll celebrate him, and all the joy he’s brought into my life, and I’ll celebrate my and my husband’s parenting—we kept him alive for a whole year!—and I’ll also celebrate meeting a milestone that seemed like a total pipe dream when he was born: I will have made it through a year of breastfeeding and pumping milk—endless ounces of milk—to help him grow.

Since my son came home from a 10-day stay in the NICU after his arrival six weeks early, I have tracked what I’ve pumped. As of the evening when I’m writing this, I’ve pumped for 522 hours and 20 minutes. That has yielded 4386.09 ounces, or 68.53 gallons of breastmilk. That’s a lot of damn work.

Image Credit: Jim Champion on Flickr

It’s not just work for me. I’m lucky to have a supportive husband, who manages our milk supply to make sure nothing expires, who optimizes and combines bottles of pumped milk into more than 20 bottles each week to send to daycare or feed when I can’t be around or need to get ready for work, and who has washed countless bottles, nipples, and other accoutrements of the pumping trade. This has been a team effort, and we have a healthy, roly poly kid to show for it.

But there was a time when I worried I’d never make it this far. Even midway through my maternity leave, I was already worried about returning to work. How would I ever pump enough milk to feed my insatiably hungry kid? How would I remember to bring all the right equipment with me day after day? How would I carve out time in my meetings-heavy workplace to actually produce milk? I didn’t think I could do it, and I already felt guilty.

See, I work for a public health nonprofit. I think the only more supportive environment to work in as a pumping mother might be…I don’t know…the Ameda or Medela factory. (At least, I hope that’s a supportive environment for nursing moms…) But I also knew the prevailing opinion among my coworkers is that formula’s the lesser beverage, and breastmilk is best, so I felt a lot of pressure to succeed.

A month before my return to work, my anxiety was at its absolute worst. That's when I got an email from Jessica Shortall, an author who had run a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a book called Work, Pump, Repeat. I had backed the project, and was about to reap my reward: An electronic copy of the manuscript. The book arrived in the Kindle app on my iPad, and I started to read it, standing up in the kitchen, when I'm sure I was supposed to be doing some other household chore. Before I'd even made it through the introduction, I was in tears. Finally, here was the resource I'd been looking for. "I'm so, so grateful," I emailed her that afternoon. "It feels like a lifeline across the scary, scary void."

Jessica’s book found a home with a publisher shortly after I got that electronic copy, and on September 8, working moms everywhere can get their copy of this guide, which reads as if your most no-nonsense, most supportive friend wrote it just for you.

Jessica agreed to answer my questions about the book and about pumping at work. August is National Breastfeeding Month, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than by introducing you to the woman I credit with giving me the confidence and knowledge I needed to tackle this experience head on and make sure my kid had the milk he needed to thrive.

Genie Gratto: Why do you think there is such a culture war around breastfeeding and pumping? What drives the pressure on American moms to feed their babies in a particular way?

Jessica Shortall: We have a perfect storm happening in mainstream American culture right now. Consider:

  • Breastfeeding rates are on the rise, fueled in large part by the tireless work of "breast is best" advocates (love 'em or hate 'em, they are why many of us, directly or indirectly, value breastfeeding enough to agonize over it).
  • Women now make up 47 percent of the American workforce. This can create a good dose of guilt when the cultural message tends to value women staying at home with the kids.
  • We suffer from near-total lack of exposure to breastfeeding as a concept or a reality. That store employee who gives a woman shade for nursing in the shop? I can almost guarantee you he or she did not grow up seeing babies being breastfed. We have all been raised with far more messages telling us that breasts are only sexual, and only for consumption by adults.
  • We face discomfort with, and attempts to control, our bodies and how we use them. It's a impossible-to-please mix of “You MUST breastfeed to be a good mother," and “Don't you DARE 'whip out your boobs' in public" or take time from work to remove a liquid from your body.
  • New moms are sensitive people. That's not a criticism, it's a reality. We are trying so hard to be good at a thing we have no experience with, and many of us don't have traditional support systems gathered around us. Our bodies and minds are ravaged from pregnancy, childbirth, and crazy waves of hormones. When we see someone celebrating "1 year without a drop of formula! #EBF #blessed #proudmama," many of us read this as "I am better than you, because you didn't try hard enough," even when that is not the intention of the statement. Marathon finishers aren't actually saying "half-marathoners should have tried harder."
  • Actual bullies. There are women—a tiny, but loud, minority—who somehow are not completely exhausted by mothering their own children, and have energy left over to peek over the fence and pass judgment on how their neighbors (virtual or real) are doing the job. Heard or seen any of these? "My sister-in-law formula feeds. She didn't even TRY to breastfeed! Might as well be giving her baby a can of Coke every day." "My friend is still breastfeeding her three-year-old. Obviously it's not for the kid; she must be desperate for love and attention to be doing that." Even though they're from a very few people, these comments will burrow deeper and feel more true than a million times hearing, “You're doing a great job, mama."

Put all this tinder together, and then strike the social media match.

GG: There are lots of great resources out there already for moms who want to breastfeed and pump. Why did you decide there was a need for this book?

JS: When my son was born, I was the first new mother at the company I worked for at the time, TOMS Shoes. It was an awesome place, but I didn't have any new-working-mom mentors. What I did have was a huge stack of books on every second of pregnancy, childbirth, and early childhood development. But when facing down how to talk to my boss about my breasts, how to get through airport security with a breast pump and frozen milk, how to pump in the bathroom in a rural airport in Nepal (I had a crazy job), or even what to wear to work every day, I couldn't find the super-practical, no-judgment survival guide I needed. This work-and-breastfeeding thing caused me huge anxiety. The more women I talked to, the more I realized that this is the case for virtually all women who plan to breastfeed after returning to work. Why make us each learn from scratch, when we can collect our wisdom, war stories, and hilarity, so no one has to go it alone again?

GG: What advice do you have for women who work somewhere where they are not supported in their effort to pump milk during their workday?

JS: Allow yourself to be realistic. Being a new mother means being more financially vulnerable than ever before, because you now have a whole, helpless person to support. You probably can't afford to just quit your job, let alone to hire an employment lawyer to fight a discrimination battle when you're 12 weeks postpartum. (That's not to say you shouldn’t do that—by all means, if you've got it in you, fight the fight, sister! Just saying that it's not feasible for many new moms.) So if the job you need doesn't allow for you to pump much, or at all, during the day...be kind to yourself. The world is not set up to make this easy or even possible for many working mothers. You can still try breastfeeding when you're with your baby, and supplementing while you're away. Or bring a little single, manual pump with you and get as many quick pumping sessions in as you can, to keep up a little more supply, produce a little milk, and keep engorgement at bay. You can also pump on the commute to and from work—just be sure to set everything up before you start driving, and pull over if you need to mess with anything. Use a nursing cover and a battery pack or car adapter to run the pump.

If you want to take on the challenge of changing your workplace, try education first. Figure out a plan for exactly how, when, and where you'd pump, solve every problem you can think of (stuff like "we'd need to put a lock on the closet door, and I've costed that out at $50 and can install it myself"), and present it in the spirit of helpfulness. If you're ready to go warrior mode, you can file a complaint with the Department of Labor if you're a federal employee or or if you are "non-exempt" (meaning your income is structured so that you qualify for overtime pay). If your state has specific laws to protect your right to pump at work, you'll have to do a little research to figure out how to file a complaint.

GG: One of my big fears when I returned to work was that I wasn't going to be able to produce enough milk by pumping throughout the day. How common is this fear, and what do you tell women who are worried about this?

JS: This, and the related concern of finding the time and space to pump, is one of the top concerns of working mothers. New moms are already so freaked out about supply—I think some of this is due to the flourishing of supply-boosting products, which send us not-so-subtle messages that we shouldn't trust our bodies to make enough milk.

In general, my first response to all of these anxieties is to ask women to be kind to themselves—as kind as they would to a friend or sister. It is really, really hard to pump at work—and not just because at some point Tim from Accounts Payable will ask you why the front of your shirt is wet. Working women tend to fall short of their own breastfeeding goals more than stay-at-home moms. Some women's bodies don't respond to the pump in the same way as they do to a baby—that's because babies suck and compress, and most pumps just suck (kind of literally and figuratively). For many working moms, this can mean an eventual move to combo-feeding (some breastmilk and some formula). Some breastfeeding advocates don't like to tell women that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Most women can maintain a supply by nursing at home with the baby, and either sneaking in one pumping session per workday, or none at all. Some breastmilk is great, and for some women, combo feeding can take a lot of the anxiety off and therefore actually extend the breastfeeding relationship!

But there are some actual tricks that can help with supply issues:

  • Learn breast massage, also known as “hands-on pumping". You're basically going to go to second base with yourself every time you pump. This can help replicate the missing compression element, and can really make a difference.
  • Pumpin' Pal flanges. They are compatible with most pumps, and they're game-changing. Seriously.
  • Become a pump mechanic. Find a maternity store that sells your brand and bring it in for a test to make sure it's performing up to par. Make sure those little teeny membranes are always in good working order. Try different flange sizes—if your nipple is rubbing alongside the tube part as it's being sucked in, your flanges might be too small.
  • Snip off a small section of the ends of your tubes
  • Keep a single hand pump at work and sneak in shorter pumping sessions when you have a busy day.
  • If you have time, add a pumping session at night while your baby is asleep, or in the morning right after the first feeding.
  • Communicate constantly with your caregiver about feeding. It can be easier to overfeed a baby from a bottle than from the breast, so you might be producing enough, but your baby is overconsuming. You NEVER want to deprive your baby, of course, but it's worth looking into "paced bottle feeding" and talking to your pediatrician about how much breastmilk your baby should be given per feeding.

GG: What's the most memorable pumping story you heard while doing your research for the book?

JS: From a hilarity perspective, it has to be the non-profit professional who was going to a conference for the day. She called ahead and made a friend on staff at the venue who said he'd show her to an appropriate room to pump. When she got there, of course, that person was nowhere to be found. She was taken to a four-glass-walls conference room facing the street, which she declined. She was then offered a locker room which "doesn't lock but no one ever comes in here." She sat down on the bench, got all exposed and hooked up, and started pumping. It was at that moment that all of the actual Harlem Globetrotters walked in.

The most difficult story I heard came to me after I put the manuscript to bed. I talked with a waitress who gave me a huge reality check. She told me that even if she were protected by law to pump (which she is), and even if she did have a supportive manager (she didn't), and even if there were a non-bathroom place to pump (there wasn't), she couldn't pump anyway. Taking time to pump means losing tables and therefore tips, and as a new mom on a waitress' income, she just couldn't do it. This story haunts me every day. No matter how great corporate maternity leave and pumping policies get, the women who need the most help will continue to get nothing until we have national paid maternity leave. For God's sake, the only countries on the whole planet that do not offer any universal paid maternity leave are us, Oman, and Papua New Guinea.

GG: Like all good things, pumping must come to an end. How do breastfeeding and pumping moms know when it's time to say, "Enough"?

JS: One of the women I interviewed put it best: "I knew when I had pushed myself as far as I could go, and I weighed my options with the big picture of my own emotional and physical health in mind."

GG: You had to pump for two kids without this manual. How did you figure out how to navigate the challenges on your own?

JS: Text messaging. Seriously: I just burned up my phone texting friends who had done this before me. And I said goodbye to my modesty (not hard after you've just given birth, with people all up in your lady business anyway). My job was such that I sometimes had to pump in front of co-workers, or directly ask them to leave the room (or car) so I could pump in privacy. Having enormous, painful boobs that are threatening to leak and/or give you mastitis forces a bit of fearlessness out of you. Also, I had a lot of anxiety at all of the unknowns of pumping and working. That was a huge driver for me to write the book, which I call my love letter to working moms.

GG: As a working mother, you must be stretched for time. How did you create the research and writing time for yourself around your other professional and personal commitments?

JS: Well, it took me five years to research and write a 200-page-book, so that's the first answer. I used a lot of the kids' naptimes on the weekends, and evenings while the kids were asleep. The hundreds of women I interviewed were amazing—many did it virtually, and wrote a lot about their experiences, so I had a lot of raw material. And I left TOMS in Spring 2014 and took three months off to just focus on finishing the book out, which was essential, I think, to really get my head around it.

GG: What's the one thing you want every mother facing pumping at work to know?

JS: Can I have two?

  1. We are with you. You might not see us, but there are millions of us who have done or are doing what you're doing. We are with you when it works, and you're proud, and we're with you when you feel like you're failing. We have dried breastmilk on our work clothes, too. We're exhausted, too. We've pumped in a public bathroom, too. We want you to know we think you are a badass, no matter how this turns out.
  2. Your worth as a mother is not measured in ounces. Breastmilk and breastfeeding are awesome. But they do not define—not even a little bit—how good of a mother you are. Don't let anyone (especially YOU) tell you any different.

Work, Pump, Repeat is available for pre-order and will be released on September 8. You can find Jessica Shortall on Twitter or Facebook.

Genie blogs about gardening and food at The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories.

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