August is National Breastfeeding Month, and while a lot of focus and attention will rightly be on the act of breastfeeding, for many women — especially those who return to work — pumping breast milk is just as crucial for the nursing relationship. But when it comes to pumping at work, not every place is supportive, regardless of legislation that promotes and protects pumping at work.
While some companies go to great lengths to support new moms who return to work and want to continue feeding their infants breast milk, others, like a McDonald’s in Nebraska, have forced employees to use dirty, public restrooms to pump. SheKnows reached out to a handful of mothers to hear more about their experience with pumping at work. We were curious how many of them felt supported or accommodated by their places of employment.
“When I was working at the ACLU I once arrived totally sleep-deprived, got my coffee, sat down at my computer, hooked up the horns and fired up the pump. I’m typing away when I hear and feel this little ‘splish, splish.’ I hadn’t attached the bottles, so I was pumping right into my lap! I had to walk around with big grease stains on my pants all day. Also, during the ACLU membership conference in 2008, the convention center staff blinked at me when I asked about a space to pump. I wound up in a corner of this huge empty conference room with no locking doors, just pumping and praying.” (Rachel, non-profit communication specialist and mother of two)
“I teach at an independent school, and while there is no official space for pumping, I have a small windowless office with a door that locks. All I had to do was find the time in my schedule and put up a “do not disturb” sign. With baby No. 1, I did once have someone incessantly knock despite the sign. So, I had to stop pumping to answer the door and I clumsily spilled my milk, which is always the saddest. With baby No. 2, I made a bigger sign and included a picture of a baby and a bottle on my sign and told everyone who might have a key that I planned to pump and I never had an issue. I will say that I tried to schedule my pumping during times that would not inconvenience others, but generally colleagues understood if I had to arrive late to a meeting. By baby number No. 2, I did learn that I needed to make it a priority and advocate for myself when I needed time rather than worrying about the work.” (Rachel, teacher and mother of two)
“I went back to work when my daughter, now 12, was 3 months old. When I went back I had my own office, so pumping was relatively easy. I made a privacy sign and did my thing. I started a new job about three months later and that was more complex to manage. For one, my office was also where the shared printer was, so I had co-workers who would sometimes knock to see if they could get their print job. It was also a very fast-paced job, so the pressure to keep up didn’t help with my milk production.” (Veronica, educator and mother of one)
“I pumped for about a year after returning to work. My supervisors and co-workers were very supportive. I had a private office to pump in and easy access to refrigeration for milk storage. I arranged my schedule as needed to allow for pumping time. Part of my job included driving to remote offices, and I even managed to pump in my work vehicle on country back roads (have Medela, will travel). I don’t know if I would have been able to pump for a full year for each kiddo, had they not made it so easy.” (Cami, mental health clinician and mother of four)
“The first time, I felt very supported. My boss moved offices so I could have a more private office, no one ever questioned my need to pump, even three times a day over six hours. I pumped for nine months.
With my second son, I was the interim CEO of the company, and ironically being my own boss made it way harder. We were in the middle of merger talks and while some people were great, I could not stop a three-hour meeting with 10 other people to pump. I felt rushed to get back to the meetings and wasn’t really pumping as much as I needed to. I quit pumping after three months with my second son.
I was too hard on myself, as many young mothers are. Having colleagues that not only understand your need, but will adjust their schedule or encourage you as a pumping mother is crucial. And those allies may surprise you.” (Meredith, director of content and engagement and mother of 2)
“I know my nursing/work experience was a little bit different from most breastfeeding working moms as I got to take Kason to work with me for the first eight months of his life. Working in the retail field, I was very lucky to also have a very compassionate boss as well as customers who were always understanding and amazed that I could work and nurse at the same time. I will say the most challenging part of being a working breastfeeding mom was the fact that once Kason was too old to come to work with me I tried to pump. It was something that I wouldn’t do in front of anyone as it was very uncomfortable and mentally just felt degrading. The downside to working in a retail space when pumping is the fact that the only option for pumping was to close the store and sit on the floor behind the counter unless I wanted to pump in the bathroom. Overall, I would say that I had a great workplace experience while nursing, but it helped by being in a community that fully supported breastfeeding and having a boss that put my child’s well-being before the bottom line. Not everyone is that lucky.” (Jen, manager and mother of one)
“When my son was born I was working as an associate in a private law firm in Minneapolis. I was a litigator, and the hours were long, the work demanding and the pressure relentless. When I first started just over 10 years ago, the firm did not have in place a maternity leave policy, let alone a policy for accommodating breastfeeding mothers and pumping at work. When I announced my pregnancy, and as it was closer for me to take my leave, I was given many subtle, and not-so-subtle, hints that pumping at the office would be a challenge. How would I manage when I was in a day-long deposition? Where could I store the breast milk other than the staff fridge so as to not gross out all the male attorneys? How long did I think I would be breastfeeding for anyways?
The emotional difficulty of going back to work was exacerbated by the lack of structural support around breastfeeding. The only room available to pump in was the client room, a phone booth sized office with a small desk, outlet and phone. And because I was in private practice, my time at work was measured in billable hours — 15 minute increments of time that accounted for every moment of my life as an attorney. Unless I was working while I was pumping, there was no way for me to bill that time, which meant I effectively had to work longer hours to make up for the non-billable time spent pumping.
I struggled through a year of breastfeeding and pumping. I quit private practice two years later.” (Jessica, senior legal analyst and mother of two)