This sucks (Part I.)

by Katrina on June 21, 2010

This is the first of a series of posts about working moms and breastfeeding.

I went back to work when my son was four months old and still living exclusively on a diet of breast milk. So approximately every three hours I dropped what I was doing and ducked into Conference Room B. All four of the small conference rooms in our office had clear glass walls, but the HR director and I had carefully covered the glass in Room B from floor to ceiling in dark red paisley tablecloths, secured with lots of thick packing tape. Our office manager had thoughtfully sent an email around the office reminding people not to book that room: “Remember ‘B’ is for Baby!”

Once inside, I always locked the door.

What I did next is something I have never heard another working mom say she enjoyed.

First I took off my shirt because I didn’t want it to get wet. Then I unsnapped my nursing bra, removed the pads, and set them face up on the conference table. I unpacked my ‘Medela Pump In Style,’ a breast pump cleverly disguised to look like a stylish backpack, one that might contain important legal briefs or confidential sales projections. I plugged it in. I assembled bottles and tiny plastic hoses quickly, then carefully positioned the suction cups.

When I turned the power dial, the pump began to wheeze and groan rhythmically. I often wondered if people could hear it in the adjacent conference rooms. The walls between them were paper-thin, but I didn’t care. I was just thankful that the lock on the door was secure.

Within a few seconds, milk began to drip, then trickle into the bottles. It would have been nice to relax into an oxytocin-induced meditative state, to enjoy pumping the way other people enjoy cigarette breaks.

But most of the time I had work to do. I learned early on to pin the suction cups in place with my right arm, leaving my left hand free (I’m left-handed) to page through whatever document I was reading and write comments in the margins.

After about ten minutes the bottles were two-thirds full. I snapped the pump off. It was suddenly very quiet while I patted my breasts dry with a paper towel and got dressed.

Then to the employee kitchen to wash everything and put away the milk.

We had one shared refrigerator in my office. I deliberately stored the bottles on the bottom shelf, against the side. Discreet, but not clandestine. I didn’t want to hide them behind people’s lunches. That would imply I was doing something shameful or perverse.

Occasionally a male employee would be fixing his coffee at the kitchen counter when I arrived to wash my pump parts. He usually left quickly—either out of embarrassment or a desire to give me some privacy. There was another sink available in the women’s bathroom which had two stalls, but it was small and cramped, there was no sponge or dish soap, and something about it seemed unsanitary to me, so I usually used the kitchen. Three hours later, I did it all again.

Even under the best of circumstances, pumping is time-consuming and inconvenient. I spent most of my job in back-to-back meetings—it was hard just to find time to use the bathroom or grab lunch. When I was breastfeeding, it seemed like I was constantly making apologies when I had to end a meeting early or start late. Luckily, most of my coworkers were very understanding.

But sometimes I would get tired of making apologies, or I would have attend a meeting at a client’s office, so instead of organizing my meetings around my every-three-hours pumping schedule, I’d pump around my meeting schedule. This strategy had big drawbacks—several months after I went back to work I developed mastitis, a painful infection that resulted from waiting too long to pump. I spent one miserable night alternately shivering with chills and sweating from fever before I went to the doctor and got antibiotics.

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Most of the women I know have made sacrifices to continue breastfeeding after they return to work. We do this despite the inconvenience and indignity of hooking ourselves up to a milking machine three times a day, because the health benefits for our babies and ourselves abound.

Many of our coworkers and employers, however, are still woefully ignorant about breastfeeding; without realizing it, they put us in situations that can be thoroughly humiliating.

In Part II. I’m going to tell you about what happened to my friend, Jackie. Go to Part II.

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