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.

* * *

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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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Holly

It has been 2 years since I breast fed or pumped, but your detailed description of pumping at work brings it all back. I was fortunate in having my own office and also working in a building with a lawful and appropriate space for pumping, but the rinsing of the bottles in the kitchen and all the time involved was such a hassle and so awkward. Fortunately, the environment was supportive enough that I was able to continue to breast feed my children long enough for them to reap the well-documented benefits, but so many of the women I know just gave up. Which makes perfect sense, but really, as you say, sucks!
Maternity leave is over in a blink of an eye. You are just beginning to get the whole motherhood thing down and then you have to add separation and working all day – after three months if you’re lucky! Breast feeding is the one thing we can do that the nanny or preschool cannot. It is such an easy way to foster and maintain the lovely maternal-child bond. The more the work-place supports breast feeding the happier and more productive we mothers can be!

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Jennifer C.

I went a bit nuts with the whole breast feeding – new mother – letting it all hang out thing when my first was born. At the time I was the business manager for a small, radical feminist organization. All female employees. I was sooo blasé about it that I just pumped at my desk — which was in a big open room with all of us working. Once at a staff meeting around the giant conference table I pumped away while discussions went on (no one _seemed_ offended … but I was not so great at picking up social cues at the time). But the UPS guy certainly bugged out his eyes when he popped in to deliver a package.

I was a bit more demure when I had #2 baby and pumped in the discrete conference rooms of government. Nothing like the power of anti-depressants!

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Mom2GCNJ

I have breastfed for over 4 years now (three different children – still going strong with the youngest.) I have been fortunate to only have had to pump a handful of times. With my oldest child I was a single mom and ran a licensed family daycare from my home. I lived in a low income area and marketed my daycare as “breastfeeding friendly”. That meant I wasn’t grossed out by handling another woman’s breast milk. It is kind of shocking how many daycares in my area simply refuse to do it – or even charge more because of the “inconvenience”. I stored milk for my clients so they wouldn’t have to bring it home and then back to me the next day and I encouraged moms to come and nurse their babies on their lunch breaks if they could. Small favors I know – but I did what I could.

My experience gave me a little glimpse into how incredibly hard it is for moms to nurse to a year while working full-time. Most of my clients were low income and worked in retail or food service jobs. Often their ONLY option was to pump in the bathroom – and feel lucky they were given the time even to do that. What a sad state of affairs…. I have great admiration for all moms who can make it work under such difficult circumstances. We all deserve better – paid maternity leave for a year would be a nice place to start.

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Kerry Bubb

I remember one day in grad school, rinsing out my milking gear in the bathroom when a gruff childless professor came out of the stalls and gave me her classic gruff look, then walked out. A few minutes later, she came back in and said, in the same gruff tone, “If you ever need a place to pump, I have an open room next to my office.” I now love her. :-)

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Leanne

One upside to pumping … I didn’t breastfeed/pump, but my wife did, and when she stopped pumping at work (in a conference room) she said she missed the time to sit in a quiet private locked room and read a magazine or book while she pumped because at no other time in her workday has she ever had time to just sit and read for 20 minutes. The downside is that the cleaning staff once removed her jar of breastmilk from the fridge and dumped it (so she started keeping it with icepacks in a cooler instead of the common fridge)

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rebecca

What a coincidence….I’m reading this as I pump. I pumped for almost 2 yrs w/my son (milk allergies!) and am into month #6 w/my daughter (more milk allergies). It’s a oain in the butt but makes me feel like I am contributing, in some way, to her care while I’m at work. I don’t feel like I have a choice….milk and formula are not options. I have pumped in bathrooms, storage rooms, cubicles w/a curtain, my car, public bathrooms— you name it. Next week I start yet another new job and have been greeted fairly blankly w/my request for a private pumping place. Looks like I’ll be in the storage room again.

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Katrina

Be proud! You are a working mom hero. And the one-handed typing is impressive. ;) Maybe I should do a post about all the weird places people have pumped out of necessity. I bet cars would be a common one.

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sonya

I can’t read a blog about pumping without thinking of Jill Lepore’s fantastic NewYorker piece from last year: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/01/19/090119fa_fact_lepore

She asks whether our family leave policies would be different if we didn’t have access to fancy, high-tech pumps. I dug it, but most of my working mama friends didn’t. Either way it is a thought-provoking read next time you are hunkered down with your friend Medela.

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Katrina

I love Jill Lepore, but I remember reading this piece with mixed feelings. For me, being able to pump breast milk was, in many ways, liberating, even if it’s wasn’t exactly fun. It made it possible to feed my child and also do other things–like work, or go out for a date night with my husband, or whatever. That said, more maternity leave would have been great, too.

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Dolly

Yeah,cause giving your baby formula would just be like giving him poison. Seriously, the health benefits are not there, you’re wasting your time and probably irritating your co-workers who are too nice/afraid to say anything.

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Erin

There are health benefits to breastfeeding in addition to saving money by not having to buy formula. Formula isn’t poison but there are advantages to breastmilk.
http://www.aap.org/breastfeeding/policyOnBreastfeedingAndUseOfHumanMilk.html

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Betsey

Are you for real? Nobody said formula was poison. But yes, there are many benefits to be had from breastmilk. Maybe the families cannot afford to buy formula. Why have breasts in the first place if it’s pointless to breastfeed because we can just buy formula? I supplement with formula, but I also wouldn’t trade nursing my son for anything, I love the bond and knowing that I am sustaining him with my own body.

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Erin

I pump at work but am lucky to have a really supportive work enviorment to do that. I hate it though because its a pain to have to drop everything and go pump and constantly be imposing on others (although everyone is really supportive) to cover for me while I pump. I’m just glad that I can get away with just pumping twice a day. Anyways I just wanted to say that one of the most amazing things to have is a hands free pumping band.

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Dana

I pumped for years and years it seems (I’m a lawyer with five kids, all bf’ed into their toddler years), and this brought it all back for me, too. One pointer I’ll share that saved me lots of time: I stopped washing the bottles and parts after each pumping. Rather, I’d put the whole kit and kaboodle into a thermos-bag and into the fridge, and only do a real wash up at the end of the day (or at home, but I generally left the parts in my office).

(I read a study that said that bacteria actually reduce in breastmilk the first x hours, so I felt safe that if the parts stayed cold nothing gross would develop.)

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Dana

As I read my comment I remembered that, by the time I got to kids 4 and 5, I didn’t even put everything in the fridge. I pumped in my (private) office, and just left the milk, bottles, parts in the thermos section of the pump bag, with blue ice packs to keep it relatively cool. Just basically didn’t fret too much about the milk (in the bottle or on the parts) being near room temperature until I got home — since my understanding was (still is) that breastmilk is fine for up to 24 hours at room temperature, I figured 8-10 hours would be ok.

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