After a thorough review of the office landscape, Jackie mentioned to her boss that there was no convenient place to pump. She suggested the most reasonable solution she could think of—using her own cubicle.
Her boss’s response was surprising for a man in his 40s with a wife and young children at home.
“He said ‘Whoa! You can’t be doing that,’” Jackie recalled. “’Those people who sit around you don’t have kids. You’re going to freak them out!’…He didn’t offer to help or talk to HR with me or anything.”
Jackie went ahead with her plan anyway, and her boss never said anything. An awkward stalemate, to say the least.
She bought a large drape and tension rod on Craigslist and lugged them into to office, along with several other new furnishings.
When it was time to pump, Jackie rigged up her new curtain and pulled it tightly across the opening of her cubicle. Then she taped up a sign written in thick, black marker that said, ‘Please do not disturb. Privacy Please.’ She draped a blue fabric sarong from Bali over the top of the cubicle so people couldn’t peer down, then put on a Bebe au Lait nursing cover over her shirt. She turned on a portable fan she’d brought from home to disguise the moaning of the pump. She pulled her regular bra down around her waist, hooked on a hands-free pumping halter, wedged the plastic pump funnels in place, readjusted the nursing cover, and snapped on the machine.
“I could hear people walk by and say, ‘Where’s Jackie?’
“’I’m in here,’ I’d say. ‘I’m busy!’”
Now, I have to interject. As a mom who nursed two children for almost a year each, it never bothered me much when people saw me nursing my baby. When I was at the park or in a restaurant I found a way to hold my baby close to my chest so that little or none of my actual flesh was showing. I even breastfed my baby at work a couple times when I was just coming back from maternity leave—my boss at the time (another working mom, very pro-breastfeeding) encouraged this.
Luckily, I’m not especially modest. I decided that if someone was uncomfortable seeing me feed my baby, that was their problem. I told myself I was doing my part to educate them and make life a little less awkward for other breastfeeding moms who might cross their path in the future.
But the idea of someone seeing me pumping is horrifying. Something about the contraption, the bovine experience of being hooked up to a machine explicitly designed to pull the milk from one’s breasts—it is so particularly, uniquely undignified. A few times people did walk in on me when I was pumping in the bathroom at work, before I insisted on taking over the conference room. And once, a male (childless) coworker sent an email to the entire 40-person office complaining about the “bodily fluids” in the refrigerator. (Since no one was harboring a urine sample in the office fridge, it’s safe to assume he was complaining about the baby bottles of milk I’d stashed on a lower shelf.) Despite all my confidence about breastfeeding, I was mortified by the experience.
I think about Jackie, exhausted from nighttime feedings, hunched over her desk, arms wrapped around her chest to hold the nursing wrap in place, hoping no one would walk by, and I have a visceral reaction. I want to cross my own arms over my chest. Pumping without complete privacy is about as embarrassing as having to pee in the hallway. No one should ever have to do that.
Not surprisingly, Jackie gave up after four weeks.
“It was just too hard. I nursed at home in the evenings, but gave up pumping during the day. And then, of course, my milk supply went down and I had to stop. I felt so guilty about it.”
This all happened more than a year ago, but she still gets upset when she talks about it. Even over the phone I could hear the guilt and the anger in her voice. I suppose I was getting a little worked up myself.
“Did it occur to you while this was going on that you were working for a do-gooder organization?” I asked. “I mean, this isn’t BP. It’s a non-profit that’s all about enlightening the public.”
“I couldn’t think about it at the time,” she said. “I never really expected much from them. It was even worse for some of the other women.”
Several coworkers were walked in on repeatedly while pumping, and one coworker was told she had to pump in a room full of foul-smelling solvents. Another had to report to a male supervisor who was so uncomfortable with the physical aspect of her pregnancy that he told her not to discuss it at work.
“He basically wanted her to be a floating head with no body,” said Jackie.
Most of these women quit breastfeeding earlier than they had intended to—it was just too awkward to pump at work. But one woman, we’ll call her Sinead, managed to pump using the conference rooms and the telephone closet until her child was a year old.
I called Sinead and asked her how she managed to keep going for that long.
“I was just fiercely committed to it,” she said.
Sinead, like Jackie, had a baby with health issues. Her daughter was born very small and couldn’t suck hard enough to get milk. In order to make breastfeeding work, Sinead had to alternate feeding and pumping hourly, almost around the clock, for the first three months. She said she tried every alternative therapy possible to establish her milk supply, including acupuncture and massive doses of the herb fenugreek, which increases milk flow.
“One of the side effects of taking tons of fenugreek is that you smell like maple syrup. So for months I went around smelling like an IHOP,” Sinead said with a little laugh.
When Sinead’s daughter was five months old, it was time to go back to work. Like Jackie, Sinead discovered no one was going to make it easy. But by then she had worked so hard to be able to breastfeed despite her daughter’s health issues that she decided nothing was going to deter her.
“Basically you have to be willing to do this very private thing in a relatively public place,” Sinead said. “No one wants to be caught pumping. It’s incredibly unattractive. It’s not how you want people to see you.”
When she pumped, Sinead would sit with her back against the door, and try to put her mind elsewhere.
“They say to increase your milk supply, you should think about your baby,” Sinead said. “I used to imagine my daughter and I were in little boat that was floating in sea of milk. It was often a Hawaiian sea of milk.
“Sometimes I wonder if I had a comfortable space if my milk supply would have gone up. It’s a shame that it’s not a little easier for everybody.”
I asked Sinead how her daughter is doing now.
“She just had her third birthday,” she said brightly. “She’s caught up in size. She had all the benefits of breastfeeding. She’s just great!”
Jackie’s baby, now age two, is thriving as well. I suppose this story has a happy ending, except that nothing has changed at the progressive, family-friendly office.
A shorter version of this series appeared on the Huffington Post.
* * *
I’m working on a fact sheet that women like Jackie and Sinead can take to their employers describing what nursing moms need in the workplace. I’d love to get ideas from you.
What do you think employers ought to know? What should coworkers know? What do you wish you had known as a new mom before you went back to work?