This story at Lisa Belkin’s NYT Motherlode blog about a woman whose co-worker reported her for stashing her breast pump under her desk (in a nondescript black case) made my blood pressure spike up a few dozen points. In the mom’s words:
I share an office with someone who works from home many days a week. I have a pump in a black bag. I had the bag on the floor, but not fully under my desk, top part unzippered so that empty bottles were visible. This resulted in a complaint to HR by my office mate (with whom I have a superficially friendly relationship) that it made her uncomfortable. She wants to not have to see the black bag because it grosses her out.
Many of the comments to the piece could be summarized as “WTF?” and they seemed mostly supportive of the mom in question. One commenter did make this observation, though:
I completely support your right to do this. However, I also sympathize to some extent with people who don’t want to be reminded of bodily functions while in the workplace.
Hmm. The thing is, though, bodily functions are a part of life, and like it or not they are happening in the workplace. Many offices have public restrooms in which co-workers “do their business” side by side, divided by nothing more than a skimpy divider and a social contract that dictates we don’t lean over and say “So, everything coming out OK over there?” Tissues sitting on a desk are there to catch tears and mucus; perhaps Tums to calm acid reflux.
All together, people get drippy and leaky all over the workplace, and when you really think about it, breastmilk pumped under controlled conditions into a sterile, sealed container is pretty low on the gross-out scale.
I want to be clear that the mom in question wasn’t actually pumping in front of her co-worker, or wantonly baring her breasts, or even leaving full bottles or bags of milk out on her desk. No, her (female) co-worker was offended by the mere presence of a breast pump and a glimpse of a few (I assume empty) bottles. The very idea of pumping grossed her out so much that she went to HR to file a complaint.
Sorry, I’m just not buying that this is anything less than willful ignorance and knee-jerk hysteria on the part of somebody who can’t get over the idea that boobs equal sexual objects and that’s that. Thing is, breastfeeding isn’t about you, immature office-worker, and it isn’t about the mother, either: it’s about nourishing a baby. I suppose you could argue that this is merely a case of one grumpy jerk and doesn’t speak to a larger issue, except that HR felt compelled to speak to the pumping worker and now she no longer feels she can keep her pump under her desk. So obviously there is some widespread discomfort at play, here.
I understand we Americans come by this squeamishness about breasts and breastfeeding honestly, but when we get an uncomfortable feeling about something as normal as milk coming out of a breast, the grown-up thing to do is to realize the problem is us, not lactation itself, and deal with our feelings in a mature way. Somehow, running to HR to squeal and then asking a woman who’s doing nothing offensive to change doesn’t seem to be a good solution for improving the workplace, supporting working women or promoting health.
Have you encountered negative reactions to pumping milk at work or breastfeeding in public? How did you handle it?
*photo credit: Nerissa’s Ring