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If “Breast Is Best” Why Do Our Jobs Make It So Hard to Do So?

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Last month, Pacific Standard released “The Unforeseen Complications of Pumping Breast Milk ” and because I’m a glutton for mom-guilt punishment, I clicked over and read it.

The gist of the piece went like this: Pumping is not 100% equal to actually breastfeeding your baby so we need to stop treating it as such.

OK, so let’s pause here and take a deep breath, because I’m sure your initial reaction will be similar to mine, which was, are you freaking kidding me? Like moms don’t have enough to feel badly about, now we have to guilt them for pumping at work?!

But when I took a step back from the piece and really thought about it, I realized that in a lot of ways, the author made some really great points. Like when she quoted Virginia Thorley, a lactation consultant and honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia as saying, “The underlying message [with pumping at work] is that milk expressing is incidental to her real work and her real life, as an employee. The elephant in the room is the deplorable lack of paid maternity leave. I believe improving work conditions should be a high priority — not making fancier pumps.”

I will freely admit that I despise/loath/dread pumping. I hate it so much, in fact, that my current almost four-month old baby has never taken a bottle, nor I doubt, will she ever because I hate pumping so much. Although I work full-time hours, I do so from home, which allows me enough time to feed her myself, so it’s not usually a big issue. Logically, I know I should get her on a bottle, just in case, but I haven’t been successful yet — every time I vow to pump, it just seems infinitely easier to feed her myself in that moment.

History is repeating itself a bit for me, though. This time two years ago with my last baby, I was working as a relief OB nurse and once again, because I vastly preferred breastfeeding to pumping, I worked shorter shifts and often had my mother or husband bring the baby up to me if he refused his bottle so I could nurse him on my breaks. One particularly harried shift, however, I was “mandated” to stay for a sixteen-hour shift — in nursing speak, that means I was told that even though I had only signed up for an eight-hour work shift, I legally couldn’t leave the hospital because we were so short-staffed. I could be charged with “abandonment,” a literal crime if I refused — even though my baby wouldn’t take a bottle and I didn’t even have my pump with me.

My mom tried her hardest to feed him at home with pumped milk, but he was older and wiser — no substitutions, please. She called me several times, in a panic, and I was in tears hearing my baby scream for me on the other end. I was having a hard time focusing on work myself with my boobs about to burst off my chest, but because I was assigned to nursery care with a very sick newborn, I couldn’t even take a break to feed him.

Finally, my manager threw up her hands and told me to have my mom bring the baby up to me — I couldn’t even step out of the nursery, but my mom handed the baby to me and I held him in one arm to nurse him while I ran IV medications to the baby I was caring for with the other.

At the time, I was grateful to just have the chance to feed my baby at work without going to jail, but looking back — that was insane.

I’m not saying that women need to feel guilty for the way they choose to feed their babies, I am saying that they shouldn’t feel guilty for feeding their babies. (I can almost guarantee that there will be some negative comments on this post along the lines of, “Well, that’s what you get for not making sure your baby could take a bottle!” but that’s not really supporting each other is it?) My choice to want to exclusively breastfeed my babies is just as valid as a mother who wishes to exclusively formula feed, but the uncomfortable truth is that the two are not remotely equal in the workplace. Are ideas like on-site day care, extended maternity leave, or flexible work schedules for a duration of time that is but blip in a woman’s work life really that far-fetched when we are talking about the health and potential of future generations?

The truth is, there are probably some yet-to-be discovered scientific benefits to the actual skin-to-skin contact of breastfeeding a baby that pumping just can’t replace. The article pointed out, for instance, that breast milk changes in composition sometimes as much as hourly in response to our baby’s cues, or that pumping in short durations may only produce foremilk and not the really nice, fatty milk at the end of a feeding.

It’s unrealistic to expect that in every situation, every mother will even want or be able to successfully feed her baby at the breast at all times, but it’s also unrealistic for every parental governing agency in America to recommend breast as best and expect working mothers to figure out how to make that work all on their own through tears, desperation, and maybe even a little law-breaking.

Image via j&j brusie photography

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