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For Teachers, Pumping on the Job Is Nearly Impossible — and That Needs to Change

breast pump
Image source: Thinkstock

This fall, as we usher our children out the door to school, their teachers — many of whom are mothers themselves — will be saying their own goodbyes to their children. For the teacher-moms out there who have young, breastfeeding babies, this goodbye will be met with some challenges. Because as it turns out, the teaching profession doesn’t always accommodate the needs of pumping mothers as much as they could be.

In a recent editorial, Education Week explains why the teaching profession is a particularly difficult one to be in if you are a breastfeeding mom:

“In a profession where people say they rarely have time to step out to use the restroom, taking 20-minute breaks every few hours — which experts say is critical to maintaining a breast-milk supply — can seem all but impossible.”

Among the hurdles that teacher-moms face, finding enough time to pump, finding private, comfortable spaces to do so, and feeling supported in their endeavors remain the most challenging. And while there are both federal and state laws in place that protect a breastfeeding mom’s right to sufficient time and adequate accommodations to pump, these are not always enforced in school, often because they are not feasible within the confines of a rigid school schedule with limited space availability.

And yet, as Education Week points out, the teaching profession is 77 percent female, with the majority of women within their childbearing years. So this is an issue that many teachers grapple with on a daily basis. Babble recently caught up with a few teacher-moms to hear their stories of struggle (and triumph) when it came to pumping for their babies on the job.

Victoria, who teaches in the East Village of New York City, tells Babble that although her school was supportive in a general sense, the reality was that pumping felt “really, really hard” at times. “There were no resources or time provided for it, so I struggled with the guilt of leaving the class with an assistant or another teacher,” she explains, adding that she had to buy a screen from Ikea to set up a private space to pump in a corner of her classroom.

“I didn’t respond well to the pump. I always felt rushed and like I could never really relax.”
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Other teachers tell Babble that their accommodations were even less private and comfortable than Victoria’s. A New York City-based elementary school teacher who wished to remain anonymous shared a picture of the storage closet she was forced to pump in.

storage closet
Image source: Anonymous

“It was tough and I was told to just move the storage in and out when I wanted to pump,” she explained. “The room was windowless and did not have a lock on the door. I often was walked in on (despite placing signs on the door).” She eventually got to the point that she had to buy car chargers for her pump and pump in her car.

Of course, these horror stories are not the only side to this issue. Babble spoke with several teachers who had a much easier time making pumping work. Many recounted stories of highly supportive administrators and fellow teachers, many of whom were also pumping at the same time. Forming a kind of “sisterhood of pumpers” together, they even took turns covering each other’s classes when one needed to pump.

“All my colleagues and my administration have been very supportive,” says Dawn, a teacher in Great Neck, New York, “I’ll go to pump during meetings if need be with a cover on.”

Amy, a teacher from Wisconsin, who has pumped for all five of her children, says that although pumping at work was definitely a challenge, she found the support of other teachers to be key to her success. “Teacher-moms really pulled together to help each person pump as long as they were able to after having babies, because the school schedule leaves us little time to even use the bathroom, much less have enough time to pump,” she tells Babble. Still, Amy shares that more than one teacher at her school ended up quitting over how difficult pumping became.

In order to maintain an adequate milk supply, experts recommend pumping every 2-3 hours, and for at least 20 minutes a time per session. And since all mothers respond to pumping differently, some need lengthier or more frequent sessions than that. Many mothers shared that their school schedule could not meet their pumping needs, and it was a painful struggle to pump enough milk for their babies.

“I didn’t respond well to the pump,” says Becky, who works in Farmingdale, New York. “I always felt rushed and like I could never really relax,” she says. Lactation experts explain that milk supply can definitely be affected by stress levels, because the hormone that releases breast milk, oxytocin, can be inhibited if a mother is stressed out while nursing or pumping.

“I had to fight for every [pumping] session, practically walking out of my classroom without permission in order to do so.”
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When discussing her experience, Becky says that she believes the stress of pumping at her school had an impact on her supply. Still, she didn’t give up, and was able to just squeak by. “I never had to give formula,” she proudly tells Babble, “I literally pumped to the exact ounce she needed.”

Marny, a teacher from North Carolina, has a different story to tell. She says that she returned to work after a 3-month maternity leave only to find that her administration wasn’t understanding of her pumping needs at all, even though she had discussed what she would need prior to going out on leave.

“My principal originally told me to use the supply closet in the gym, which was not air conditioned, nor heated (this was February through April),” Marny tells Babble. “When that became unbearable, I insisted on being allowed to use the staff bathroom. It was a large, single bathroom, where there was enough room for me to bring in my wheelie chair from my classroom. I needed to pump three times a day, and I had to fight for every session, practically walking out of my classroom without permission in order to do so.”

Marny says that the principal never worked with her. Her milk supply took a hit, and she eventually quit her job to become a stay-at-home mom.

Of course, not all mothers have the ability to leave their jobs, nor should moms have to make that kind of choice just because their school can’t or won’t accommodate their pumping needs. And yet, although there are certainly exceptions. Nearly all of the teacher-moms we spoke to described at least some stressful roadblocks they encountered during the months they pumped for their babies.

When Amy, teacher-mom of five, reflects on her years of pumping for her children, she does so with a sense of pride for having pushed past all the hurdles to provide for her babies the best she could. Yet, she still wishes things were different. “Now that you’ve got me thinking about this, my hope is that the world is better for my daughters,” she shares.

Here’s hoping that will be the case for Amy’s daughters, as well as the next generation of teachers to come. And to all of the marvelous teachers out there who care for our children while gracefully balancing teaching with mothering, thank you for all that you do each and every day.

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