Three times a day, like clockwork, I walk down a flight of stairs at work and use a key card to access a locked room. Once inside, I sit topless while hooked up to a machine in order to pump breast milk for my 3-month-old daughter. It’s a surreal, tedious, and boring experience that can feel overwhelmingly stressful and satisfying all at once.
But let me back up for a second, because my day of pumping really starts at home, around 4 in the morning. That’s when I pry my eyes awake, pour myself a strong cup of coffee, and pump out two 4 oz. bottles. No matter how exhausted and behind on basic things I am — like remembering to eat or brush my hair (hey, it happens) — I must be on point when it comes to pumping.
I’m lucky, though, because I work in at a company that has made a commitment to support mothers and fathers in a number of ways, including allowing me to pump when I need to, in a clean, safe, and private space. But not all women are as lucky.
Employers are obligated by law to provide a space for women to pump, but those spaces aren’t always clean or safe or private. In a recent article in the Washington Post, dozens of women shared their less-than-stellar experiences of pumping at work — and it was pretty eye-opening. While some of the stories were funny, others were downright sad.
Even WaPo editor Amy Joyce, who worked on the piece, shared that she had her own “crazy experiences” while trying to pump at work — even though she says she had a very understanding boss.
I too have a very understanding boss, but no matter how understanding and flexible he is, the amount of energy it takes to create breast milk, pump it out, keep it sanitary until it gets home to my freezer, and not feel crazy from all the logistics and hauling of equipment is huge.
“When we ran our first piece about pumping at work, the reaction to it was swift and strong,” Joyce tells Babble. “We had almost 200 women write to us about their experiences. Talking to dozens of them, it was a combination of exciting, depressing, enlightening and, frankly, empowering. For every obstacle thrown in the way of women returning to work, this is just another one they figure out and get on with.”
For me, like many other moms, pumping is an emotional experience. My hormones are still in flux (my hair is literally falling out), and every time I hear a baby cry — even if it’s not my own — I spring a leak. (One time it even happened in the middle of a grocery store, as the baby on the checkout line in front of me began to wail.)
Sometimes, it can feel like my entire day is lost to pumping, and I worry that I’ll be seen as unproductive both at work and at home; but what else am I going to do? The work of having children, and trying to keep up with pumping or nursing for that matter, can be difficult and exhausting.
“It should be simpler than it is, but it’s not,” Joyce points out. “And the thing that kept coming back at me was this: Women are incredibly strong. They work hard, they take care of their families, their bodies feed other beings, and they walk right back into the workplace.”
My friends ask me how long I can keep this up, and the truth is I don’t know the answer to that. I nursed my second child for 2½ years, but I was also a stay-at-home-mom back then, with the privilege of never having to worry about safety or privacy issues over my milk supply. I would just whip out a boob and that was that.
Pumping at work can sometimes make me feel just as exposed as I am when I have to nurse in public. But while I’m lucky to work with decent people who wouldn’t dare make crude or derogatory comments about my need to pump, other moms go through literal hell in order to express milk for their babies.
“Some were discouraged from pumping, others were made to feel like it was an undue burden on their workplace,” says Joyce of the women she interviewed. “But others, thank goodness, are reporting that they’re seeing a shift of understanding. More flexibility, more acknowledgment that they can work and be mothers at the same time. Here’s hoping.”
As far as we’ve come, it seems we still have a long way to go before American culture can wrap its kaleidoscopic mind around something as simple and natural as breastfeeding. Getting to that place of acceptance will mean more moms speaking out about their experiences both good and bad. My workplace “milk bar” (as I like to call it) might be tiny and cold and lack a sink, but it’s lightyears ahead of what some other women out there have. I can only hope that other workplaces are taking a cue from my office, and others like it, when it comes to how we should be thinking about ways to better support working moms. But of course, time will tell.