Breasts at work

How can mothers -- and companies -- make breast pumping on the job feasible?

Published August 22, 2007 7:05PM (EDT)

"The Milk Memos: How Real Moms Learned to Mix Business With Babies -- and How You Can, Too" is that rare book written expressly to be read in 15-minute snatches while pumping breast milk, holding your breast shields with one hand and turning the pages with the other.

The authors, Cate Colburn-Smith and Andrea Serrette, who work for IBM, got to know each other and other pumping moms through a notebook in their corporate lactation room, where they scribbled advice and encouragement back and forth while they expressed milk; those musings on working -- and pumping -- motherhood became the basis for "The Milk Memos."

Despite the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that babies should breast-feed for at least the first year of life, most mothers in the United States don't keep nursing their infants that long, and full-time working mothers are the least likely to do so. Broadsheet caught up with Colburn-Smith and Serrette via e-mail to find out how working moms can buck the odds, and how their companies and co-workers can help them do so:

We've all read that returning to work is a big barrier for moms who want to continue nursing. What exactly are the obstacles?

Yes, it's sad but true: Working is one of the top reasons moms stop breast-feeding -- primarily because most businesses don't provide the time, space and support moms need to pump at work. This presents a real dilemma for us working moms. It's not that we don't want to breast-feed our babies (working moms initiate breast-feeding at essentially the same rate as stay-at-home moms); it's that we don't have the infrastructure to support us.

Too often, moms returning to work have no clean, private place to express breast milk (only 23 percent of major employers offered lactation programs in 2006), no ability to take pumping "breaks" during the workday and insufficient support from supervisors or co-workers.

Imagine hoisting up your shirt while sitting at your desk in a "Dilbert"-like cubicle, and "discreetly" pumping breast milk as you hide behind a makeshift privacy curtain, or miraculously negotiating a 15-minute break from teaching, nursing or retail so that you can sit in a public restroom stall, on an open toilet seat, and pump breast milk for your faraway infant. Is it any wonder that more than 30 percent of new mothers give up breast-feeding less than seven weeks after returning to work?

Nursing is so intimate, but pumping at work is more public, since co-workers have at least a vague sense of what you're doing in the lactation room -- or the spare janitor's closet, as the case may be. What can co-workers do to be supportive without being intrusive? And how can new mothers get used to the public aspect of it?

Colleagues can be supportive simply by making an effort to be patient and understanding. Moms who return to paid work during the first months of their babies' lives are typically exhausted and in the midst of a major adjustment period. If you see a new mom at work with some spit-up on her shoulder and dark circles under her eyes, have compassion!

It's also helpful, of course, if companies -- and managers -- are open and honest with everyone on the team regarding to the lactation policy. That way, co-workers don't have to wonder why Cate has suddenly disappeared for 15 minutes in the middle of a mandatory meeting, or why she's carrying a mysterious, thick black briefcase with her everywhere she goes! Although discussing bodily fluids in the workplace can be awkward, it's best for moms and employers to be upfront.

We tell moms to prepare in advance for times when they will have to excuse themselves to pump when it's far from convenient. While the first inclination is probably to skip the pumping session or make a generic excuse ("I have to go take care of something"), sometimes that just doesn't cut it.

Skipping too many pumping sessions can compromise milk supply, and making vague excuses can lead to tension or downright nastiness from co-workers. In these situations, we advise moms to be bold and tell it like it is. We have found that once moms say the word "breast," people are quick to excuse them. We urge women to say it loud -- don't whisper or be ashamed. Quite the opposite: Moms should be proud!

Why should businesses accommodate nursing mothers? And can you address the case of small businesses, not just huge corporations that have money and space to spare?

Providing a lactation program is good for moms and businesses (no matter the size)! Keep in mind that a lactation program doesn't have to be expensive to be good. A business could invest as little as $100 and be on its way to giving moms the space they need to pump milk at work. Businesses can start with the basics: a clean, private room with a table, chair, electrical outlet, locking door and no windows (or at least blinds for the windows).

With an additional $75, they can purchase a mini-refrigerator (for breast milk storage), a white board/bulletin board (for moms to post notes and pictures of their babies) and a few magazines. Or, they can go all-out and provide a room with all of the above, plus a computer and Internet connection, a phone, hospital-grade pump designed for sharing and comforting décor.

When space is an issue, businesses can enable moms to pump milk in conference rooms, storage rooms, break rooms and the like. These businesses should inform employees that when the privacy sign is up, the room will be off limits for only about 15 minutes.

For very little investment, these are some of the benefits businesses can expect to see: reduced absenteeism and healthcare costs; improved job satisfaction, productivity and retention; and enhanced company image. What's not to like?

What advice do you have for a new mother who is anticipating going back to work, but apprehensive about pumping, and being a working mom?

Moms, first and foremost, you can do it! Juggling a career, breast-feeding, family and all of life's other demands is possible (but not always easy or graceful). It starts with day-by-day commitment, determination, courage and a sense of humor. To go the distance, though, you must look outside yourself and connect with other working moms. The journey as a new working, nursing mom will be easier and less lonely with the support of other moms who can relate to boobs in breast shields. Pumping breast milk at work is, in many ways, a metaphor for the whole working-motherhood experience -- it doesn't get more tangible than that.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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