Recently on the mother to mother Breastfeed, Chicago Facebook group, a mom vented a brief story of a negative interaction with a coworker that she had regarding her need to pump at work. This story sparked a very strong memory for me of a time, now 6 years ago, when I too returned to work and was pumping so that I could continue to breastfeed my baby. I wanted to share that story with all of you in hopes it might be helpful to others.
Whenever I think about new and veteran moms returning to work and pumping, I am immediately brought back to December 2005. I was a new mom, returning to work after my 3 month maternity leave. I was a social worker in an outpatient HIV clinic within a large hospital in New York City. I was very fortunate in that my daughter was going to the day care that was part of the hospital across the street from my office. This afforded me the opportunity to go over during my lunch and breastfeed her, thus eliminating one time a day when I had to pump and also one less bottle that someone would be giving her. Like many new moms who have returned to work, I was no longer the same person I had been when I left to give birth just 3 months before. I now had a new role in life, new priorities and my job no longer really ranked up there with the things that mattered most to me. I knew that I was going to be moving in 6 months and had it set in my mind that I could handle pumping at work for that amount of time. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but with an end in sight, I thought, “how hard could it really be?”
At the time, I shared an office with two other coworkers, both female social workers. One was, and continues to be a very close friend. The other was a friend prior to me having a baby and even came to my home to visit me and my daughter while I was on maternity leave. My actual cubicle was at the back of our office space, meaning that my coworkers did not have to walk past my office to get to their own. On my first day back at work, both of my office mates were out. It was great! I did my job, saw my patients, put up my little curtain and pumped when I needed to. In between I washed all my pump parts, and nursed my baby at lunch over at the daycare. I felt empowered by my ability to work and also provide the most nutritious food for my baby. Sadly, when everyone returned, this all changed.
The coworker who I was very close with thought it was great that I was pumping at work. She didn’t have children of her own but understood the purpose and the necessity of it. The other one, we’ll call her Veronica (her name has been changed to protect the not so innocent), was another story entirely. I told her that I would be pumping a couple of times a day in my office and that I would try to do it at a time that she wasn’t going to be seeing patients. I asked that, if the actual door at the entrance to the office was closed, could she please knock before coming in? She didn’t take this well at all. She accused me of trying to control her and thus preventing her from doing her job. She also told me she was not comfortable with hearing the pump from the other side of the cubicle wall. I’m embarrassed to say that several screaming arguments took place between us which usually led to one of us storming off. Suffice it to say, this did not make for a very relaxing environment to pump in. In retrospect, I realize now that I was very hormonal, exhausted from being up at night with my newborn for the last three months, and in the midst of a major life change between having just become a mother and now transitioning into my role as a working mom. I also naively assumed that all would be supportive of my choice to breastfeed. Now when I think back on it, I realize that I did not have any other friends with babies, and I didn’t know anyone who had returned to work while pumping. As time went on, I began to think about some of the things that had happened to Veronica that may have made her react how she did. She was single and her slightly older sister had just had a baby a few months before I had. Her sister had chosen not to breastfeed so the actual process of continuing a breastfeeding relationship while working was foreign to her. That being said, she made no attempt to understand what it entailed or what I was going through.
The hostile climate in the office worsened, when a week or so after I returned to work, the New York City Transit Authority went on strike for 4 days, discontinuing bus and train service in all 5 boroughs. Since I no longer had any sick time left (it was all used up during my maternity leave), I had no choice but to go to work, but that also meant figuring how how to get my infant daughter there as well. Since many of the day care workers lived in the outer boroughs and it was taking them 2-3 hours to get home each night, one day they had to close the day care early. Nothing was going on in our office (our patients couldn’t get to their appointments either) so I picked up my daughter early that day and brought her back to my office while I finished up for the day. She quietly hung out in her car seat while I typed up some last few notes. Next thing I knew, Veronica stormed into my cubicle screaming at me for once again assuming that the way I was choosing to use our shared space was okay with everyone else. Suffice it to say, when I finally made it home that night, I cried for quite some time from all the stress this was causing. I was totally baffled by her strong negative reaction to me and my baby.
My supervisor at the time tried to be as supportive as he could. He was in a tough place because he was both mine and Veronica’s supervisor and although he knew that she was being unreasonable, he didn’t really know how to handle the situation. As far as Veronica was concerned, I could use one of the exam rooms that were constantly in use for patient care and would never have provided any privacy. The hospital knew that they were required to provide me a non bathroom space to pump in (although I did end up pumping in the bathroom at least once), but their solution was for me to make a 20 minute trek over to the NICU pumping room each time I needed to pump. This would not have allowed me to do my job. In the end, I was lucky enough to be able to move into a former supervisor’s private office where I could both work and pump for the remainder of my time at work. Veronica and I never spoke again and the entire practice was divided among whose “side” they were on as a result of the entire situation.
In retrospect, I probably should have approached the situation differently. Maybe I didn’t take into account how she would feel about it. Honestly, at the time, I wasn’t really concerned with anyone else other than my baby and how I was going to provide food for her while being away from her for most of the day. I certainly let my emotions get the best of me and probably seemed like this crazy breastfeeding woman to her, but I didn’t care. I guess I still don’t. I know that everyone has their own issues and some people, for whatever reason, are not entirely comfortable with breastfeeding. As a nursing mom, pumping in order to feed my baby was a logical and natural choice for me. However, for someone who had had very little exposure to breastfeeding, my decision must have made her feel awkward, uncomfortable, and imposed upon.
If you are returning to work and will be continuing to pump, my advice to you would be to seriously think about the environment you will be returning to and how you can make your very difficult job of pumping at work as easy as possible. In Illinois, your employer is required by law to provide you with a “non bathroom” space in which to pump. Currently, 24 states have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace. Talk to your coworkers. If they are a group of single 20 and 30 year olds who have not had any experience with breastfeeding moms, be prepared to educate them on all the hard work that moms do to provide the best food for their babies and share some of all the excellent benefits of breastfeeding (like how your baby will be healthier, resulting in you not taking days off to care for a sick child). You may even make a difference in their decision to someday choose to breastfeed their own baby.
For a long time after this experience, I had this fantasy of sending Veronica a letter detailing to her how she had made my life a living hell for that six months. I would have told her that I hoped that someday she would be lucky enough to find someone that would make her happy and they would be lucky enough to have a baby together. I hoped that when she became a mother and experienced it as the total life change that it is, that she finally would understand why the way she treated me was so wrong, so hurtful, and so traumatizing. I guess this blog post is that letter.