Pumping sucks – let’s make it better

I’m dashing off this post in a few minutes that I don’t really have to spare, in the midst of a workday that’s just as full of things to do as ever, but one that is shortened and dissected by my role as a breastfeeding mother.

Here’s how breastfeeding and pumping figure into my days right now. In the morning, when my baby wakes up, I spend 20-30 minutes cuddling and breast-feeding. It’s sweet and sad, especially now that we’re into the separation anxiety phase of babyhood and he cries whenever I leave. Before I leave the house, I make sure that I’ve got all of my clean pump parts, bottles, and an ice pack to store the expressed milk. At around 10:30, I stop whatever I’m doing, close my office door, pull out the pump, parts, and bottles, and spend about 20 minutes hooked up to an uncomfortable plastic sucker. During that time, I check email, read a paper, browse social media, or occasionally have a work phone call with another academic mother. (I don’t tell them I’m pumping, but I figure if they hear the sound they’ll understand.) As milk gets sucked out of me and into the plastic bottles, I note that one breast produces about 3x as much milk as the other, and I know that my pumping volume tends to go down over the course of the day. I start my day-long worry that the baby will consume more milk than I can pump and we’ll have to dip into the dwindling supply of frozen milk to get baby through tomorrow. I remind myself that we only have to make it 3 more months before baby can start dairy milk and I can quit pumping. When no more milk is coming, I detach, carefully combine the bottles into one less-than-full bottle, rinse the pump parts, tuck the milk and pump parts into the fridge and the pump into the corner of my office. Two to two-and-a-half hours later I repeat the process. I repeat it again two-and-a-half-hours after that. Then I sneak out of the office a bit early so that I can avoid having to pump again and I can spend a bit of time with my baby before baby crashes into bedtime about 6:30. Baby is still not sleeping through the night consistently, so between bedtime and nighttime feedings I spend another ~2 hours breastfeeding before the next morning. Either my partner or I also spends about 20 minutes cleaning bottles and pump parts before crashing into exhausted sleep.

What I’ve described above is about a best-case scenario for working mothers, academic or not. I have my own office, with a locking door and blinds I can pull closed. I already had a little fridge in it, and there’s a sink nearby. I have a lot of control over my day-to-day schedule. I have a healthy baby so I don’t have to take special precautions in how often I clean pump parts or what I eat. Baby is eating solid foods now, so if there’s not quite enough milk during the day, a bit of food will often tide baby over until I get home and we can nurse. Baby stays at home with a caregiver, so we’re not bound by rules that make daycares throw out a bottle of milk if it’s not drunk within 30 minutes. Most of all, I’m lucky that I didn’t have to go back to full-time in office work until baby was 8 months old, so I’m only doing this sucky routine for a few months. I can’t imagine how women do this for a whole year, under much less ideal office conditions. No wonder <20% of American women are exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months and <50% are breastfeeding at all.

Even in my best case scenario, I lose almost 20% of my workday to pumping and feeding, so I’m forced to work in the evenings and weekends to even meet minimum standards of keeping up. Add that to the already disrupted sleep schedule, and I’m a very tired puppy these days. And I’m constantly battling to hold those pumping sessions sacred, and not have the time between them get stretched out by chatty colleagues, students, or meetings. In particular, it’s been a challenge to have to pump immediately after I teach, because even though I’ve repeatedly told my students I’m unavailable after class, they follow me out of the classroom, towards my office, and sometimes even through the door “just for a couple of quick questions.” But if I let them have that time, then I get engorged, my pumping schedule gets thrown off, and I end up late for things later in the day. I’m generally pretty open about my life with my students, but telling them that I’ve really got to go because I’ve got milk about to leak through my shirt seems to cross the line. Even with colleagues, I’ve found I have to repeatedly draw a firm line about not allowing meetings and other commitments to be scheduled back-to-back-to-back.

I’ve also run into a few events that have made me even more aware that a best case scenario for pumping is still not a good case. On the mild but amusing side, our offices have motion sensitive lights, and mine go off, plunging me into darkness while I pump. But I’m tethered to a machine so I can’t move around enough to turn them back on. I’ve solved this by having a desk lamp within reach. On the less amusing side, I’m having to deal with some upcoming travel and special events where pumping accomodations have been subpar. One place I need to work at regularly (but is not university-owned) has an open floor plan, and I’ve had to pump inside a bathroom or shower stall. Another place that’s not up to snuff for pumping is our campus conference center. When I inquired about where to pump there, I was told I could use a bathroom. Given that the women’s bathroom has 3 stalls and there are ~150 women conference attendees, this option is extremely public and gross. Also, I’ve learned that under the Affordable Care Act, it’s illegal. “Employers are also required to provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” Since the conference center is owned by the university, they are legally required to find a better place for me to pump. But unless I’m willing to invest the time to make a stink about it, it’s not going to happen. It’s a conference center, you’d think they’d just designate a small room for pumping and be done with it!

These adventures in pumping remind me again how much worse most women have it for pumping. Close to home, I’ve got it better than even most academic women. How about grad students with shared offices, or undergraduate students with no offices? I hear there’s a few designated lactation rooms on campus, but none in or near my building. Are these women supposed to run 10 minutes across campus to get to one of those rooms? What if those rooms are full when the women need them, say in their 15 minute break between classes? Having a designated lactation room in each building on university campuses seems like it would a be an easy step in the right direction for universities to show that they respect the needs of mothers. Another step would be parental leave policies that covered graduate students on assistantships – something that is missing from many universities, including mine. Even where universities do have parental leave policies, they are frequently unpaid, making them finanically untenable for many new parents. And, in the US, I know of no university that allows parental leave for the whole year that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for mothers to breast-feed, if they are able to do so.

I think it’s an embarrassment for our nation that our parental leave policies are among the very worst in the world. But while we advocate and wait for even marginally better parental leave policies in the US, we need to find ways to make breast-feeding and pumping as easy as possible on tired new mothers. We need to start by having open conversations about it (like we’re having right now), we need to make sure that women know their right to a sanitary and private lactation space (and free breast pump and breastfeeding support) under the Affordable Care Act, and we need to make lactation rooms widely available, closely spaced, and well advertised. I’d go further and say that we should probably be adjusting work loads for pumping mothers so that they are not having to work 10 hours to get 8 hours of work done. Please add additional suggestions to the comments below.

Note: For more on the logistics of pumping at work, from an academic perspective, check out this great post and comments from Meg Duffy. She’s also got some tips for traveling while breastfeeding.

26 thoughts on “Pumping sucks – let’s make it better

  1. Great post! The way pumping breaks up one’s day is really disruptive in a way that I didn’t appreciate until I was dealing with it myself. As you point out, even while being pretty open about my life as a working mom, it feels so awkward to discuss pumping and to explain that, no, really, it is a big problem if this meeting runs over. (Having to write to a total stranger to request time and space for pumping while at a meeting or giving a seminar was also a lot harder for me than I would have imagined.)

    In terms of space for students and postdocs: I have always tried to help them set up space within our building, since having to go to another building is simply not going to work for very long. We’ve been fortunate to be able to identify an unused office that could be used for pumping moms. I stress to the facilities folks that it doesn’t have to be fancy — just private and not a bathroom. And I just heard this morning that my college is now planning on making sure every building has a room where moms can pump, which is fantastic.

  2. This is very important about how the workplace needs to accommodate nursing moms. I’ll be sure to bring up the Affordable Care Act piece to our faculty affairs office!

    I just wanted to add that as non-pumping partners, it’s our job to make sure that pumping parts are always clean and ready, keep track of freezer supply, pack lunch, cook meals, do the dishes and the laundry, shop for groceries, and everything else your partner can’t do because pumping takes a lot of time and effort.

    • bringing this up on behalf of nursing colleagues is a FANTASTIC way to be an ally. as someone who had to argue with my (older, male) building managers and oblivious male PIs who ‘didn’t want to get involved’ in discussions about nursing/pumping spaces, you reduce the burden on new moms by not making them have to fight for their federally-given rights.

  3. This is something I’ve never had to think about before, but I’m glad you got me thinking about it. Even as a single, unattached woman, it’s good to know the rights and practices available to working women and new mothers.

  4. I’m going through this right now–the line about “one quick question” is spot on. I have such a short period of time to pump between classes that one quick question will make me late for my next class.

    In addition, I am at a 2-year college and am still on the tenure track, which means that I am evaluated in part based on how available I am to my students. They see that quick question as a right. I see it as engorgement and clogged ducts.

    It’s so exhausting. I wish all institutions supported us better with appropriate leave policies, scheduling, and facilities.

  5. One other thought on what people can do to help nursing moms: if you are hosting a mom who needs to pump (say, as a job candidate or seminar speaker), put yourself (or someone else) on the schedule during the times she needs to pump, and leave extra time in case things start to run behind. If the pump break is listed on the schedule as a break, people tend to view that time slot as something they can easily run into. That leaves the mom in the position of needing to explain why she really needs that break, which is awkward (and, in the case of a job candidate, might mean she needs to divulge information about being a mom more generally than she’d prefer).

  6. The blog really reflects my experience with first baby. I will only add: (1) I got so resentful eventually about what I had to go through that I was previously unaware were even issues that I became absolutely filter-less when talking about mom-issues to coworkers and students. I.e. I *did* mention leaking and whatever deliberately, in part because they are natural and factual problems that I need accommodation for, and in part because I feel that there is this secret life of moms that non-moms have no idea about, which is bad for to-be-moms and society as a whole. But I understand that it may feel awkward. (2) NSF was really helpful when I asked for support (i.e. a room and freezer access) for pumping during an NSF-related trip. If your conference/university/whoever isn’t, who is going to change the situation but you speaking up? You don’t have to make a ‘stink’ right away, just clearly and determinedly communicate that a bathroom is not appropriate for pumping or breastfeeding. (3) Also, with second baby we’re just much less worried about also giving formula – the baby will still get all the breastfeeding benefits if they mostly get mommy milk. Even with first baby I gave up pumping eventually and switched to formula, and still breastfed for 3.5 years in the end (only mornings and evenings). Disclaimer: I tend towards over- rather than undersupply, not sure if this played a role in me missing feedings not being such a problem.

  7. I know the feeling and it can be better. I had a lactation room with a pump in it at work and it made it bearable. Also I am lucky that I pump fast but it was still very very hard. Particularly when baby didn’t appreciate the effort and wanted the real thing all night long to make up for not actually drinking the nice pumped milk all day.

    The link below is hopefully a sign of some progress from technology. In the meantime I wish you luck!


  8. These comments are great. I was interviewing while nursing and it was stressful to count out bags of milk and then deal with delayed flights (airports never seem to have lactation rooms). During the interview, my pumping break was listed as a “break” on the schedule. In the first group faculty question session, a senior faculty member within my subdiscipline said, “oh, next you have a break so we can just keep going a little longer.” This was a job I really wanted, but I still had to say that the break was for me to pump and I needed all the time. Awkward, but the alternative (leaking) seemed worse. The male faculty got very flustered. Maybe it did cost me the job, but giving a vague medical need response seemed just as awkward. One of the junior, female faculty was nice and took me to the pumping room after that exchange. I ended up quitting breastfeeding halfway through the interview season – it was too exhausting to deal with the stress of the interview and pumping all in one. There isn’t really anyway to improve the situation of telling a search committee chair (usually an older, male professor) you need nursing breaks but it’s nice to feel some camaraderie in the community. I am also in a department now without many reproducing females so I make a point of talking about the hard and good things of being a mom in academia.

  9. Great comments everyone! I wish I could reply to all of them, but I got home and spent 2.5 hours with a nursing, teething baby attached to the breast, and I’m exhausted. Good luck to all of the nursing/pumping mamas and supportive partners out there.

  10. Not to mention finding professional, boob-access friendly clothes! I only made it through pumping in grad school by having great support- a fantastic PI who let me kick him out of his office to pump in private and relative comfort, and a lot of mom mentors who helped me push to get what I needed. As a prof now I’m finding it tough to take care of part-time faculty/TA needs, so I’ve resorted to being pushy and sending bordeline-obnoxious emails (no, a closet across campus that the TA would have to call someone to unlock each time isn’t going to cut it), and offering whatever personal (office) resources I have. Thanks for a great post!

  11. This is such a wonderful post! I am 2 months post-partum and exclusively pumping because my baby does not latch. He was born 8 weeks early, and has a number of medical issues that prevent it. We also got stuck in Germany where I was a postdoc due to his early birth and the membrane rupture that led up to it, preventing me from starting my faculty position back in the US when I was supposed to in August. That’s a very long story that I won’t go into now. In any case, my new department is absolutely amazing (so far), and I’ll be starting my position in January instead, once we have all the required paperwork for my little one to legally leave Germany and enter the US. Pumping exclusively is hard enough as it is even though I’m not working right now. We’ve already encountered plenty of trouble finding places where I can pump in public. Often it is just a park bench, and sometimes, sadly, there has been no option other than a bathroom stall. Thank you so much for this piece. I am not looking forward to having to schedule pumping around work meetings and teaching. This has reminded me to be up-front about my pumping needs. So far, I do not hesitate to talk about it with colleagues and friends here in Germany. I agree with a previous poster that this is something most people are unaware of or don’t understand fully. I had no idea before I myself was pumping that breasts do not wait around for “just one quick question”.

  12. I had a relatively ideal situation (tenure/tenure-track prof with individual office, enough “time flexibility”, including little teaching, short commute to daycare) with my two children. I’m not so private and I actually would tell people that I had to pump (producing some understandably awkward reactions). Most of the time this would only work at the moment, but people would still forget about it and ask me again and again to meet, thus repeating the awkward situation. My favorite was a seminar that we regularly had outside campus. We had talks the whole day and lunch together in between. I’d have to pump between talks (in a bathroom), and in particular I’d have to pump at lunch time. Each day we had the seminar, someone would remark that I was no longer having lunch with them and they would joke that I didn’t like them anymore, and then I’d have to explain the situation. This exchange repeated every two weeks for a whole semester, yay!

    I’m not blaming anyone for this. People are just not aware of what pumping entails and it’s very hard to explain this to someone who has not seen it first hand. I think this problem won’t be completely solved until pumping becomes normal, whenever this happens (maybe next generation?). In the meantime, blog posts like this are a great source of information and awareness, so thanks for writing it!

  13. Having tried pumping with both of my babies, I would have had to stop BFing very early had I lived/worked in the US. Both babies started to refuse the bottle at about 3 months (preferring nursing), and my son refused BM after it was frozen (when a bottle was re-introduced at ~6 months). Fortunately in Canada I had a one-year mat leave, so was able to BF for a year without depending on pumping. I guess my point is that people (men) may think pumping is the solution for nursing women to go back to work within weeks or months of having their babies, but it really isn’t that easy (as this article attests). I imagine many babies go without the benefit of BFing or BM very early because of the challenges women face in the workplace, and going back to work so soon after delivery. I truly hope policy changes (a national one at that) make longer parental leave and BFing accommodation a reality in the US.

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  15. I pumped in conference and hotel rooms for eleven months. It was hard! There were places where the restroom was offered as an option and people told me I needed to be home with my baby. I enjoy breastfeeding and made the best choice for my family, but it would have been nice to have more support within our work culture.

  16. Great post spelling out the hour-by-hour disruption that pumping is. My first year as a new mom was very hard. But afterwards, I became a lot more proactive. As Anna Dornhaus mentions above, things don’t change unless people *do* make a stink about them. Thank you for making your contribution as a blog post!

    (I’ve used: “I don’t pump in bathrooms. It’s not sanitary. Where else can you offer?” and always been given an alternative. A bit awkward? Yes, I suppose. But worth it.)

  17. Yep, one of the reasons I didn’t breastfeed as a postdoc was because my university’s designated pumping room was 10 minutes away, up a steep hill. Oh, and I would also have had to store the milk there (no other fridge Ok for that). And there was nowhere I was allowed to clean pump parts, except maybe the shared kitchen sink (no thanks). There were other reasons, but this was a major one. With my next baby I should have a private office with a sink and a mini-fridge, so hopefully I can make it work!

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  19. I too am an academic and I pumped in the field at my excavation site. I was fortunate that I was the field direction so I set up a tent up on the mountain where we were excavating and every morning a pack animal, a burro, helped me take my breast pump up to the mountain, 1 hour uphill hike and then I would pump at lunch while my workers and other diggers had their lunches. I put the milk in a backpack with a ice pack on a shady part of the dig and then the milk made it down the mountain on the burro. My mom came to the field with us so she was taking care of our son while we were up on the mountain. Overall my son was breastfed for over two years and through three archaeological field seasons. It was hard. It was worth it. It was awkward to let my work crew of local workers know what was going on while I stepped into my hot tent in the middle of the excavation day, but the understood and were also very careful to make sure we did not forget the milk. We can do it and overall we, in academia, are privileged in that way.

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