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.