By Gina Nebesar, cofounder and chief of product at Ovia Health
The moment my bare breasts hit the cool air in the small pumping room at work was the moment I realized I was a working mom. Heading into the work that day, I knew I was one — I was back in the office, leading my team from 9 to 5, and heading back home at the end of the day to work for my real boss: a tiny, perfect baby — but the reality of being a working mom really meant didn't hit me until I was pumping at work for the first time.
When my daughter was born, I was shocked by my innate instinct to protect her. I immediately knew I would do anything — give my life in an instant — if it meant providing for her. Compared to that, undressing in an office setting shouldn’t have been such a shock, but for some reason it put my new life into perspective. It was at that moment, in the room where I used to make business calls, that I realized my career would never be the same. That everything was going to be just a little bit harder after having a baby. It was also that moment when I decided I was going to work to make life better not just for me, but for my coworkers and working moms everywhere.
By the time I had my second baby, the pumping room at work had significantly improved. The scrappy, repurposed phone booth had been upgraded to a spacious mother's room with a comfy blue couch, mini-fridge, and a sink.
As a working mom, every minute of the day is utilized, and the opportunity to take 30-60 minutes alone with my laptop while pumping sometimes feels glorious. (I’m actually pumping right now as I write this!) But pumping every day certainly isn't easy. I have to pack and clean parts daily, always worry how I may be leaking in an important meeting, live with the constant fear I’m not producing enough to feed my little one at home — all that on top of the emotional and physical strain of having a new baby that puts so many new demands on my life and body.
Pumping isn’t easy, but I’m fortunate because my company is supportive of my status as a working mom. Not everyone has this support, though.
One mom told me she was instructed to pump in the bathroom after returning from maternity leave. “I asked myself, ‘Am I going to fight for my baby?’" she said. "I wouldn’t want to eat in a bathroom, so why should my baby’s meal enter there?” She approached HR and presented the legal argument for having a mother’s room, and HR quickly (and apologetically) dedicated a room for her to pump her baby’s milk.
Another brave mom told me how she worked on a manufacturing line and was told by her line manager that she had to clock out to pump, all while she watched some of her coworkers take repeated 20 minute cigarette breaks without clocking out.
The discrimination, lack of support, and underlying bias against pregnant woman and new parents in the workplace is everywhere. While it’s truly up to employers to make an environment supportive and welcoming for working parents and parents-to-be (and there are a lot of great employers that do so!), here are a few tips and tricks for taking control of your pumping experience at work.
Tips for pumping at work
Know your rights. For example, in the U.S., companies larger than 50 employees are required by law to offer breastfeeding moms a private place (other than a bathroom) to pump for up to a year after giving birth per the Reasonable Break Time for Nursing Mothers.
Once you have a place to pump, it's ideal to also have a sink and a fridge in the room. If that's not doable, close proximity is the next best thing. You'll need a reliable place to refrigerate your expressed milk and clean out your pump. Even just guaranteeing there will be space in the office fridge for your milk is an important detail. Use an insulated bag (whether a special bag for pumping or a lunch box) to keep your milk cold for the commute home.
Block off time for pumping. The same U.S. law that requires employers to give you a space to pump also requires them to give you time to pump. That means time to get set up in your pumping room, express your breast milk, organize and date the bags of milk, clean and put away the pumping parts, store the milk in the fridge, and return to work. It takes a lot of time! You'll need to make sure your manager and the people you work closely with understand and respect that when you say you're unavailable, you mean it.
Consider freezing a supply of breast milk before returning to work. Having a stock of milk can help put less pressure on you to pump multiple times a day, every day. This didn’t work for me, but I know moms who did this successfully. Writing the dates on your expressed milk is especially important in this case because you'll want to make sure you're using the oldest milk first to extend the life span of the supply and avoid wasting any milk.
Never apologize! Sometimes I hear moms apologizing when they need to excuse themselves to pump. No one should expect you to apologize, and neither should you. Being a working mom is hard, and no one needs an apology for you doing something so important as ensuring your child is fed and healthy.
You know yourself and your family best. Motherhood is different for everyone and can look different even from one child to the next. Maybe pumping at work is a breeze for you — that's great! If it's hard and exhausting and frustrating, that's normal too. For me, it was more realistic to start supplementing at three months. I didn't want to push myself too hard, risking getting frustrated and quitting all together. Eventually I decided that pumping once or twice per day is what I have time and energy to commit to, and if my baby doesn’t have enough breastmilk during the day, she gets formula. And I can rest easy because I know my baby won’t get hungry.
It’s good to know the clinical guidelines for breastfeeding, but whatever you decide works best for your family is the right decision, and no one can tell you differently. At the end of the day, this is a team effort. Often we put the responsibility on ourselves alone -- to pump, to work, to be a great mom, and to be a great colleague. But what is breastfeeding empowerment if we don't have the power and support we need and deserve in every facet of our lives? Paid leave, access to pumping rooms, understanding colleagues and culture, and supportive partners and families are all critical to helping us reach our health goals.