Anything the human body does has potential to be embarrassing, and nothing proves this theory more than having kids. From the weird stuff you experience during pregnancy, to the gross aspects of giving and recovering from birth, there are plenty of opportunities for the human woman to be humiliated. So, for working moms whose babies drink breast milk, it’s no surprise that there will be more than a few embarrassing moments when pumping at work you're sure to endure. Good thing I waited until my 30s to have kids, because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely started giving fewer f*cks. Still, some things about pumping would make anyone cringe.
None of this stuff should embarrass me, but the office is still a weird place to talk about an activity that involves hooking my naked breasts up to a machine. I mean, the visual alone, in a corporate environment and one that was built primarily for men, doesn’t feel completely natural. Not yet, anyway, but we’re working on that. I hear they're building another mother’s room in my office building (there is currently only one, which needs to be booked ahead of time, like a conference room). So we’re on our way to erasing the stigma of breastfeeding, and the idea that pumping is something a woman has to hide or disclaim. If anything, pumping actually proves how kick-ass working moms are, as we can find efficiencies to be productive employees and carve out time to pump. You want something done? Give it to a pumping mom.
But pumping at work is challenging, least so for those of us who can find private nooks in offices like mine. Think of the classroom teachers, or train conductors, or construction workers, or those women who have jobs where they don’t have much autonomy over their schedules. If we want to continue to feed our babies breast milk, but can’t afford to stay home for most of the infant’s first year (thank you, unpaid family leave in most states), it means we have to get back to work and pump. As a result, work culture has to step up its pumping game. Giving us more pumping accommodations will help to eliminate some of the most embarrassing moments moms like me have experienced while pumping at work. Here are just a few:
Before New York state’s pumping space law, requiring companies with 50 or more employees to provide time and access to dedicated, private space (not in a bathroom) for pumping, I would wander the halls looking for a place to pump, since my workspace was in an open floor plan. I borrowed offices and taped paper to the glass walls. I found a dressing room to hunker down in on occasion. (Yes, I’ve even pumped in a bathroom stall when no better options availed themselves.)
Since none of those places were specifically marked for pumping moms, I would get walked in on sometimes. Honestly, thought, it was more frustrating than it was embarrassing.
What’s that noise you hear? Well, if I tell you it’s my breast pump, in an effort to normalize pumping for working mothers, will you be cool? Or will you get all weird, in which case, next time I’ll revert to my standard response of, "Oh, maintenance is just doing some work on the HVAC."
Then I’ll put myself on mute. *sigh*
“Wow, those are some little coffee filter holders. Are they for making espresso?” My answer to that co-worker’s question was probably more embarrassing for him than it was for me, but let’s all follow that universal, yet unspoken, rule: if you see someone washing an object you don’t recognize, don’t make small talk about it. Nod, smile, and move on. It’s for the best.
I am not sure if there is a word that accurately describes the look on a co-worker’s face when you pull your sanitized breast pump parts from the microwave after it beeps, and he reluctantly inches forward to place his leftover whatever-he-had-yesterday-for-dinner into the appliance for reheating. The word I’m looking for would be the definition of fear mixed with disgust and confusion.
Spilling any pumped milk is soul-crushing, so crying about it is totally understandable. However, crying at work is not something I prefer to get caught doing. (Although everyone who has ever experienced a paper jam on a deadline would understand the feeling.)
In an effort to keep it cold, and untouched, I would prominently label my breast milk containers (in case someone reached for them to add to their coffee). Announcing that the milk in this container had come out of my body at some point during the workday was like shouting to the whole floor that I had been pretty much half-nude somewhere in the building. I mean, there is just no way around thinking that, right? (Or is it just me?)
I would wear button-down tops a lot when I was nursing and pumping. Easy access, to be sure, but it’s just as easy to forget to close your shirt when you’re rushing to pack up your pump and get everything refrigerated and washed in time to make the next meeting. Oops.
Wayward smartphone sounds happen to everyone, but when you pick Technotronic’s "Pump Up the Jam" as your reminder to go pump, you’re going to get a few raised eyebrows (and maybe an impromptu dance party in the conference room). But better to heed the reminder, than to silence your phone and potentially miss your reserved time in the mother’s room.
Sometimes I had to skip a pumping session because of a scheduling conflict and, in the very early days of returning to work from maternity leave, my body just wasn’t used to going longer than three hours without expressing milk. So, yeah. Leakage. I learned to keep sweaters at my desk so I could throw one on if needed to camouflage a wet spot. I couldn’t blame it on spilled coffee every time.
“I’ll meet you at the gate,” I called to my co-workers. “Looks like I’ll be a while.” I then leveled a vicious stare at the TSA agent who claimed he needed to “sniff check,” with some electrical wand, every single one of the bottles of milk I had pumped while away for the past three days on business. While I was allowed to carry on all the pumped milk, according to the Department of Homeland Security, my milk had to be screened. I didn’t want them to use X-ray, so the only other option was for me to open every bottle, thereby exposing it to potential airborne contamination, for them to wave some metal rod over them. As if taking the time each day to pump while also working wasn’t enough. As if shlepping the cumbersome pump and ice packs around wasn’t enough. As if having to pump on the floor of a bathroom stall and in the tiny airplane bathroom wasn’t enough.
How many ways can a working mother who pumps to feed her baby be denied her dignity? All of them, apparently.