When I returned from maternity leave after having my first child, New York had yet to establish the law that required companies of a certain size to provide a private, dedicated pumping space. I worked at a cable network, in a building with a studio, and would run down to the basement dressing rooms in the hopes they'd be free when I had to pump twice a day. Since my employer wasn’t obligated to accommodate nursing moms, I was afraid to ask for things when pumping at work. Though my boss and the rest of my team knew I was dedicated to pumping and respected the fact that I’d have to duck away from my desk, which was in the middle of an open office, to do so, I always felt sneaky about the entire ordeal. It was as if I had to pretend I wasn’t providing meals for my newborn baby, who was home without me while I wrote and produced commercials in a windowless office for eight hours a day.
Pumping was physically, and emotionally, complicated at work. It added stress to my day, especially when I had to constantly figure out where and when I could pump privately, and I was already frazzled as a new, sleep-deprived mom. It got marginally easier when I had my second baby, only because the New York lactation law had passed and my employer had installed a Mothers’ Room where I could pump. They could have put some better signage on it, though. All too often I’d go in there at my scheduled time and find someone hanging out on their phone, just seeking a little privacy.
In the hazy period of adjusting to being a parent, it was easy to put all my own needs to the side. In hindsight, though, I wish I had been more vocal and unafraid to ask for the following things when I was pumping at work:
Refrigerated Storage Space Separate From People's Lunches
On my floor, there was a pantry kitchen with a very large refrigerator that was always packed, usually with co-workers’ spoiled leftovers. I really would have liked a place to store my breast milk that was away from the hands of at least a hundred other people. I definitely didn’t like the idea of the fridge door constantly opening and closing throughout the day, letting the cold air escape and jeopardizing the safety of my baby’s food. Instead, I kept my own cooler, and ice packs, under my desk and hauled that damn thing (plus the weighty breast pump) on the subway to and from work every day.
I always thought we had too many meetings, but never more so than when I had to compress the day’s work into fewer hours because I needed some of that time to travel to the Mothers’ Room, set up, pump, pack up, and wash all the pump parts. Twice a day. Sometimes I had to jump on conference calls while pumping in the very same building those meetings were being held, and that kind of multitasking felt totally unfair to this pumping mom.
... Or At Least Meetings That Weren't Scheduled During Pumping Times
I would block out my calendar with my pumping times so I would appear “busy” when co-workers searched my schedule for my availability. That didn’t stop people from sending meeting requests for directly before or after my pumping sessions, though. My options were to either be a few minutes late to these meetings, giving me time to put my milk and pump away, or just run directly to the conference room, bottles of fresh breast milk in tow, and most likely a missed button on my shirt that I didn’t notice until way after the meeting.
A Drying Rack
It was convenient to have a fridge and a sink and utensils available to employees. But there was no drying rack. I had to waste even more time thoroughly drying my washed pump parts before putting them away. Pumping aside, how do you have a place to wash dishes, but fail to provide a place to let them dry? Corporate kitchens could use a pumping mother’s touch.
A Mothers’ Room Close By
I worked on the second floor when I was pumping. The Mothers’ Room was on the 18th floor. But I had to first go down to the building’s lobby to cross over to a different elevator bank to access that floor. My commute had a commute.
Pumping Space That I Didn’t Have To Forfeit If I Was Late
While it was terrific to have the Mothers’ Room as a space to myself to pump that no one could intrude on, I had to book it — like a conference room — through the company reservation system. This meant that I had to first find times that weren’t already booked, put in a request, and then hope the request would get approved… as if the importance of expressing milk from my body was up to the computer booking system to vet.
There were times when I missed my pumping session because certain meetings ran long, so by the time I got up there it was some other mother’s turn. I was then left to wander the halls and beg someone with an office to give it up to me for 20 minutes, since my workspace was out in the open. Good times.
A Quieter Place To Pump
My employer installed the Mothers’ Room inside the women’s bathroom. It was a windowless room with a door that locked that you could access from inside the restroom. That mean, I would constantly hear flushing, water running, people chatting, and doors slamming open and shut for the duration of my pumping session. It was not peaceful or at all conducive to achieving letdown. It was actually pretty stressful.
A Reduced Workload
Asking for less work is a career killer, I’m sure. Looking back, though, when I was juggling the job and multiple on-site pumping sessions throughout the week, I cringe remembering the anxiety that permeated my workday. I feel strongly that working moms will be more successful, and thus improve their employers’ bottom lines, if they are given the option of easing back into their workload without a financial penalty. I am sure many moms are “allowed” to return to a part-time schedule after maternity leave, but that leaves them with part-time pay, which in turn perpetuates the inability for many women to reach economic parity with their male counterparts.
It may sound crazy to not dock someone’s pay for doing less work, but I would have had a lot more love for my company, and might not have left my position so soon after having my second child, if they had offered a more forgiving schedule for at least the first few weeks back on the job and without taking away my income (some of which I had lost since half of my 12 weeks of leave were unpaid).
Permission To Take Breaks In Addition To My Pumping Time
While the New York lactation laws require companies of a certain size to allow employees who pump the time to do so, it does so by offering “paid break or meal times, or reasonable unpaid break times.” So basically, during my eight hour workday, I had to allocate my lunch hour towards my two pumping sessions, or risk raised eyebrows for taking pumping “breaks” on top of a lunch break, and these “breaks” were not on the company’s dime. Way to encourage pumping moms to return to their jobs, Unreasonable American Work Culture.
More Support For New Moms
When I returned to work after maternity leave, it was kind of a mindf*ck to be at my desk, trying to brainstorm ad copy, while trying not to be distracted by the fact that my 12-week old baby was a borough away from me with a caregiver I hadn’t known a month ago. Everything I was feeling was new and strange and I had no idea what was “normal” as a working mom. From observing other parents in my office, it appeared that you just had to shut off the side of you that had a kid while you were at work.
But as a pumping mom, I couldn’t do that. I would get physical reminders of my baby as my breasts filled with milk. It was a lot to process and I felt like I had to shove all the emotions aside while at work, because there was no room to be a mother while also being an employee. I wish there was a working parent support group, or at least a little pep talk Human Resources would have given me, to recognize that transitioning from maternity leave to office life was definitely something to be reckoned with, and that I wasn’t alone.