I miss my colleagues. I miss listening to podcasts during my morning commute. I miss water-cooler gossip. But you know what I don’t miss? My breast pump, the office lactation room, and most everything tied to being a nursing mom in the workplace.
Hand and electric pumps were meant to free us from the nursing chair so that we could return to work while still providing nutritious breast milk to our babies. But ask any parent who has pumped at the office, and the stories you will hear rarely invoke the term “liberation.”
Instead, we think of the embarrassing conversation we had with our boss, explaining that no, the bathroom would not be a suitable place to pump. We think of the time a non-lactating co-worker took a private phone call in the lactation room, or of pumping on the freeway or in an airplane window seat with a blanket draped awkwardly over the machine strapped to our chest.
Lactation is a near-secret activity, rarely shown on TV or discussed beyond parent messaging boards, even though over 80 percent of American babies will be breastfed for some length of time. We remember inventing excuses for why we needed to slip away from a meeting or long conversation, not mentioning pumping for fear that a colleague might doubt our commitment to the job.
The pump itself wheezes and honks as it squeezes our breasts as if we were cows to be milked. Then there’s the cheap Velcro pumping bra that quickly loses its elasticity, the pump parts that require tedious cleaning, the bottles of fresh milk — a day’s supply of food for the baby — that are easy to forget in the office fridge.
And then there are our babies. Many of us remember thinking of them throughout the day at the office, wondering if it was right to leave them with other caregivers so early in their lives.
I had a feeling that the pandemic might make some of this easier on parents fortunate enough to work from home right now. So I put out a call on Facebook to ask how the pandemic was changing the nursing experience.
For essential workers, the longstanding challenges remain. In some cases, they are worsened by the new regulations, stress and working conditions that have emerged over this past year.
There is the nurse who, after treating a Covid-19 patient, would shower before each pumping session. The teacher who woke at 4 a.m. to pump for her baby, then tried to slip in additional sessions between remote learning and in-person classes. The homeless outreach counselor who pumped in bathrooms and a spare room at a needle exchange. And the epidemiologist whose milk supply dropped when she returned to work because of the stress of her workload.
But nursing parents who are now working from home told me that the pandemic has offered the opposite experience: no more pumping in the office, and lots more time with their babies.
Before the pandemic hit, Amy Hallett, a mother of three near Chapel Hill, N.C., was preparing for pumping sessions in her car. As a wine sales representative, she traveled 30 to 100 miles a day to restaurants and retailers. She dreaded thinking about the number of times she would need to pump, and how to keep that milk cool without a refrigerator. Now, she just walks into an adjacent room, takes her baby from her nanny, and breastfeeds.
Lea Solimine, a tech worker in San Francisco, used to take two to three hours to get ready and travel to work. Now, she nurses her 5-month-old son in the middle of the night, but can sleep in, not waking again until it’s time for the baby to nurse around 7 a.m. More sleep, she said, makes her a better and more productive worker.
The home office — for all its chaos and disruptions — has also given new parents (nursing or otherwise) the chance to witness the special moments they might have missed.
“Our family is all in St. Lucia, and we have no one to help us with the baby,” said Kristal Garia-Augier, a graduate student in Miami. “But at the same time, my husband and I have actually seen all our daughter’s milestones,” including rolling over and laughing loudly for the first time.
Repeatedly, the parents who worked from home talked about the flexibility and comfort of nursing from home. Some continue to use a pump when they want to work on the computer instead of holding their baby. But those women too extolled the benefits of having the freedom to pick what was best for their schedules and their baby each day.
America’s parental leave policies are dismal compared to other wealthy nations. But working from home has at least helped ease the pressure many nursers feel to choose between working and parenthood. Many of the people I spoke to hoped that even after the pandemic, their companies would adopt hybrid work models or extended work-from-home opportunities, making it possible for all parents (nursing or otherwise) to have more options for their families.
Longer and paid parental leave would allow parents to care for their children during the earliest and most vulnerable months of their lives. Actually following the law, and providing comfortable, private places for pumping,and not forcing nursing parents to use their breaks to pump, would also help ease some of the stress many employees experience.
“By not making motherhood feel like an either/or proposition, companies might make more progress on inclusion of mothers in the work force,” said Sara Anderson, a mom whose previous employer’s “mother’s room” was a tiny phone booth in the middle of the break room.
Despite our complaints about our breast pumps — their ugliness, rude sounds and required cleaning — it’s not actually our pumps we hate. It’s what they symbolize: being forced back into the office before our bodies and babies may be ready for it, and for having to jump hurdles to engage in an activity that we are told is vital to our baby’s nutrition, and yet is less accommodated than smoking in many American workplaces.
Covid-19 has let some of us say goodbye to the breast pump and hello to a world of more flexibility and time with our babies. If only it didn’t take a pandemic to get us there.
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