It’s hard to get pumped (pun intended) about balancing breastfeeding and work. If the time commitment and isolating nursing room experience weren’t challenging enough, mothers find themselves stuck between non-existent policies and a push to pump. World Breastfeeding Week is winding down and this year’s theme “Let’s Make It Work” is important stuff. But “Let’s Get Time” remains as a more valuable and effective goal. As companies offer more Ikea-like nursing rooms and more pumping perks it can create the dangerous illusion that breastfeeding and work are finally working which really shouldn’t be our only end game.
What mothers really need is the ever-elusive federal paid family leave provision and more policies that allow for co-located child care, flextime, telecommuting options and compressed workweeks, which would give us time to be with our children. Instead we settle for being shuttled into lonely but nicely decorated rooms away from our babies and then get excited when we are given the relatively low-cost perk from a Fortune 500 company of climate-controlled packaging (IBM recently announced that it would pay for mothers to ship expressed milk back to their baby while on business trips).
Yes, we may get to ship our milk to our babies but is that supposed to compensate for the fact that we don’t get to be with our babies? Studies show U.S. women still work more hours per week than in any other country. Many corporate cultures still value time at the office and bar bonding afterward versus actual productivity—a trend that undermines the work of mothering. And making it easier to pump milk or get it home, doesn’t necessarily help me get home. We are still separated from our babies more than most mothers truly want, but many feel they have no other choice.
More time off would actually allow moms to properly establish their breastfeeding routine and extend the time of breastfeeding at the breast before transitioning to pumping. When mothers are returning to work two to three weeks after childbirth, many don’t bother to start breastfeeding and others stop so soon because the barriers seem insurmountable.
Meanwhile, turning into a pump nation could reduce some of the health benefits of breastfeeding. “Milk that is directly obtained from the breast is better because bottle-feeding reduces the effectiveness of antibodies and kills living cells found in breastmilk, “ says Dalvery Blackwell, an IBCLC in Milwaukee. Also pumped milk doesn’t have the same fat consistency as milk received directly from the breast and some of the precious fat is lost in the pump parts, says says Dr. Miriam Labbok, a professor at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. “An increased reliance on pumping, especially early in the breastfeeding relationship, will certainly blunt some of the benefits of breastfeeding,” adds Labbok who is also the director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute.
Meanwhile, the private sector is stepping up to fill in some of the “time” gaps, recognizing that accommodating family dynamics improves retention and employee satisfaction. Companies like Microsoft, McDonalds, Chipotle and Change.org have recently extended their paid maternity leave to 18 weeks. However, many of these policies aren’t being adopted by companies with mostly hourly employees, such as factory and retail workers. This continues to widen the socio-economic disparity of which infants are breastfed and for how long in this country.
How did we end up here—reliant on machines to finish the job our culture won’t let us completely fulfill on our own? Well, you can partly thank feminism. Going back to the mid-nineteenth century, feminists in this country channeled much of their energy into fighting for equality with men under the premise that once all the legislation that discriminates against women is dismantled, the playing field would become level and women would assume their rightful place in society as equal to men. A noble goal indeed. The only flaw in this premise is that by looking to be equal to men we forgot to fight for the things that make us uniquely women—like our ability to lactate and produce food for our young. These aspects of motherhood were suppressed for the overall goal. And now we are in the predicament of using words like “accommodation” as if mothering, or a woman’s biological norm to lactate, requires some special consideration when it should be normal to support women and families.
In the meantime, moms are indeed making it work, with a lot of creativity and Nike-like grit.
Marisa Levy, vice president of television development at TLC, says when she had to return to her busy work travel schedule after a seven week maternity leave, she had to learn which coolers were easier to get through airport security, how to use room service to freeze her cooling packs overnight, how to find a nursing bra that was functional and worked professionally, and how to pump discreetly on any type of moving vehicle.
But often there are regrets. “When I returned to work I still looked pregnant. I had barely gotten the hang of the oppressive breast-pump schedule necessary to keep my child in daycare and on breastmilk. I felt disconnected from myself as a mother. My focus was work. Years later, when I had my second child and qualified for a longer paid maternity leave, I reached the 7 week mark on my 12 week leave and broke down in tears. Only then did I truly understand what I had lost by returning to work so early with my first child,” Marisa shared on the It’s Working Project website, designed to improve the experience of working parents.
Ironically, this may be where women can learn from men. Studies show men create flexible work schedules without asking for permission. There may be ways to actually get home or have your baby brought to you so you can give your baby the milk yourself or better yet, get a little bonding time at the breast. The only “accommodation” should never be being separated from the food we uniquely provide and relying on a commercial product to deliver it. Yes, workplace nursing rooms and other perks are important but we should never stop pushing for more time.
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and social commentator on motherhood issues. A former writer at Fortune magazine and senior editor at Essence, her next book, The Big Let Down, a behind-the-scenes look at the battle for every infants’ first meal, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in the Spring. Kimberly currently leads the First Food Friendly Community Initiative, an innovative pilot program funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation designed to create a nationally replicable accreditation for communities who create more supportive environments for breastfeeding while promoting economic security for families. A graduate of NYU and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Kimberly is a divorced mother of two who lives in Long Island with her children. Learn more at www.KimberlySealsAllers.com and follow her @iamKSealsAllers.