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Second Shift

The Horrors Of Pumping Breast Milk At Work (And Why Employers Should Care)

The unwillingness to accommodate new moms' needs is a symptom of how women are treated in the workplace, and it needs to change.

[Photo: Mason Marino via Flickr user kanarinka bot]

For new moms, transitioning from maternity leave back to office life is a rocky adjustment. Suddenly, there you are back on a work schedule (while still being on your baby’s anything-goes schedule), navigating child care and getting your game face back all while coping with the emotional terrain of spending less time at home with your child.

By federal law, employers are required to provide break time and a place for hourly workers to express breast milk at work, other than a bathroom stall. Salaried employees are offered no such protections and the rules can vary from state to state. While some companies offer "wellness rooms" or "lactation suites," many women find themselves pumping in a supply room or file closet. One woman said that she was given an office to pump in—unfortunately it had a glass door and no lock.

All of this can be needlessly dispiriting.

"As a new mom, you’re already feeling so much guilt around returning to work. Having to pump in the handicapped stall or in a janitor’s closet just adds a whole gruesome new layer," said Jennifer Senior, author of the best-selling All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.

A study by the stated that businesses that support mothers who choose to breastfeed their infants experience improved employee morale, increased employee retention, lower absenteeism, and are much more likely to return to work after childbirth. Per the USCB, companies that invest in these services can expect to see a "3 to 1 return on investment", largely from long term health care cost savings.

Still, not all companies have received the memo.

Maria, an executive at a digital marketing agency, was initially thrilled when her company guaranteed her an empty office with a lock on the door to pump in.

"It was bliss," she said.

But after three months, she was told that she had been given ample time and that she had to vacate the room.

"They made it into a junk and supply closet," she said. "I was allowed to pump in there but it was absurd. How could they expect me to pump while taking work calls and write emails while in an office filled with chairs, old computers, files, and old office equipment?"

Some women don’t even get an office to pump in. They’re told to curtain off their cubicles for privacy.

"The open office plan—no woman ever would have thought of that," said Senior. "I can’t think of anything worse for a woman than not having an office with a locked door to pump in."

Maria said that employers are often clueless about the mechanics of pumping and what it means for women.

"You have to get half-naked," she said. "Literally, half-naked in the workplace while strapped on this contraption. And if you don’t have an office door, people can hear the sound of the pump. Men get freaked out."

Maria told Fast Company that despite the fact that she enjoys her work and finds it challenging and creative, her company’s dismissive attitude toward her needs as a breastfeeding mother left a lasting impression.

"I’m looking for another job and honestly, it will probably be less interesting and rewarding," she said. "But I’d rather work for a more family-friendly company this time around. It’s not worth the heartache."

Here are three tips to make sure you and your manager are on the same page when it comes to pumping at work.

Ask About Maternity Policies When Interviewing

Savvy companies are realizing that providing top-notch facilities for new moms is a premium perk that sets them apart from competitors. A spokesperson from Facebook confirmed that the company has 16 "mother’s rooms" with chairs, pumps, gloves, and a no-men-allowed policy.

The company also takes the transition back from maternity leave very seriously. It offers new mom workshops in its Menlo Park offices on everything from breastfeeding tips to making a practical plan with managers on how easing back into the office. It also offers parking for pregnant moms and flexible work hours.

Consider Company Culture

If there’s more craft brew than breast milk in the work fridge, you may have an uphill battle ahead of you when it comes to getting your 28-year-old manager to understand that you can’t attend the midday call because you need to pump right now or else.

XO Group, a publisher of women’s lifestyle sites including The Bump and The Knot, says that offering clean, welcoming facilities to new mothers is part of their personal ethos. "We inspire and empower millions of women each month, and that empowerment begins within the walls of our organization with our employees, said CFO Gillian Munson. "Allowing mothers to nurse is good for everyone: the employee/mom, the employer, and most importantly, that new baby."

Be Vocal

"It’s barbaric to expect a woman to pump in a closet or in a handicapped stall," said Senior. "The sad thing is that a small gesture from a company can go a long way. All that’s really needed is a room with a locked door, a reclining chair, and maybe a mini fridge. That’s really not all that much to ask." If your company doesn’t provide acceptable accommodations, tell them what other companies are offering and that they need to up their game to stay competitive.

Correction: A previous version of this article neglected to cite the United States Breastfeeding Committee as the source for the success of worksite lactation programs.

Lindsay Goldwert is a journalist and comedy writer with a special interest in workplace health and lifestyle issues. Her work has appeared in FastCompany.com, Slate, the New York Daily News, Redbook and many others. She lives in Queens, New York.

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