The Affordable Care Act requires that most employers provide a private space for new mothers to pump milk–that’s not just a bathroom stall. But in the eight years since the law came into effect, some companies have decided to interpret it by designating closets, shower stalls, and single-stall bathrooms as lactation rooms. Others have no place to pump at all and some moms have resigned to pumping in their cars as a result. A lack of a place to pump can contribute to a woman’s decision to stop breastfeeding her child, which increases the chances of her baby getting sick. And workplaces can often be hostile to women when they need to express milk–one woman told the Washington Post that she wasn’t allowed to leave a meeting at the tech startup she worked for, and she began to leak milk through her shirt. She soon quit the company. The lactation room, or lack thereof, has become symbolic of how workplaces treat mothers. So what does the ideal place to pump at work look like?
For our series Provocation, Co.Design asked three employees at the architecture firm Perkins+Will–who also happen to be working moms–to design the lactation room of their dreams. Perkins+Will does have lactation rooms, and in the course of their work some of the women who worked on the concept here have designed such rooms for many companies–often designated as multipurpose wellness rooms. But this was their chance to design the perfect place to pump.
Their final design includes two private rooms with a small anteroom that has amenities like a sink and microwave for cleaning or sterilizing pump parts, a fridge to keep the milk as well as snacks and water, and seating for moments when moms need to wait for a room to vacate.
The specifics of the design are all derived from each of the three moms’ experiences. Perkins+Will research knowledge manager Christine Dansereau, who returned to work in December 2016 after having her baby, was one of six new moms who needed to pump–which meant that the firm’s two rooms were often booked during the times she needed. She often founder herself hovering outside awkwardly, waiting for someone to finish.
For interior project designer Alyssa Carata, there were no other new moms when she returned to work in January 2016, but she found that many other people in her office would use the space, which is a multipurpose “wellness” room, to lay down or even just change clothes. Because the room was often occupied, especially at the end of the day, she found it difficult to find time when she could grab the milk she’d stored in the room’s refrigerator. That’s an issue other women have talked about as well–notoriously, Uber’s founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick used the company’s lactation rooms to meditate. Imagine needing to pump and having to ask the CEO of your company to leave.
These situations, while not ideal, were far better than what senior interior project designer Lara Leskaj experienced. She returned to work after giving birth 13 years ago, pre-Affordable Care Act, and there was no room for her to pump at all. Instead, she used a phone room where she taped paper onto the glass. “I would hear people conversing and talking about palettes and projects right outside my door,” she says. “And they would hear the noise of my pump.” When she was done, she had to stash her breast milk in the shared company refrigerator.
Things have changed a lot since then. The law has helped, combined with companies beginning to realize how something as simple as a nice, private space for a woman to pump after giving birth can help retain female workers. And because breastfed babies get sick less, lactation rooms can mean lower healthcare costs and fewer missed days of work for parents.
The women’s vision for the lactation room of their dreams isn’t particularly fancy, nor would it cost companies much more than they’re already spending on this type of space. Even though it looks a lot bigger than just two rooms, the designers propose making the pumping rooms a bit smaller so that in total the idea only requires about 25 to 50 square feet of extra space.
The anteroom is the crux of the idea, providing the practical amenities like a place to clean the pump, a refrigerator to store breast milk, and perhaps even spare pump parts. Not only does it help with the logistics of waiting when other people are using the rooms, but it also provides something of a community space. “It’s nice to be able to commiserate and share resources, so while it’s not a hub where everyone gets together, there are going to be chance encounters of people coming and going,” Dansereau says.
It also provides a middle ground between private rooms, which don’t allow for any sense of community, and lactation rooms meant for multiple women to use at once–the latter is something that all three women found uncomfortable. “You might be fine with a peer or friend or stranger, but pumping next to your boss–which is going to be more of a reality as people from mid-20s to early 40s are having babies–it’s not for everyone,” Dansereau says.
The rooms themselves are also designed to be both comfortable and useful. Carata has found that often lactation rooms haven’t been designed with mothers’ functional needs in mind–she recalls visiting a client’s office and needing to pump there, but the outlet for her to plug in her pump was so far away from the room’s heavy lounge chair that she had to stand and pump at the same time. “It’s fine and 100% better than going to a bathroom or finding a random spot,” Carata says. “But just because it has the requirements doesn’t mean it’s working properly.”
The women were certain to ensure that the pumping rooms’ seating is in fact next to the outlet. The rooms’ furniture can also be adjusted to either a lounging position, which some mothers need to pump, or a working position–the women said that they frequently would answer emails while pumping. Their concept rooms also feature a hook to hang their shirt on and full-length mirrors.
Part of the challenge the women have faced in the past when designing these types of rooms has been that they have to educate their clients about every aspect of the pumping experience. “I think a lot of the time the people we’re speaking to have never needed a room,” Carata says, referencing the higher level executives who may be dictating what amenities an office has. “They might understand that having the room is a retention aid–it helps retain a female workforce–but they may not know the nuances of what goes into the room and why it’s important.”
This story is part of Co.Design’s conceptual design series, Provocation. Previously I’ve written about Box Clever’s autonomous car drone buddies. Check out the rest of the series as it’s published here.