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6 executives on what no one ever told them about breastfeeding at work

Breastfeeding and pumping introduces any number of challenges into the average workday. Here’s how 6 women managed—and their best tips for how to do it well.

6 executives on what no one ever told them about breastfeeding at work
[Photo: Aliseenko/iStock]

Back in 2017, mom Jenny Tamas posted a viral picture on Instagram, estimating in the caption that over the course of her baby’s first year, she’d spent 1,800 hours breastfeeding or pumping milk. When you consider a 40-hour-a-week gig with a week’s vacation comes to 2,040 hours, nursing is comparable to taking on a second full-time job. And while the discussion around breastfeeding and work continues to grow, many parents see a desperate need for change. 

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The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a private space for employees to pump breast milk up to one year post-birth. But the Act doesn’t necessarily improve the pumping experience. Katie B. Garner, mom of three and the CEO and executive director of the International Association of Maternal Action and Scholarship, has interviewed 100 mothers across the country for research, and they all shared one opinion: “Every single mom I’ve talked to who nursed after returning to work said it was hellish,” she says.

Many companies don’t follow the mandates, she says, and even if they do, a stigma often remains. However she found that few people complain since they feel having a baby puts their career on thin ice already. “This leaves women sitting on floors of storage rooms, pumping milk while sitting on a toilet, or, as one teacher told me, sitting under her desk to get privacy while her students were at recess,” she says. To elicit change and promote acceptance, six executives shared what surprised them the most about breastfeeding while working.

There is often little support—or discussion

When Niki Hall, chief marketing officer at Selligent Marketing Cloud, became a mother in 2007 at 33, it was a happy time. Not only because she had a healthy baby but because she was a two-time cancer survivor who had an ovary removed when she underwent chemotherapy in her teens. Though she was able to be at home for six months, she wished the time could have been longer. Especially since, when she headed back to the office more than a decade ago, the topic of “pumping” was taboo. Today, the “mothers room” at her company is cozy and a stark contrast to the sterile room with a desk that she pumped in 11 years ago. 

Hall encourages prospective parents to scout their next career move with this lifestyle shift in mind. “Just as you’d interview the company for culture, growth prospects, and financial viability, also ask them about their maternity benefits and the ‘new mom culture’,” says Hall, who now has two children. “Don’t just take it from the recruiter; ask to speak with other moms who have recently come back into the workforce to get their firsthand perspective.”

It takes a lot of mental stamina 

As the founder and president of her own public relations agency, Jeneration PR, Jen Berson was able to work from home after she gave birth to her two sons in 2010 and 2012. While this allowed for more flexibility, it also meant she was back on email within a few days post-birth. She appreciated the freedom that came with pumping, allowing her to travel for meetings, see her friends, and allow her partner to bond with the baby, but said she was surprised with how much mental space thoughts about milk supply took up. 

“As a working mother, breastfeeding actually takes a lot of preparation, planning, and strategy,” says Berson. “You’re always thinking about the time in between feedings and how long you have before the baby needs to eat again, how many ounces they need each feeding, and what your actual yield is. . . . You have to plan to have your pump with you and have to scope out a place to pump, then clean the components and store the milk before you can bring it home. It was something that took a lot of mental bandwidth to execute.”

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It’s okay if baby needs to tag along

When Jacqueline Grady Smith became a mom in fall of 2018, she was building her startup, not just co, while also working full-time. She took her three month maternity leave to get her business up and running and quickly decided to quit the other gig to focus on her two babies: her daughter and the company. This was due to plenty of factors, but the convenience of having a private space, taking her daughter along for meetings, and other perks were part of her decision—especially since her former job only offered a coworker’s office as a place to pump. 

As an entrepreneur and a working mom, she says she quickly realized how easy it was to bring her daughter along to meetings. “People were surprisingly accommodating. I was up front at the beginning of each meeting that I would step out and let my cofounder continue if she got disruptive, but thankfully, I timed things well, so she slept,” she says. 

Though she says it sometimes surprises people—especially men—the conversation around breastfeeding has shifted. “When I started my career in D.C., none of the women I worked with ever talked about breastfeeding or pumping, even though they must have been doing it,” she says. “Motherhood and all of its complexities, including breastfeeding, should not need to be hidden or tucked away or ignored: the experience is rich and brings one new and fresh perspectives that are complementary to work.”

It requires a whole new wardrobe

When Kate Wiegmann had her daughter in January 2018, she stayed home for 12 weeks but started checking emails almost immediately. This was a personal choice for the chief operating officer of RISE Collaborative Workspace. She said she missed the professional side of herself and couldn’t fully step away from the company she helped to build. When she returned to the office, she was pumping three times a day. She said that the company’s “mother’s room” was great, but she was surprised by the wardrobe changes she had to make.

“Most dresses were a no-go as they essentially require stripping down completely naked to pump. Silk or satin tops show any hint of breastmilk, and it’s smart to keep a backup outfit in your car or office just in case you have a drip, spill, or leak, because nothing spot cleans breastmilk,” she says. “Any top that could be pulled down—not up—became my outfit of choice, which was pretty much the opposite of my in-person breastfeeding wardrobe.” 

In addition to shifting her style, she also had a steep learning curve with pumping. Even though she went to lactation classes, she felt unprepared for the ins and outs of returning to work and maintaining supply. She believes there should be more literature available to breastfeeding professionals, to help them to ask for better conditions and resources within their offices.

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Traveling becomes more difficult

Plenty of executives and entrepreneurs must travel for work to grow their businesses or nurture client relationships. Cofounder and CEO of Birchbox Katia Beauchamp is a mom of four, and when she welcomed her first child into the world in 2014, she says she expected pumping to be hard. Not only are you hooked up to a machine that she says “makes you feel like a farm animal,” but you’re trying to be productive while doing it.

This makes hurdles—like wardrobe malfunctions, missing pumping parts, and so on—that much more strenuous. For Beauchamp, traveling took on a whole new level of stress. She says TSA has stopped her several times and accusingly asked where her baby was—as in “If this is breast milk, then prove it with a baby.” It doesn’t stop at security either; she’s found flight attendants to generally be less than accommodating as well.

Beauchamp says 99% of time, she’s met with a sigh at the request of ice or a place to store the milk. Similar problems arise in hotel rooms: “Did you know that refrigerators in hotel rooms are actually just chillers?” she says. “They don’t really make things cold, but they keep things cold. Your best option is to ask the hotel to put it in their freezer. Most of the time it’s fine, aside from a few of the grossed-out reactions I get from the concierge, or when they occasionally ‘misplace’ my milk.”

Parents must advocate for themselves

Since 2014, plenty has changed for Amy Nelson, the founder and CEO of The Riveter. She’s had four children, quit a job, started a company—and learned plenty along the way. Today, with four kids and a young business, she’s working full-time. It’s a hectic but happy place to be in, and Nelson says it looks very different than her experience in corporate America. Even though she had a decade of experience working as a litigator when she first became pregnant, she felt as if colleagues, counsel, and judges instantly perceived her differently once she shared the news of her pregnancy. 

When she returned to work, she was surprised at how much she had to fight for herself to have the privacy and time required to pump. “At one of my workplaces, my boss’s boss would not approve blinds in my internal office so that I could pump while I worked, asking instead that I trek across the corporate campus multiple times a day to pump. That would mean more time away from my children due to unproductive time at work pumping, whereas if I could pump in my office, I would have been able to take calls while the pump ran in the background. I even offered to pay for the blinds!” she says. “Ultimately, after refusing to take no for an answer, I was allowed to put up the blinds. But by that point, it felt uncomfortable and adversarial. Why should we want to make any mother feel that way?”

She encourages working moms to not just talk but demand permanent, easily accessible places to make breastfeeding and pumping less stressful.

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