Although you might’ve toyed with the idea previously, when the pregnancy test comes out positive, all of a sudden you have to make the decision: how will you feed your baby? For some like me, it’s not even a decision. You’ve seen the studies, you’ve done the reading, and you’ve gathered advice from several reliable sources. You will be breastfeeding your baby. As your due date approaches, though, a new question forms in your mind: what will you do when you return to work? Not returning is not an option and neither is giving your baby formula while you’re at work. Again, the decision seems almost made for you: you will have to pump.
For now, you don’t worry about the logistics of pumping because you have bigger concerns. Actually, it’s one concern: your boss. Although he doesn’t exactly forbid your breaks, he doesn’t ever make sure you get to take them or express concern when you don’t, either. His previous assistants, whom he absolutely adored, put their babies in daycare so they could continue working late and chose to formula-feed for convenience and other reasons. How do you tell him that you’re going to need a quiet, private place to pump three times a day and that you’ll be unavailable to him or anyone else during your sessions? How do you tell him that you will refuse to work overtime except under extreme duress because you have to be home in time to feed your baby his or her next feeding?
It goes almost without saying that you must do your homework. A quick Google search of “Breastfeeding laws in ” will yield hundreds of websites that will provide you with a solid foundation on which to build your case. If you are the first one to ever pump at your job, then you will have a tougher job than those who will come after you, but do not despair. Think of yourself as a trailblazer; others who might not have the strength to lead will benefit from you doing your job properly now. Also, won’t it be great to have a true, personal story to illustrate what you mean when you one day teach your child to stand by his or her decisions?
After you ferret out the laws regarding whether or not your employer is obligated to provide you with a space, you can build your strategy from there. For the sake of this article, let’s suppose that they are not obligated (which is the sad truth in many states) because then you will have to be more thorough in your preparations than if they were. First, think of what your biggest concern would be if you were in your boss’s shoes. For most bosses, it’s the loss of productivity. If you work in a cubicle or at a shared desk, then offer to have your calls and emails forward to your cell phone during your sessions when you have to relocate. If you have your own office with a locking door that can serve as your pumping station, then pitch the idea of finding work you can do while you pump.
For me, it was checking a busy voicemail, returning voicemails and emails, and scheduling appointments, which are all things you can do without having to interact with people face-to-face. Maybe you can type up the notes from your last meeting or sort the pile of paperwork that seems to accumulate on your desk every day. Although I don’t recommend you stating this to your boss, please note that your productivity will suffer even if you work while you pump. Unless you have a pumping bra, at least one hand will have to be on the pump at all times, which means you’ll have to work one-handed. Based on my own experience, in the beginning, it’ll take you about a half hour to get 4 or 5 ounces with a an electric pump if you’re working while you pump.
As time goes by and you discover little tricks for coaxing your milk out faster, you might be able to fill a bottle in 10-15 minutes, but in the beginning, propose a half-hour so your boss won’t feel like you lied to him. Be sure to mention that at least one of the sessions will be during your lunch break (yes, you will have to sacrifice your breaks). In most companies, you also get two fifteen-minute breaks in the course of the day, and although you can use these as well, be prepared for your boss to ask you to punch out during those times. If he does ask that of you, then rescind your offer to work while you pump. If you’re not getting paid, then you’re not working. Period.
On a side note, please do not let yourself get talked into using the restroom as your “quiet, private place” for pumping. It is neither quiet nor private, and it is not sanitary. Do not pump anywhere where you wouldn’t want to take your own food. Your baby deserves germ-free food from a germ-free container, and you can’t guarantee that if you’re pumping in a place where people eliminate their waste.
After you have your plan, request a meeting with your boss. Be polite, but do not allow yourself to be coaxed into having this important conversation in bits and pieces as your boss finds time. Ask to be put on his schedule like any other appointment. This will show your boss that what you have to say is important to you and that you demand to be taken seriously (without actually demanding, so he won’t feel that his authority is being challenged). The next part, for those of you who are shy about confrontation, will be the most difficult part. Bring notes if you are afraid that the pressure of the situation will cause you to forget your key points, but for the most part, try to maintain eye contact with your boss as you speak. If you feel yourself about to back down, rub that rounding belly of yours and remember that you’re doing this for your child. For those of you who have trouble finding the right words to say, here’s an example based on my conversation with my boss:
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. I’m going out on leave soon, and I need to discuss a few things about my return with you. I am planning to breastfeed my baby, and my goal is to do so until they are at least one. This means that I will need to pump here at work. I know that you are probably worried that my productivity will suffer, but I have a plan to negate the effect of being unavailable three times a day. In the beginning, I anticipate needing three half hour sessions, one session of which will coincide with my lunch break. For the other two breaks, I am prepared to work while I pump, to check and answer voicemails and emails while behind closed doors.”
After that, give your boss a chance to think about what you’ve just said. Sit quietly with your hands folded in your lap while he thinks, and fight the urge to fidget and the urge to break the silence. Fidgeting belies nervousness, and you are trying to project an image of confidence and determination. If you begin to speak before he does, you might find yourself compromising on things that you will regret compromising on later, and you will be giving him the impression that you can be persuaded into changing your mind. When he begins to speak, listen to his words closely because he will probably have chosen them carefully. Reflect what he says back to him, counter his statement, and finish with a solution.
For example, if he says that he’s afraid that other employees will feel that you are getting special treatment, then say, “I understand that you are concerned about the other employees’ reactions to my situation, but I am confident that that will not be an issue because I am not going to hide what I am doing. Secrecy creates doubts and suspicions. If an employee wonders where I go or why I am unavailable, I will tell them. I am not ashamed of what I have to do to provide nourishment to my child. I will also make sure that it is general knowledge that although I am not available for face-to-face interaction, I am still working from my remote location or from behind my closed door.” The conversation will probably go back and forth a few more times, depending on how resistant your boss is to the idea, but stand firm. Make sure that when you leave his office, you are both aware of when, where, and how often you will pump.
Now, let’s flash forward a few months. You’ve birthed your beautiful baby, you’ve established a feeding routine, and you’re preparing to return to work and implement the plan you laid out with your boss months ago. There are a few more things you must do before your first day back. First, stop by the office (preferably with your irresistible baby!), and confirm with your boss that you are indeed breastfeeding. Ask that he discretely speak with anyone who has keys to your office or the place where you will be pumping to reinforce (or possibly create) the policy of knocking before entering. Propose the idea of putting up a Do Not Enter sign when you are pumping and taking it down when you are not. Then, go home, and work on your sense of humor because you will need it in the months ahead.
My parents raised me to laugh about almost everything, but if your parents didn’t do the same, you will have to prepare yourself now. You will probably have to endure good-natured jokes (in the beginning, my boss liked to tell other managers that he had his own dairy farm on the premises), rude comments (my HR manager once “joked” that my office smelled like lactose – I wasn’t aware that lactose had an identifiable smell), and rampant curiosity (at one point or another, nearly every one of our 120 employees and of our 5 or 6 regular contractors has asked me “what [I] do in there”). Regardless of how you are approached, you must respond with gentle good humor, sincerity, and grace. You are the face of breastfeeding and pumping at your company. In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg wrote about a time when she substituted for a teacher in Elkton, MN:
“I tell the twenty-five eighth graders that I am a Jew after I hear that rabbis is one of their spelling words. None of them has ever seen a Jew before. I am aware that everything I do now for the next hour represents ‘Jew.’ I walk in eating an apple: all Jews now will eat apples. I tell them I have never lived in a small town: now no Jew has ever lived in the country. One student asked if I knew anyone in a concentration camp.[i]”
That is who you are now. Everything you do will represent women who nurse and pump. If you are always late, then all nursing mothers will be late. If you are rude, uncooperative, emotional, mean, etc., then all nursing mothers will be those things. The same is true for positive attributes. If you are always punctual, gracious, humorous, cooperative, helpful, etc., then your company will form the perception that all nursing mothers are those things. There will be the hopefully-occasional uncomfortable question and rude comment plus an amazing abundance of milk jokes. You are the leader, and you will have to bear the brunt of it.
Even if they never acknowledge it, others who follow in your beautiful, strong footsteps will have a much easier time thanks to you. On top of that, your baby will be as healthy as can be, and you will end up earning respect and admiration from many unlikely sources. In my case, my boss is now in awe of the fact that I “stuck with it” for this long and openly commends my stick-to-itiveness. Wait until he hears that I’ve decided not to wean my baby at a year…but that’s a topic for another article. Good luck, trailblazer, and please stay tuned for my next article: “Telling Your Boss that You’ve Decided not to Wean”!
[i] Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones (Boston & London, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986).