After you’ve carried your baby inside of you for nine months and had an arduous labor, the last thing on your mind is wondering how pumping at work will be. You’re just immersed in baby snuggles, feeding struggles, and daily sleep deprivation. Those first few months are a blur of motherhood, regardless of whether or not it’s your first baby. Having a baby is always a big transition.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on how to feed your baby. My doctor, the hospital, and social media all pointed to “breastfeeding is best,” so I thought it had to be the natural way and, as such, would be easy. After all, mothers have been doing this since the dawn of time without lactation consultants. How hard could it be?
I was in for a rude awakening because, contrary to what I was led to believe, my breastfeeding journey felt very unnatural and challenging. And just when I thought I had mastered breastfeeding after experiencing blistered, bloody nipples and countless cluster feeding sessions, I had to climb a new mountain: pumping at work.
When I decided I would pump at work while I was still on my maternity leave, I was not aware of the commitment I would be undertaking. I soon discovered I needed to create a freezer stash and devise effective methods to maintain/increase my milk supply as I transitioned back to work. As someone who takes their responsibilities very seriously, I dedicate myself wholeheartedly to my commitment, regardless of the consequences. I naively thought my pumping-at-work journey would be seamless and successful because of my efforts.
I discovered a lot about myself, my rights, and gender disparities through my pumping experience. Below are five lessons I learned about pumping at work.
1. Don’t rely on your employer to set you up for success
You have a long checklist of things to do before you go on maternity leave, including delegating your work responsibilities and figuring out child care for when you return to work (or at least begin to think of options). Pumping at work was the last thing on my mind—thinking back, there are so many things I should have set up with my employer prior to my leave.
First, I should have studied the federal, state, and my organization’s laws and policies related to pumping at work. Yes, working mothers who pump have rights that are protected by law! The Affordable Care Act (ACA) amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to mandate that employers are not only required to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year …”, but they also must provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”
You are entitled to have a safe and secure place to pump at the workplace. I wish I had known this so I didn’t feel like my employer was doing me a favor. It felt like an imposition when I requested a lock to the door to my pumping room and when I asked them to cover the window pane surrounding the door. While I’m thankful my workplace made accommodations, doing this a few weeks before returning to work brought me unnecessary stress—I should have set this up prior to my leave. One thing I learned is that we cannot expect our employer to understand all of our needs as mothers; we have to be proactive. Use your voice early on when you’re pregnant to save yourself stress upon your postpartum return.
2. Pumping at work is an investment
I scrambled a few weeks before my maternity leave ended because I thought having the right pump and some storage bags was enough to be prepared. What I didn’t realize was that having a quality hands-free bra would be a game-changer and that fancy pumping bag would actually make the daily commute easier. Months into pumping at work, I caved and bought a second pump because lugging that machine around several times a day got tiring.
Purchase whatever you can afford to make your pumping sessions comfortable and efficient. Invest in pumping supplies because when you’re doing it at work three to four times a day, you welcome any luxury. Mentally and physically, it makes a difference.
Be prepared if you find yourself at a crossroads when you have to choose where you will invest your time. At some point, I had to decide whether I should be late to that meeting or try to pump more milk. I never thought I would have to choose between the two, but I was faced with this situation daily. I chose to prioritize my family’s needs above the demands of my work calendar. This may have frustrated some colleagues, but I made my choice with no regrets.
3. A return from maternity leave is not the same as a return from paternity leave
Pumping at work is an emotional endeavor. You miss your baby and feel pulled in many directions throughout your day. Slicing up your work day to squeeze in pumping sessions in a cold, impersonal room doesn’t really inspire your body to produce milk. I felt overwhelmed the entire time I pumped even though I would work through my pumping sessions. I felt perpetually behind and inadequate.
Fathers don’t have to deal with any of these issues when they return from paternity leave. I found myself feeling resentment toward my husband because in my eyes, he got to go to work and lead a “carefree” work life. Although that perception probably wasn’t fully accurate, it was something that boiled up inside of me and caused tension in our marriage.
Why aren’t fathers more outwardly supportive of us at work? Why are our colleagues who are fathers not more understanding of the sacrifices we make when we pump at work? I understand a father can never truly understand what it is like to express milk while responding to a time-sensitive email, but I would have welcomed more empathy and advocacy. These thoughts haunted me and, ultimately, catapulted me to be my own hero.
4. Beware of the haters; stay close to the cheerleaders
Not everyone will understand the importance of you pumping milk at work to feed your baby. In fact, some of your colleagues may complain (to your face or behind your back) about you being late to meetings or how often you pump. Whether the intentions are malicious or naively insensitive, being on the receiving end of these thoughts can be hurtful.
I experienced some of this anti-pumping sentiment and can still recall the pain it caused me. I once had a colleague question why I insisted on pumping at work vs. formula feeding. She said, “Why don’t you just use formula to make your life easier?” Although I have nothing against formula feeding (fed is best!), at the time, I was insulted by her imposition and lack of empathy.
On the flip side, I’ve had so many wonderful people who were my cheerleaders, including my amazing boss and many working mothers, who showed empathy and patience and demonstrated flexibility in accommodating my needs. I remember all of them and am forever grateful for their kindness.
I will never forget the day someone mistakenly scheduled a meeting at the same time in the same room I was going to pump in. The only solution I had was to go into another office and pump, but the office doors all had uncovered window panes, so no private room was available. A colleague, whom I consider my guardian angel, saw the tears in my eyes and graciously offered her office so I could pump, stress-free and in private.
Spend your time and energy with the folks who bring you joy and disregard those who are not worthy of you. Pumping at work is easier when you have people who are willing to support you in public and at a more micro, private level.
5. Know when enough is enough
Let me shout from the rooftops: “Fed is best!” Pumping at work is not the only way to feed your child. I wish I had understood that during those endless pumping sessions when I’d sacrifice so much to make sure my milk supply didn’t become depleted. My goal at the end of my long workday was to hold my son in my arms and feed him on my breast. I remember just being lost in his beauty and feeling at home with him in my arms.
But I now realize I should have stopped sooner. When it began to affect my mental health, I should have ended pumping at work. When my milk supply plummeted and I went to the hospital maternity floor on my lunch break crying that I broke my pump and felt engorged, I should have stepped away from pumping and reclaimed my sanity.
I wish I would have known my limits and stopped putting so much pressure to do it all. We are living in a time when there are other options on how to feed our children. Take advantage of these resources and show yourself some grace. You and your family are the priority.
Mamas, I applaud any decision you make regarding feeding your child. This pumping-at-work experience reminded me to take care of my needs because I matter just as much as my baby does. While it came at physical and mental health costs, I later realized that it gave me a voice to stand up for myself. Finally, it taught me boundaries and the beauty of our bodies. Mothers are masterpieces.