Medicine tells us “breast is best.” Society tells us to say, “I am woman, hear me roar.” So here we are: empowered, educated, employed. We’re making our own money. We have careers. We have husbands. We have wives. We have babies. Sometimes, we do this whole gosh darn thing on our own as single moms.
And then when we have babies, we say “OK, I want to breastfeed. But…wait…how do I breastfeed if I’m gone 8 to 12 hours a day away from my baby?! I can’t go back to work after six weeks. I need more time home. We need to bond. My milk is still regulating, and my baby isn’t sleeping. My incision isn’t healing.”
The United States heard our cries, loud and clear. But instead of giving us what we wish we could have — a more plausible, realistic maternity leave option — they gave us the opposite. They made it easier for us to come back to work even earlier. They gave us: the Right To Pump. Gee, thanks, USA.
I can’t speak for all women, but when I had to leave my 8-week-old babies with someone besides myself or my husband, I was literally filled with dread. You know that feeling you get in your stomach when something bad has happened? Like that stomach drop? That’s the feeling I had all day, every day, for a very long time.
It’s like my brain and my body just knew something wasn’t right. Each time, my heart was literally aching for them. My brain knew something was missing (I got teary-eyed as I typed that). My babies were missing, 56 days after giving birth, and my body knew it. That feeling, that anxiety and dread was a physical and emotional reaction to them being away from me, an absolute shock to my system.
And even though I knew it didn’t feel right, even though everything in my being screamed “No!” I went back because I am the breadwinner and insurance-holder. I am valuable to my family and our survival, and we cannot go without my income. It’s not an option for us, not even for a few weeks. But in addition to being the breadwinner, I am also our baby’s food source.
So, to my fellow working and pumping mommas:
I know you’re using your break time to pump. I know you’re eating while pumping or eating while working because your lunch break is spent making sure your baby has lunch for tomorrow. I know that each and every time you stand up to say, “I need to go pump now,” you are wondering if it is convenient for your co-workers.
I know you will pick up your pump bag and go to a room that barely fits the legal requirements set forth by the government. You will hang a sign on the door — warning people not to enter — and they will still, undoubtedly, enter. Or maybe you’ll just cover yourself and pump in your office or cubicle while others work around you.
I know you will milk yourself until you get enough for a feeding. I know you will do this as often as your baby might be eating. A 6-week-old baby eats often — very, very often. I know that sometimes you will not come home with enough milk for your baby. I know you will feel like a failure.
I also know that these “right-to-pump” breaks aren’t paid. And maybe your employer requires you to clock out for all these pump sessions, and for every minute you’re clocked out, you need to stay longer. This just adds more time onto the end of your already very long day and makes it even longer until you’re home with that sweet, warm baby.
I know you will stand up and announce that you need to go pump, and you will hear a symphony of comments from your co-workers: “Again?” “How long are you going to do that?” “Haven’t you weaned yet?” “Ugh, that’s so gross.” “Doesn’t it make you feel like a cow?” “You don’t put your milk in the employee fridge, do you?” ” I wish I got to take ‘breaks’ like you do.”
I know the guilt you feel because all you really want to do is what is best, what works, for you and your baby. I know you yearn for lunch with co-workers again. I know that looking at those videos on your phone of your little lovey while you pump, really does help your pump output. I know that those close-up videos you take, you know, the ones where you can actually hear those little panting breaths that babies do, can literally bring tears to your eyes.
I know that a “good pump” deserves a high five and a hug. I know that a fellow pumping co-worker will be your new work BFF because she gets it. I know that when you’re home the last thing you want to do is pump. You want that baby in your arms and nuzzled into your neck. You want those big round eyes looking up at you and that cheesy smile while they’re still latched. I know that pumping is a labor of love. I know that our stay-at-home mom friends just don’t get it.
I know that it makes you feel like you’re under yet another microscope at work. “How many minutes has she been in there pumping?” “How many breaks does she get?” “How long do we have to let her do this?” “Is her work getting done?” “Why can’t she just formula feed?” I know that while you’re up all night with that sweet little baby, you are worried about how you are going to perform the next day at work, but at the same time you are cherishing those quiet moments. Those moments when no one else is around. It’s dark and it’s calm — and you can just feed your baby and stroke his hair and try not to think about how you’re going to pull yourself together in three hours when your alarm goes off. I know that dry shampoo and pumping friendly tops are your new best friends.
I know that coffee makes your world go round. I know that hearing, “You look tired,” becomes a mainstay. I know that mastitis and nipple blanching and vasospasms are a son of a B-word. And between using all your paid time off for maternity leave and sick babies, you cannot miss any more work to care for these ailments. And even if you did miss work, no one would understand anyway.
I know what it feels like to have your professionalism questioned, and I know you already worry about how they can even take you seriously when you leaked breast milk through your top last week, and you cried the other day for no good reason, and you are barely, barely keeping up on your work. I know that between the housework and the momming and the working and the pumping, you are at the end of your rope.
This is the reality of a working breastfeeding mom.
The question of “How do we, as women, have careers and feed our babies?” fell on uninterested ears. We wanted a solution, and they gave us this: “Here is a pump and a room. Your employer will not be able to penalize you for pumping. They legally have to let you do it, but they don’t have to like it, and they don’t have to make it easy for you. Now, if you would be so kind, get back to work 42 days after you have a baby.”
In reality, all we really want are the same rights as dogs — bear with me here! In almost all of the 50 U.S. states, it is illegal to take a puppy away from its mother before they’re weaned at 8-weeks-old (when they are ready for solids). As of today, dogs in the United States have a better maternity leave policy than we do! Humans should have that right as well. Why isn’t it illegal to separate a human baby from its mother until that baby is ready for solids (at six months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics)? Dogs get it. Why don’t we?
For my children’s sake, I hope they will never have to choose between their jobs and what is best for their babies. Extended/paid maternity leave needs to happen, and it needs to happen soon.
Until then, pump on, mommas. Keep on fighting the good fight.