When I was a working and nursing mom, I called pumping a “conference call.”
Glancing at my watch during meetings and saying apologetically, “Excuse me, I need to hop on a conference call” felt more comfortable than admitting the truth: that I was about to barricade my office, strip half naked, and hook myself up to a machine. At the time, I thought talking about pumping would undermine my credibility as a professional. I feared colleagues would question my work ethic and focus.
Because I am a lobbyist and often work from the State Capitol, my “conference call” ploy also involved excusing myself from budget hearings and bill conferences to walk several city blocks to my car to pump in a parking garage.
Recently, a female senator proposed a measure to designate private spaces in the Capitol where women could nurse or pump. A male senator laughingly introduced an amendment to place the lactation suites in the female senator’s office. “It’s not funny. It’s not funny. It’s not funny,” the female Senator was heard to murmur to herself. Her measure did not pass.
The message was clear: nursing moms should stay home. They have no place in government: as legislators, lobbyists, or citizen advocates. Is it any wonder, in this environment, that I trudged off to my “conference calls” day after day, afraid to acknowledge that I was straddling the line between employee and mom?
All of the difficulties I’ve mentioned, right down to pumping in a car that was bitterly cold or swelteringly hot, actually make me one of the “lucky ones.” I work a white-collar job where I can excuse myself for private moments on my own schedule, unlike teachers, nurses, and innumerable shift workers. Although my employer, like many, is too small for relevant legal protections to apply to me, my boss was always supportive of my choice to pump. Perhaps most importantly: I have a private office with a door. Even given all of these advantages, though, the anxiety ate at me: was I cheating coworkers and clients of the best of me by dividing my time and attention?
It’s not funny. It’s not funny. It’s not funny.
Everything changed for me the day our office manager allowed an outside auditor to use my office. I braced myself to tell the auditor that I needed my office for a “conference call,” so he would need to move to the conference room.
Instead of the middle-aged white man I was expecting, a woman about my own age looked up when I knocked. I briefly explained that there had been a mix-up and I would need use of my office. She smiled kindly and said, “No problem, but I will need a private place to pump.”
Words failed me for a moment. Then, before I knew it, we were chatting about our babies and about the difficulties of pumping and working.
I was inspired by this fellow mother’s poise as she calmly asserted her right to pump. After that day, I pushed myself to speak candidly about pumping. The results surprised me.
First, I found that people were much more understanding than expected. In fact, asking for accommodations from colleagues brought me closer to them.
When I presented at conferences at hotels, as I do frequently, I stopped going to my car to pump and started asking colleagues attending the conference if I could use their hotel rooms. One colleague got in the habit of always asking for two room keys and wordlessly sliding me the second key before I could ask. Another colleague not only shared her room with me, but left a muffin and a juice on the bedside table for me to snack on while pumping. Acquaintances became friends and friends became family.
Second, when I stopped focusing so much on myself, I started to notice colleagues doing whatever it took to support their own families. My boss, who was caring for her aging mother in another state, had no compunctions about stepping out of meetings to take calls from her mom’s caregivers or cutting her work week short to catch a plane. A dad closed a meeting early to take his son to karate. The more I opened my eyes, the more I saw a network of family support everywhere I looked. This prompted conversations with colleagues and clients that brought me closer to them and even increased our commitment to our mission.
When I told my husband what I was witnessing, he said, “You’re bringing your whole selves to work.”
Finally, asking for accommodations related to pumping set the stage for the rest of my journey as a working mom. I put away the pumping equipment long ago, but my need for flexibility hasn’t disappeared. I still occasionally excuse myself from meetings, now to pick my daughter up from preschool.
Perhaps most importantly, by making my family obligations visible and paramount, I hope I am doing my small part to pave the way for other working moms in years to come. I’m not on a conference call; I’m taking care of my child. I am an outstanding employee and bringing my whole self to work only makes me better.