Upon my return to work after having my second son, I was invited to a workshop to discuss what my company could do to support women just back from maternity leave. I met a first-time mother who had stopped breastfeeding in order to return to work. She knew that it was legally possible to continue, but she did not know that it was possible for her.
When I (delicately) excused myself in order to express milk, you could see the working-mother guilt etched all over her face. She had never met anyone who had continued breastfeeding at work and she had assumed that she couldn’t, either. She was understandably upset. It upset me too.
Women leaving the workforce is hurting our economy and our competitiveness. A significant percentage of working women are mothers and replacing those that leave is expensive. Returning to work after having a baby is difficult, and one of the most common hurdles is breastfeeding.
Why do mothers feel like they are forced to choose between breastfeeding and a job? The answer isn’t as simple as buying a breast pump and using it. We need to do more to help women balance motherhood and a career, and breastfeeding is a great place to start.
For me, it was non-negotiable. Returning to work early didn’t stop me doing everything in my power to breastfeed exclusively until six months, and I would like to share a few of the awkward (but ultimately satisfying) moments along the way:
Pumping. Everywhere. I pumped in the car for 45 minutes on the way to and from work most days. I often had to clean milk off the dashboard when I got home. I remember a particularly warm conversation with a taxi driver about how proud he was of his daughter for breastfeeding, as he politely averted his eyes from me pumping in his taxi – unfortunately I had no other choice. There was also one incident where the airport toilet was my only option, and security was called to ask me to leave the cubicle. I had to leave the stall with breast pump still attached and continued to pump next to the sinks. While much of my pumping took place in the comfort of my office, I had to adapt to whatever circumstances came my way.
Travel is possible. When my firstborn was very young, I would take him on my business trips. He has been a BA frequent flyer since he was six weeks old. Jet lag was never an issue given that days and nights were a blur in those days anyway. I arranged childcare here and there while I worked and having him with me meant I didn’t have to transport my milk. Eventually I started leaving him at home and I perfected the logistics of traveling with frozen breastmilk. In the seventh month I lost a week’s worth of milk because the hotel fridge failed, and that was when I introduced formula.
Smuggling breast milk. This isn’t something I am proud of (well, maybe a little), but returning from a day trip to London with no checked bags, I had planned to carry my milk in my hand luggage. According to security this was only allowed if my baby was with me, which he wasn’t. I was turned back, but I eventually found a way of getting the milk through security undetected. I can’t tell you how because I don’t want to incriminate myself!
While I realize that the circumstances of each returning mother may be (vastly) different from mine, whatever you do, don’t be discreet about it. Feeding your child is one of the most basic human rights, and we need to normalize breastfeeding. I know many women who have gone back to work and continued breastfeeding for way longer than six months. Yes, it might be a challenge sometimes, but you will be surprised that so many go out of their way to help you, and you will be surprised by your own pumping creativity. You will find a way.
So don’t be afraid to let people know where you’re going when you excuse yourself. Put a sign up on your office door while you’re pumping stating what you’re doing in there. Put your breast milk in the shared refrigerator, labelled “breast milk.” When the person on the phone asks what that whooshing-whooshing sound is, explain that you’re multi-tasking.
Why? Because we can erase the stigma of breastfeeding, and the idea that pumping is something to hide. Because the woman I met at the workshop had never, ever seen anyone continue breastfeeding after returning to work. Show her that not only is it possible, it’s normal, and she can do it too if she chooses to.
For me, it was all worth it (but I won’t be doing it a third time).
Originally published at www.linkedin.com