Any new parent who is returning to work is coping with a challenging professional and personal transition. Regardless of how well the employee has planned for their return, the reality of it is startling. But if the new parent’s return involves business travel, and that parent has chosen to nurse, it’s even more complicated. They need to quickly become an expert on the necessities and nuances of pumping on the road.
While it’s common for new parents to feel stressed about juggling life at work and home, for a pumping, traveling parent the stress can be heightened. “Finding the time and the space to pump [while traveling for work] made me feel like I had something to prove in terms of still being competent and a high achiever in the workplace,” explains Lindsey, a pharma rep. “I felt as though I had to show that I was ‘still me.’” This pressure affected both her milk supply and her self-esteem.
Nyla Beth, a principal in a large government consulting firm, also felt intense pressure to get back on the road quickly after having her first baby, though she said it got easier after baby number two, when she also had a more senior position in the organization. “I had a clearer voice, more experience, increased confidence, and the ability to chart my own path. While my higher level of seniority certainly created new pressures, it also left me much more in charge of myself.”
My interviews with people who have faced this challenge revealed some ways new parents can make this tough phase easier on themselves.
One stumbling block is that company policies and benefits aren’t clear — either to employees or their managers. Employees have no choice but to ask and advocate for themselves, even if the timing feels awkward or they’re not sure how the company will respond. For example, Lindsey came back to work after giving birth to her first child just after the company had gone through a round of layoffs. Given the corporate climate, she felt enormous pressure to attend the company’s annual sales meeting, which meant leaving her 14-week-old son at home. “I went about looking for how to pump and travel,” she told me. “I came across Milk Stork, a milk shipment service, and took it to my manager. She was somewhat supportive in that she took it to HR, but at the same time it felt less than genuine, as she kept telling me how well formula worked for her.” In the end, her manager shared that the firm already offered Milk Stork. Lindsey was glad, but said, “I really did not understand why this was not communicated to me in the first place.” At least Lindsey’s company had a policy — many firms still have ad hoc or muddled policies, if any.
Another tactic is grassroots organization. Nyla Beth decided to tackle the lack of official information in her organization by creating an ad hoc mentorship program so that new parents could find each other and share insights. Other parents I’ve talked to have also used this grassroots approach. For example, Marisa, a former senior executive at Discovery Communications and mother of three, compiled a “how to travel” file of information that she shared with pumping employees before they took their first business trips. It included everything from airport hacks to equipment strategy. Marisa made a point of celebrating an employee’s return to work and serving as the maternal go-to, filling in the gaps at her company.
Pumping, storing, and transporting milk while juggling client needs, unfamiliar office buildings, and airplane schedules is one of the toughest logistical challenges a new parent can master.
One of the biggest hurdles of pumping on the road is the tactical management of the milk itself — how to preserve it and how get it home. This is a major point of anxiety for pumping employees who work incredibly hard — transporting equipment, securing private spaces, finding appropriate times, and so on. It is complicated to say the least. Losing milk (aka liquid gold) is a devastating blow after so much planning and work, but it’s not uncommon at airports. Airports and airport security checkpoints vary in terms of their knowledge and ability to get parents carrying milk through to the gate.
In the U.S., legislation was passed under President Obama that called for universal process and procedure at TSA checkpoints for breast milk, baby formula and similar items. While the law is on the books, it is neither widely understood nor consistently enforced. Kate Torgersen, the mother of three who started Milk Stork, explains that for parents who prefer to carry their milk rather than ship it, the company includes a printed card with information on the TSA’s policies to carry and show to skeptical TSA agents. The parents I talked to offered some other hard-won tips:
Most new parents I talked to could recount at least one example of an organization going to great lengths to care for and cater to their nursing needs, but it was almost always as a customer, not an employee. For Nyla Beth, it was the high quality of experience during 14 hours of flying to Dubai on Air Emirates after the birth of her son: “They were incredibly helpful, providing a comfortable environment in which I pumped four times during each leg, as well as providing me with freezer space in flight.”
For Helen, a mother of two and a VC executive, it was the outstanding quality of hotel service while attending a mandatory work conference with a 10-week-old at home. Like the other parents I interviewed, she received little support or information from her employer, but her conference was at the Dallas Four Seasons, which did help — including with what Helen describes as a “milk butler” who would show up in white gloves and with a silver tray to take her pumped milk, “even at 4 a.m.”
While these are over-the-top examples from high-end luxury brands, they do raise an essential question: How can organizations do better at supporting their employees? The answer, it seems, lives in the experiences of existing employees. The information they share in their grassroots parenting groups and in the stories they share with each other can easily morph into an internal initiative that would include low-cost, high-return elements such as peer mentoring, lactation-on-the-road training, and milk shipment services, among other ideas. Bringing an ad hoc parental group into the light (as Nyla Beth did in her organization) is an inexpensive way to tap into solutions that speak directly to the needs of your pumping parents — changing the conversation in ways that immediately improve retention, aid in recruitment, and serve as a point of pride for you as an employer.
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Originally published at hbr.org