Heading back to work after maternity leave is often filled with emotions: sad, exciting, overwhelming. If you’re still breastfeeding, you may also find that your workload has changed -- you’ve got one very important new responsibility: pumping milk for the baby during your day.
In last month’s post in our series on pumping at work, we covered the six things you should do for pumping prep while you’re still on maternity leave. Next up: analyzing your work situation and putting a plan in place.
While pumping might seem relatively straightforward in the comfort of your home and bathrobe, navigating a workplace -- and the people in it -- while using a machine to extract milk from your body is a whole different ballgame.
1. Understand your rights at work. The U.S. federal system means that you have a mixture of federal and state laws to consider when figuring out whether you have any legal rights and protections to pump at work.
The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) provides federal protection for women pumping at work – but only for wage-earners (not salaried workers) and federal employees. If you’re either of those things, your employer has to provide “reasonable break time” for up to a year, and “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.” If you’re in neither of those categories, check out your state’s laws (some have great laws, others have none). Start with The National Conference of State Legislatures’ list of state laws relating to breastfeeding in public and lactating at work.
If you’re out of luck with federal and state laws, check out whether your employer has its own policies. If a policy exists, that’s usually good – it means your employer is thinking about this and some sort of plan is in place. If it doesn’t exist, don’t panic just yet. You might still find that you have a supportive HR department and/or boss – or that you can make allies at work to help you go rogue if you don’t have official support.
2. Know the basics that you’ll need at work. In any work environment, the following basics are essential to your ability to pump:
- A private pumping space. Locking door, place to sit (for some, this means the floor, or storage boxes), surface to put pump and bottles on, covered windows (if needed), electrical outlet (most pumps come with a battery pack just in case). If your employer is unwilling or unable to provide you with a place to pump, you’ll notice that your car fits this basic definition.
- Time to pump. 2-3 times per day, 10-30 minutes of actual pumping (depends on your body), plus a few minutes to store the milk and clean the parts.
- Somewhere to store the milk (freezer or fridge). Get an opaque bag (a reusable lunch bag is a good bet), so you don’t have to have awkward “what’s that?” conversations in the office kitchen with Tim from Accounts Payable. If there is nowhere to store, you’ll have to lug a cooler and ice packs every day.
- Somewhere to wash the parts in between pumping sessions. If this isn’t an option, or if you’re short on time, you can throw the parts, unwashed, into a large Ziploc bag, and refrigerate them until the next time you need to pump (warning: this makes for a “refreshing” experience).
- A pumping-friendly wardrobe. There are a lot of “regular clothes” you can make work for pumping. And pumping-friendly fashion has come a long way, so you can look as gorgeous as the woman in the photo (courtesy of the chic new Shop Bu Ru, full of breastfeeding and pumping fashion). We'll cover Pumping Fashion in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!
3. Find allies at work. Go on a mission to find other women in your workplace who have had babies in the past few years. Ask them if they pumped, and what level of support they received from HR and/or their bosses. Get them to give you the lay of the land, and to show or tell you where they pump(ed). Getting the perspective of other mothers will help you set your strategy, and will create invaluable friends and allies for the journey ahead.
If you're the first woman to have a baby at your workplace, you're on your own in terms of true work allies who’ve been there, so you now need to brainstorm a list of sympathetic, kind people at work that you can bring into your circle, explain your situation to, and ask for help when you return. These people do exist.
4. Write up a plan. Write out exactly when, where, and how you plan to pump, so you look and feel like a total pro when it comes time to have the inevitably awkward conversations. Take cues from your investigation into your legal rights as well as the input you’ve gotten from your allies. Now, consider:
- How many times during the work day (every 3 hours or so for the first 6 months or more)
- How long it will take (15-20 minutes of actual pumping time, with a few minutes on either side for set-up and clean-up)
- Where you would like to pump
- Where you would like to store your milk during the day
- How you will make this work with your schedule: someone covering for you, you bringing your phone or laptop with you, or syncing up with lunch and other breaks
If you can't fill in all the blanks, at least you can flag up the question marks for discussion.
5. Talk to HR and your boss. Do this while you're still pregnant – no matter how awkward it seems, get ahead of it. Figure out who you want to talk to first: HR or your manager. Does your employer have an HR department? What’s their reputation like? What do your allies suggest? What is your relationship like with your boss? Would your boss be annoyed or relieved if you went to HR first?
Once you’ve decided on your first point of contact, send a friendly email explaining you'd like to discuss pumping so you can be prepared for a productive and successful return. Then, set up a phone meeting and share your rough plan in a spirit of being proactive but still open to input. Don’t bring up your legal rights at this early stage, unless they do. Try to get a rough plan in place that you can mutually agree on. But be prepared for a whole range of responses – from them being clueless about pumping, to being totally supportive, to being total jerks. But whatever you do, do not lose your cool.
Note: If you decide to start off with HR, know that eventually you’re going to have to talk to your boss. If this person is male, you have every working, pumping mother’s sympathy about the incredible awkwardness of discussing your boobs with him, but you gotta do it. Send a brief email first, so you have it in writing (and your boss has a chance to prepare). Your best bet is just after discussing with HR, so you are up to speed on any company policies and official supportiveness (or lack thereof). Have your plan ready, as well as notes from your discussion with HR. Don't delay this conversation until you are back from maternity leave. That will just put additional stress on you, and it risks catching your manager off-guard, just as s/he is hoping to see you back at work and performing.
Now, get whatever has been agreed in writing. Write up an email, then send to HR and your manager with a note. Thank them for their support, and ask them to reply with any notes so you are all on the same page. Open and close with statements about your intention to have a productive and engaged return to work.
6. Bonus tip: Give yourself a freaking break. What you are about to try to do is HARD. What you’re doing already -- having and raising a baby -- is hard, and adding work and pumping on top of it is borderline crazy. Be kind to yourself -- as kind as you’d be to your best friend or sister in the same situation. If you get back to work and find you’re not making enough milk to get your baby through the day, you’re not a failure. See a lactation consultant, yes, but also don’t see formula supplementation as an enemy or a sign of defeat. And if you love your job and are kind of excited to go back, don’t feel guilty about that. You are doing something that fulfills you, and hopefully will continue to fulfill you long after your kids are off in college, doing keg stands and not calling you. Call me crazy, but I believe you are actually allowed to still value yourself and your happiness after having children.
And, if you throw in the towel on breastfeeding at some point, for your own set of reasons which are not anybody else’s business, please, mama, please remember this: Your worth as a mother is not measured in ounces.
Now get out there, attach a machine to one of the most sensitive and private parts of your body, and make the magic happen. You’re a warrior. You’re a badass. You’re a working mother, and that’s an amazing thing. And when you see one of us on the street, on the elevator, on the subway (you’ll know us by our “this is supposed to look like a briefcase” pump-carrying bag), know that we are with you. We’re exhausted. We have breast milk spilled on our work pants and on our laptops. We have pumped in places you can’t yet imagine. And we think you’re awesome.
Want to make your pumping at work experience a little more stylish? Enter this week’s giveaway for a totally chic Juno Blu breast pump bag!