When I gave birth last year, I was certain I wanted to breastfeed my baby and I assumed it would be pretty straightforward: breast + baby = food, right? Our bodies were built for this and women have been doing it for thousands of years, I thought, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Boy was I wrong! Eight weeks and a split nipple later, I considered giving up. I had prepared for and successfully tackled the challenges of labor, but after weeks of sleepless nights and tears, my tolerance for pain and emotional endurance were waning.
Luckily for me, I had the resources to seek help and I didn’t have to worry about heading back to work for another few months. Not all women are as fortunate. In New York City, where I live, 86% of women initiate breastfeeding at birth, but 8 weeks later only 32% are breastfeeding their infants exclusively. Sore, cracked or bleeding nipples are partly to blame—21% of women cite this reason—but so are the challenges of continuing to breastfeed after returning to work. A full 16% of women in New York City said their need to return to work or school caused them to stop breastfeeding. This need not be the case.
New York has one of the strongest laws in the country guaranteeing nursing mothers reasonable break time at work so they can express milk for their babies. But not enough women (or their employers) know about this law, and how it can help women meet their responsibilities at work and their need to feed their children.
At A Better Balance: The Work and Family Legal Center, where I work, we run a legal clinic for individuals facing problems on the job related to their family responsibilities. We’ve heard from lots of women about their struggles to keep up milk production while working to support their families. One woman, who worked as a personal chef, was told by her boss that she was overpopulating the world and was only allowed to pump breastmilk in a bathroom during lunch breaks. Another woman, who worked for an organization dedicated to promoting women’s rights (!), was offered a shower stall for expressing breastmilk.
Given the hostility to breastfeeding even in these relatively high-paying professions, you can imagine the challenges facing women in low-wage jobs, where employers are often even less understanding. That’s why we are working to educate low-income mothers about their rights through targeted outreach to medical clinics and community organizations throughout New York City. We’ve developed a brochure explaining the protections of New York law and we’re offering workshops for women and their medical providers. We’re also reaching out to employers so they can be responsible partners in this project too.
We can’t do much to prevent nipples from cracking, unfortunately, but we do hope to empower new mothers so they can continue breastfeeding while also being breadwinners for their families.
To learn more about A Better Balance’s work in New York and around the country, please visit our website, www.abetterbalance.org.