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Is Pumping the Only Option for Breastfeeding Mamas Who Work?

A couple weeks back I circulated Jill Lepore's New Yorker article about the breast pump to my closest friends of facebook.

The article raised some hackles from friends who felt like it was too critical of the commitment made by pumping mamas. And what is to criticize? Pumping takes a heroic effort.

My girlfriends have collectively pumped an incredible volume of our milk—in offices, plane bathrooms and their vehicles. Some made it past a year, while others found the whole act too burdensome or physically impossible to make it that long.

Rose's pump traveled with her to Ethopia and Mexico City this year before she laid down the "no travel" rule with her boss.

Another friend, Jenna—a medical resident at the time—had to pump in front of colleagues during morning patient meetings. One supervisor had the gall to suggest her three-month-old didn't really need that much of her milk. Her specialty? Pediatrics.

Maija returned to law school (2+ hours from home) with a two-month-old daughter in tow. Despite this, she maintained her marriage, sanity and pumping routine.

While we are proud of these efforts they obscure the fact that in addition to a major effort on our parts, successfully pumping is also dependent on certain workplace factors that are anything BUT guaranteed.

What if the boss insists you travel? What if there is nowhere to pump? Or no time to do it? What about the millions of mothers for whom pumping isn't even an option? The babies who don't take bottles? My employer was respectful and sympathetic. But in today's world our most earnest efforts can be tripped up by a number of things beyond our control.

The New Yorker article forced me to step back and see what a unique generation we are (These pumps weren't even sold 10 years ago!). But sadly this piece of technology, while enabling me to do a job I love, has also constrained my thinking about the range of needs and options for women who want or need to return to work.

We desperately need broader protections for working mamas. I know none of you will argue against that. But this can't just mean resources to support pumping. What's also needed is on-site childcare, flexible work schedules, job sharing, universal health coverage for children (a factor in my return to work), and the requirement for employers to hold our jobs for us while we tend our newborns. Of course, the idea of paid parental leave is almost erased from our consciousness, but still completely normal in the remainder of the industrialized world.

The most mind-blowing responses to the New Yorker piece were from women in other countries who confessed that they hadn't previously understood American mothers' obsession with their pumps.

While we have plenty of reasons to be proud of our accomplishments, we are all playing with a limited deck. Also among my working mamas:

Kirsten managed to work about 30 hours per week this winter with zero daycare for her 10+ month old daughter. Ever tried typing standing up with a napping kid on your back? She has.

Mona stayed home for 5 months with her son, but also managed about 30 hours per week because her office was short-staffed at the time.

Kristina went back to work full-time 6 weeks post-partum. She had used up all her vacation and sick leave when her mother passed away the year before.

Greta brought both her kids into the office with her for the first year.

Tracy and Amy are nurses, but work night shift to minimize childcare (which is also hard to arrange with their variable work schedules).

So how did the transition back to work happen for you? Did you luck out with a job that offered privacy and flexibility? Did your partner help wash pump parts and pack you extra snacks when you got discouraged? Did you decide to forego pumping to ease the stress and spend less time at work? Could you step away from your job for months or years without worrying you could never go back?

And finally—what would you need to "make it work," meaning to achieve that ideal balance of work and time at home during your child(ren)'s first year?