Breastfeeding mothers don’t get enough support at work

Too many companies are not prepared to support breastfeeding mothers, writes Megan  Oertel.
Too many companies are not prepared to support breastfeeding mothers, writes Megan Oertel.
Image: REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
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When I was seven months pregnant with my first baby, I walked in on a coworker who had just returned from her maternity leave while she was sobbing in the bathroom.

The reason she was crying was because she was having difficulty pumping breast milk while at work. With no designated mom’s room, she had to book conference rooms or borrow other people’s offices in order to pump. The conference rooms didn’t have locks and usually had windows, so it was very awkward, and she felt very vulnerable. She had to use the communal kitchen to clean her pump and to store breast milk, which she felt was embarrassing, and since breastfeeding—and the need to keep a consistent schedule to do it most effectively—wasn’t well understood or supported in the company culture, she felt obligated to attend meetings that interfered with her pumping rather than push back and ask to reschedule.

Because of these difficulties, she had almost totally lost her milk production and felt completely defeated. Though she’d wanted to continue breastfeeding, she’d been forced to find other ways to feed her baby.

For me, this was a wake-up call. I, too, wanted to breastfeed—I was really looking forward to the privilege and bonding of feeding my baby in a way that nobody else could. How could I make sure that what had happened to this woman wouldn’t happen to me? 

What I didn’t know then is that many companies aren’t prepared to meet the needs of nursing women who return from maternity leave, especially in the tech startup world. Nursing while working requires commitment and determination from the mom, and support from the employer. There’s  a difference between providing amenities required by law and creating a truly feasible space for new moms. I would end up advocating for better spaces for new moms at no fewer than three companies.

My first step down this path was a quick Google search, which led me to the Department of Labor website, where I learned that any employer with 50 or more employees is required to provide “reasonable break time” for breastfeeding mothers as well as “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.”

The company where I worked had just hired employee number 51 a month earlier.

I took my newfound legal knowledge and went into the HR office. The response was, “sure … but where?” In the end, the answer we landed on—one that didn’t require expensive construction—was to clean out a janitorial closet that happened to be inside the women’s restroom for a mom’s room.

Though I knew deep down that this wasn’t ideal, I was happy that there was a room and a plan in place. Until, that is, I returned to work after maternity leave and fully realized the drawbacks of pumping inside of a janitorial closet.

First, there was no inside door lock, so whenever anyone came into the restroom I had the fear that they would walk in on me in this very vulnerable position. Second, the room had a flickering fluorescent light, which did not make for a very relaxing experience. And third, in order to clean my pump parts I had to go out into the bathroom and use the same sink that everyone uses to wash their hands after they use the bathroom.

Like most first-time moms, I hadn’t taken my baby out of the house for the first two weeks because of the fear of germs. I had made all visitors wash their hands before touching my baby, and I meticulously wiped down anything my baby touched. When I went home, I sterilized all bottle, pump and pacifier parts. There was something wrong with washing the pump parts that touched my baby’s only source of food in a public bathroom.

Still, I did it two to three times every day for 13 months.

Knowing I wanted to have more children, when I next moved jobs, I specifically looked for an employer that touted the Texas Mother Friendly Worksite logo on their website.  This way I wouldn’t have to create my own room for pumping… or so I thought.

When I came back from maternity leave after giving birth to my second child, I realized that though the company provided a nice mom’s room, no fewer than eight new mothers were sharing it. Each of us pumped about two to three times per day, for 30 minutes at a time, and the math just didn’t work. So some worked from home. Some pumped in a bathroom stall, some in their car, and some in their boss’s office.

When I inquired with HR about the problem, the team suggested I buy curtains to divide the room in half, so two moms could use it at once. I measured the room, shopped around for curtain rods, purchased all supplies and materials and waited three weeks for all of it to arrive. Then I waited for the facility team to arrive. When they did, I learned that it was against fire code to put a divider up in a room without installing another sprinkler in the fire system. So… back to the drawing board.

Finally, the company made a conference room on the third floor available to breastfeeding mothers. We were all so thrilled to have a second room, we were willing to occasionally walk through the mostly male-occupied sales floor with our milk and pump parts in hand to clean our pump parts.

By the time I took my next job, I was ramping down on breastfeeding, and so finding an employer who had a dedicated mom’s room wasn’t as high on my list of priorities.

My new and current employer did have a pumping space that locked from the inside, but the room was inside another conference room. I had to walk through a meeting in progress to get to the pumping room, and then just ignore the fact that everyone could hear the pump through the walls during the rest of the meeting. Sometimes I would finish up pumping and walk out during a different meeting, with a whole different group of people.

At this company, a woman on my team, announced she was pregnant with her first baby. And so I decided to do some advocating for an improved room. I put together a budget and project proposal for converting a conference room on the third floor that would include adding a plumbed sink, fridge, and natural lighting, and it was approved. After working with a plumber and purchasing and assembling everything ourselves, we were able to get the room ready and tout the Texas Mother Friendly Worksite logo, before the woman on my team returned back to work from maternity leave.

When I went on Maternity Leave for baby number three, I did so with the knowledge that I would come back to a place with an existing, comfortable, clean, and dedicated mom’s room already waiting for me. An experience, I’ve learned, that is all too rare.

Megan Oertel is the Business Intelligence Manager at SpareFoot, Inc., and co-founder of Women of SpareFoot and the Austin Diversity and Inclusion Project.