The right to pump

Dr. Leah Swann, on a hike with her 7-month-old child, takes a break to breast-feed. courtesy of Leah Swann

About two or three times a day, many women take a break from their jobs to fulfill another duty — not as workers, but as mothers. But working moms who choose to breast-feed their children after returning to work are often challenged with finding time and space to pump in the workplace.

Physician Leah Swann gave birth to her daughter during her first year of residency. She worked 80 hours a week, often in 30-hour shifts, but was committed to breast-feeding her baby. “There were several years with her that I was away a lot, but I was able to maintain the breast-feeding relationship,” Swann says. Finding the time was hard, but finding a place to pump was even more difficult. Swann once found herself pumping in the closet of a homeless shelter where she was doing house calls. “I just made things work even when it was crazy and inconvenient,” she says.

For many women, breast-feeding is a healthier option for both them and their baby, and mothers like Swann are willing to do what it takes to make it work. Breast-feeding has been shown to have significant immunity benefits, as well as reduce the risk of cancer for both mother and baby — both are driving forces for Swann and others.

In recent years, the challenge of breast-feeding on the job has become a little more manageable with the institution of the Affordable Care Act. The 2010 ACA is the first federal law that requires employers to accommodate breast-feeding employees. Specifically, the act mandates that employers allow time for women to breast-feed or pump at work. Employers must also provide a space for pumping or breast-feeding that is not a bathroom. However, these rules do not apply if the employer has fewer than 50 staff members.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Jennifer Barnette, who works in a local financial services office, was provided with a place to pump for the 17 months she was breast-feeding her daughter, Riley. But women who work for smaller companies, like Catherine Reid, have to find ways to pump without accommodations. Reid’s employer has two full-time people working for him, so he does not have to adhere to the laws and legalities surrounding maternity leave and breast-feeding.

In order for Reid to keep up her supply of milk for her baby, she maintains a strict schedule, pumping at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. This adds up to about 45 minutes a day, and she does not take time off for lunch. Reid’s office is a relatively open space with little privacy. “Every single day I have to start from zero,” she says. “I have to think, ‘OK where am I going to be at 10, where am I going to be at 1, where am I going to be at 4?’” She has pumped in conference rooms, she has sat in her car to pump, and she has even used the handicapped-accessible stall in the bathroom. “I wish I had a place where I knew, ‘All right, this is my spot,’” Reid says.

But she makes it work. “Going to the car is not the greatest thing in the world, but if that’s where I have to go, fine. What’s most important to me is that I am pumping and making milk and feeding my baby.”

Susan Mooney, often referred to as the “Baby Lady of WNC,” is well-acquainted with the challenges that new mothers face. She has been providing services for mothers and babies in the Asheville area for 30 years. She is a doula (someone who assists a woman before, during or after childbirth), she makes house calls and teaches breast-feeding classes. The vast majority of the women she assists plan to return to work within a year of giving birth — though some return as soon as six weeks. Mooney observes that women in the teaching and medical fields struggle the most with finding the time to pump on the job. 

Perhaps because of all the challenges that go along with pumping breast milk, some moms choose to stop sooner rather than later. After about 13 months, Jennifer Griffin was happy to call it quits on her pumping routine. “I felt bad having to leave my job to go pump,” she says. “I was tired of it.” For Griffin, pumping had become a chore.

Griffin’s 14-month-old was eating enough solid foods, and she felt confident that she could stop pumping at work, but many women choose to continue pumping for years. In many workplaces, however, this practice is not met with the same sensitivity extended to mothers of newborns. “I worked in a place where breast-feeding past three or six months was unheard of,” Griffin says. “So for the first six months it was fine [that I was pumping at work for my first child], but once I got to the six-month marker, I got heckled by my co-workers.”

Swann also noticed her co-workers lost patience as she was still pumping when her children were becoming toddlers. “A lot of people didn’t understand,” she says, “especially some of the older male doctors I worked with. Many of my colleagues were supportive of breast-feeding and pumping in theory but, until they saw how often I had to do it, had not really put much thought into the dedication it takes to combine work and breast-feeding.”

Swann says that she had to get used to telling people that she needed to pump, “not asking for permission and not being apologetic. I think if others see it as optional, they are a lot less supportive.” Breast-feeding and pumping is a woman’s right, says Reid, and she doesn’t look at it as a break from work. “Pumping milk for my baby is a job too.”


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About Micah Wilkins
Micah Wilkins began her time at Mountain Xpress as an intern while a student at Warren Wilson College, where she studied history and creative writing. After graduating in December, 2013, she continued writing for the Xpress as a freelancer.

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