Breastfeeding: how employers still impact the most personal of choices


Breastfeeding is hard.  Let’s just get that out there.  I know that there are women for whom breastfeeding is the easiest thing in the world.  But for the rest of us, it’s hard.  I chose to exclusively breastfeed or pump for my four kids but it was not easy at the beginning.  It was, however, my choice to make and I had a supportive husband and work-place so I was able to do it.  But it wasn’t always easy, despite the workplace supports of privacy rooms and lactation consultants.

Here is a short list of places that I have had to pump: on an airplane circling over Kansas, on a party bus after a U2 concert, in too many airport bathrooms to count, in a posh port-a-potty at the Ryder Cup, in my minivan while driving (I don’t recommend this – I got stopped by police.  A story for another blog posting) and in a park – outside (battery pack).

I have cried at work after accidentally spilling a full bottle, asked restaurants to put my milk in their freezers and even had my milk tested for explosives by an airport TSA agent.

So, let’s reiterate.  Not easy.

For most working moms, these challenges are just too daunting and the “choice” is made to switch to formula.  It’s just easier for everyone.  This despite the data that clearly demonstrates the benefits to continued breastfeeding including, employers should note, the fact that breastfed infants have been shown to experience fewer and less severe illnesses than formula-fed infants meaning lower absentee rates for these working moms.

But this is not a debate about breastfeeding versus formula.  It’s a discussion about choice and whether we’re really offering women one.

There is a scene from the movie Postcards from the Edge when Doris, played by Shirley MacLaine, says to her daughter Suzanne (Meryl Streep), “I was such an awful mother? What if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner?” and Meryl replies, “These are my options?  You, Joan or Lana?”

I sometimes feel that this is the kind of decision women face when it comes to their choice of whether they want to continue nursing or not. Hiding away in bathrooms and missing parts of meetings to go pump or ignoring that part of you that believes that breast milk is the best for your child.  These are my options?

I heard a CEO of a large corporation speak recently about his female employees and their ability to manage career and family responsibilities.  As he said, “they seem to have figured it out.”  Just because we have figured it out, doesn’t mean we are happy about it.

The decision to breastfeed and for how long should be a choice and not a decision based on the lesser of two evils.  Workplaces must continue to support women in their efforts to do what feels right for them.  As Sheryl Sandberg notes in her book, Lean In, how many women are opting out of jobs with increasing responsibility believing that they won’t be able to blend career and family in a way that feels right to them?  How many women make choices about nursing based on their work environment or travel commitments?  How many feel when they leave a meeting to go pump that the perceived commitment to their job is lessened?

I remember walking by the office of a senior leader in my office and, seeing my unusually shaped tote bag, he asked, “What’s in your bag?”  When I told him, he looked horrified.  I could see that in his mind he was thinking, “Oh God.  I just inadvertently brought up her breasts.  She’s going to call HR.”  This man was extremely supportive of working mothers but I could see he was still uncomfortable.  But that’s changing.  I’m sure if I had that same conversation with a millennial manager he might respond by saying, “Oh, what model do you have?  My wife uses the Pump Master 3000.”

The integration of work and life needs to be a focus for employers so the choice for women is truly a choice made based on what is right for them and their baby.  Perhaps just subconsciously, some employers and managers still look at families like inconveniences or commitments that take us away from our jobs.  To the contrary.  They make us better at our jobs and those close connections – from infancy and beyond – need to be honored, fostered and celebrated.  Let’s make this most personal of choices a true choice.