9 Thing Every New Mom Thinks When Pumping At Work

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Did you hear the one about the doctor-in-training new mom who pumped breastmilk in the sperm collection room of a fertility clinic? She was doing her endocrinology rotation during residency, and...actually, there’s no punchline here. Instead, just stop and consider the irony of that one: the germs, the hopes, the spills, and humanity and humility of that room.
In my own collective 20 months of breastfeeding — two boys, exactly 10 months each, because God forbid I not be fair — I was lucky to do most of my pumping in my office or at home (though my poor, milk-stained velvet couch, RIP). But over the past two years, I talked to hundreds of women about their experiences going back to work, and the stories they shared had me aching with empathy. If you’ve ever lactated, you know exactly the ache I’m talking about.
In all, I surveyed and interviewed 800+ women for my book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. I asked them all kinds of nosy questions about things like marriage and ambition and how their sense of identity changed. But as I shopped the book proposal around to agents and publishers, I decided to share the pumping research as my sample chapter. If you can handle cracked nipples and breastmilk spilled on keyboards, I figured, you’re just the kind of person this working mom wants to work with. Here’s some of what I uncovered:
● 81% of mothers who tried to pump at work said that it negatively affected their ability to feed their baby breastmilk.
● 36% who pumped at work had to use a make-shift space to do so, and 22% of those had to pump in a bathroom.
Nearly a third of the time these moms spent on pumping was actually spent on the logistics around pumping (the storage, the cleaning, the traveling to and from their pumping place) — all things their employers could help improve for them, if the mothers knew how to ask.
All of these statistics begged for solutions, and moms who have made it through what I call The Fifth Trimester were delighted to share their hard-earned, pumped-on-level-10 wisdom. They offered hacks and workarounds, but they also offered that truly maternal heal-all: empathy. Ahead, I give you, a quick peek inside the exhausted, busy, efficient mind of a pumping woman.
Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of The Fifth Trimester, a movement and company that improves workplace culture for parents. Her book The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby, is just out from Doubleday.
World Breastfeeding Week is August 1-7 this year, and the entire month of August is devoted to breastfeeding awareness. For more coverage on nursing, pumping, or choosing not to do either, head over to our Mothership page.
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“You’re burning 500 calories a day,” well-intentioned people say, cheering you on. “That’s a spin class!” Well, sure...a spin class minus the endorphins, "me" time, and tighter glutes. All that’s left is the exhaustion. Research shows your body expends 20 calories of energy to produce each and every ounce of breastmilk — and you feel that depletion. Profoundly. This is, of course, on top of the regular sleep deprivation of new motherhood. In my survey for my book, mothers reported that their babies slept a full eight hours in a row (so, a whole night of sleep for mom) by about seven months old on average. By then, of course, nearly all had been back at work for months.
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This is one of those things that you think in your head but actually need to learn how to say out loud.

You are not waltzing out of the meeting to go sit in some floral-wallpapered Mad-Men-era ladies’ lounge and buff your nails while listening to Muzak versions of the songs you used to karaoke to in college.

You are racing through the undress-assemble-”relax”-pump-dress-disassemble-clean-store routine required to get this task done, just like you do with everything else on your to-do list. Only this is one of those lovely never-finished jobs that just erases the check-mark next to its name as your breasts refill with milk again and again. Your job — aside from your actual job and your milk-production job — is to help your colleagues understand that pumping is not a break. Pumping is work, and pumping allows you to be at work when your mammary glands think they’re supposed to be elsewhere.
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Something else you should feel free to broadcast if you’re able to swing it: Pumping can potentially give you 25 minutes (three times a day) of uninterrupted time to do actual work-work, if your workplace can provide wifi, a phone, one of those cool chairs with the flip-up desk-arm situations. This is also, by the way, your way into any tricky boss conversation you might need to have about why the supply closet is not a sufficient lactation suite: Efficiency = dollars, and dollars = motivating to bosses.

Several of the women I talked to with desk-type jobs (an important qualifier) recommended saving up emails for their pumping blitzes, and scheduling conference calls for their pumping times, thus ensuring that they wouldn’t be late for their appointments with their pumps — or their dial-in. Bonus point territory, of course, is informing the other callers of what that noise is in the background.
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You know who I interviewed who quit pumping the earliest? Doctors training in their residencies. Also waitresses, factory workers — really anyone who didn’t have a desk job. I talked to a teacher who was so desperate for privacy that she snuck out to her car to pump in the parking lot — in Boston, in the middle of winter. I talked to a dermatologist-in-training who went back to work in doubled-up sports bras to hasten her weaning. Your job might not be the cushiest, but if you can sit on your ass while doing it, thank you lucky stars.
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The inner monologue of a pumping mother: Can I please just relax because then there will be more milk and a faster let-down and then I won’t be stressed tomorrow about leaving my baby with not enough milk! Relax, god damn it!
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I interviewed one new mom who complained about how, as a newlywed, she’d been advised, sweetly, “Try to never to go to bed angry.” Now that she was a new mom with a nursing baby up in the wee hours, she told me, “I’m going to bed angry three times a night!!”

My equivalent was pumping. Three times a day, as I rearranged the air space around my nipples as they were pulled into the flanges of the pump, I couldn’t help thinking: My husband isn’t thinking about this at all right now.
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If you’re like me, what you used to do at your job before great chunks of it got stolen away producing breastmilk was make chit-chat and be nice!

Pre-children, I had a work social life, complete not just with a work wife, but a work little sister, and a work gay best friend, and about 22 people I would and could happily split a bottle of wine with at quittin’ time. After kids, I hung onto the work wife (thank God for her) but promptly started forgetting about everyone else’s personal life. People would show up wearing engagement rings, and I’d think: Didn’t they break up six months ago? Office birthday celebrations would interrupt the day, and I’d hide at my desk avoiding the cupcakes. Whole actual human beings would become employed in my department, and I wouldn’t know their last names for weeks.

This was bad, bad, bad. Because, in the past those work friendships made my days sunnier. And — even more important — by not engaging in these little downtime moments with my colleagues, I was sending them the message that I didn’t care about their personal lives. All while I was asking them to care a lot about what was going on in mine.

Yes, you will have to be more efficient and crafty with your time, but general rule: If they ask you about your baby, ask them about their baby, whatever that baby may be.
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I actually asked my mother about this recently. You know what she told me? “Oh, I just nursed you in the morning and night and you got formula when I was at work.” Huh. Imagine that. To be sure, back then she probably would have had to have used a hand pump or some first gen machine the size of a Subaru. And women in the workplace had other battles to fight back then. But that wasn’t what made the decision for her. In fact, as she explains it, it wasn’t some big capital-D decision at all. She simply didn’t put the pressure on herself to pump.

We have, as a culture, grown into a crisis of expectations about motherhood. Our photos have to be either beautifully Instagram-worthy, or feature some stickily shareable little quip about imperfect motherhood, wink, kiss. Our babies must (must!) have a monthly record of their growth, complete with Etsy-designed labels. At work, we do our damndest to be just as good at our jobs — better even, more efficient — than we were before we had children. We are planners and achievers, and we are so achingly self-aware of all of the things we “should” be doing. Well, enough already! As one working mom I interviewed told me: We’ve simply got to stop 'shoulding' on ourselves.
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There is some comfort to be taken (so take it!) in knowing that while you are out in the world handling your little part of the world factory, you are also providing sustenance for your baby. Now, it takes the form milk. But later — and I’m writing this from eight years in — you might find that your identity, and the pride you take in your work, and the example you set for child, provide just that same feeling of nourishment. Cheesy, but true. You’re doing great.