Soon after her first child was born, Washington, D.C. based management consultant Jacqueline*, was nervous that maybe she was not nursing well enough. “At five days, I reached out to a local lactation support group for help with a singular feeding issue, which was quickly addressed. I was grateful and relieved, but I also felt terribly isolated. Frankly, life was complicated. There was so much I had not mastered...I desperately needed to be surrounded by others,” she says, remembering her scary entry into motherhood.
After baby is born, there is an overwhelming sensation of being flat on one’s back on the bottom of a steep learning curve. What women need are not the hard-and-fast medical guidelines and rules to follow that carried us through pregnancy (eat this, don’t eat that; see this doctor this many times) as much as some kind of connection to other women and the sometimes nebulous help that it offers. It’s often said that there’s no user’s manual with a baby, but the truth is that’s not what we need; we need other new parents who’ll candidly share their experiences and insights, so we can see what feels like a fit to us and our path.
The current state of motherhood in America, including a lack of federal leave or childcare legislation, unenforced ACA guidelines around pumping breaks and workplace requirements, and other mandates are one aspect. Bigger still is the overwhelming number of private sector employers who often fail to offer even basic support to new working moms despite the obvious gap it eventually leaves in their workforce. These very real challenges to new parents simply dig the hole deeper, adding up to create an immediate need for women to provide support to one another as they attempt to transition back to work as the new version of themselves. In all this, other mothers are truly the best support new mothers have.
That first time at a breastfeeding center, Jacqueline’s daughter was the youngest infant there (“The other babies looked huge!”). “I quickly realized the benefit of being around other mothers — especially other mothers in fast-paced careers," she says. "We had a lot in common, and I felt right at home.” By the time her second baby came around 27 months later, Jacqueline knew she needed this group more as a place to connect with community, not to mention the reciprocal “this is normal” confirmations that she now, as an elder-stateswoman of the bunch, knows are so crucial in those moments of doubt. She takes her obligation to pay it forward quite seriously, both at work (where at present there is little formal support for new parents) as well as in her social circles. And she's not alone; women are launching, finding, and clinging to communities like this all across the country.
The Pump Station & Nurtury, a highly regarded L.A. institution has, for 30 years, cared for boobs in the business. What began as a drop-in spot for breastfeeding and pumping gear evolved into something of a community center for families to get whatever it is they need. Mothers, fathers, grandparents and siblings find the tools, classes, and confidence to grow into their new roles with love and encouragement. Owner Cheryl Patran recognized the complex role the center was playing in family’s lives, and added the second part of its name. "The word 'Nurtury' spoke to me. I wanted The Pump Station & Nurtury to be a place where we feed and protect, support and encourage, foster, bring up, train and educate expecting and new parents,” she says. Mothers supporting other mothers became the center of its business model.
At places like Pump Station, new moms meet each other early on and remain connected. They are the antidote to the isolation and insecurity that new motherhood often brings. And as things get a bit trickier (back to work, pumping while traveling, and everything else) they find ways, together, to un-tricky it.
One of the most sought after (and often gifted) classes offered by the Pump Station is the Back to Work group led by Barbara Zimmermann, BSN, IBCLC, CEIM. It's a breastfeeding class focused on re-entering the workforce, and doing so with a pumping game plan — the kind of wheel many new moms find themselves reinventing on their own.
Her course prepares women to understand their rights, pumping mechanics, and the emotional reality of getting back to work after baby. “No one feels, ‘I can’t wait to go back.’ They are surprised [by] the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and dread," shares Zimmermann. “Most of these women were working 10 to 12 hours a day prior to giving birth. They assumed, I’ll have a baby, take maternity leave, be home, and pick up as it was. This is not a realistic expectation, and worse, creates a great deal of panic and urgency to quickly 'master' [being] back to work. It is at this moment that other moms become the safety net.”
Nava*, a Washington, D.C. based management consultant finds that the confidence she needs to succeed as a working mother to baby Charlie, 8 months, is the direct result of her time with other mothers she’s met through breastfeeding classes and groups at the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington. “Right now, I am still up multiple times a night, and really not feeling great about my performance at work — I worry that sleep deprivation is taking a toll,” she says.
She credits her community of mothers for keeping her calm, giving her confidence to trust her gut and seek out a solution to whatever comes her way at work or home. "It is not that they tell me exactly what to do, it is that they empower me to find my way,” she says. “Trying to juggle makes it feel near impossible — it is my girlfriends who give me the support to stay afloat. They remind me that I can do this, which is something hard to see from the trenches. And that is truly when you need the women around you the most."
Kelly Tillery, an L.A.-based speech pathologist who worked with Zimmermann, went back to work three months after the birth of her daughter, which was sooner than she had expected. “I always knew I would be a working mother, I just had not planned on it happening so quickly.” To make it through, Tillery has built something of a personal matriarchal haven, surrounding herself with women eager to help. Her own mother cares for now 9-month-old baby Margot three-plus days a week and helps Kelly at home. She also has an inner circle of mom friends she met at Mommy and Me classes. They nudge her to take care of herself between everything and are, she says, indispensable to the survival of her family.
Working mothers needs support. Some connect one on one, others with groups and their local communities, and then there are those who make paying it forward their business.
Marisa Levy, a Silver Spring, MD, mother of three was a senior executive at Discovery Communications and the self-anointed support center for new, nursing mothers. By the time she was a few babies in, Levy had written a breastfeeding on the road memo that would be emailed to any new mother navigating the complicated landscape of pumping while traveling for work. Word of mouth made this one-off memo an essential resource, bounced from inbox to inbox for six years, proving way more useful than whatever HR had to offer.
Along with the crucial attachment, Levy would always send a reminder to keep sharing the love. “If someone comes up to you and asks for help because a friend of hers said, ‘You need to get your advice from my friend,’ — do it. Other women recognize the need before you even know it is a need – before trouble sets in. Use these women as the essential asset they are." She goes on to add, “Generic, product-intensive information is not what you need. You need hacks and encouragement in the form of positive advice."
Kate Torgersen, a San Francisco Bay area mom who served as communications director at Cliff Bar was overwhelmed by how difficult it was to get pumped milk home from a business trip after the birth of her twins. The frustration was only fuel for this mom of three. “I was creating incredible amounts of milk – it was quite different than with my singleton. And this was only exacerbated by my self-imposed work pressure. After three kids, I wanted to prove that I could attend a work conference and be 100% on the job.”
Torgersen was producing gallons of milk while traveling for work, and says she often felt humiliated and burdened by the TSA process. She was always explaining to agents who would in turn loudly announce that she was breastfeeding, that this was breastmilk, and so forth. It felt lousy, and she wanted to make it better for other mothers – though she had no real idea how. She brought the problem to her now business partner, her father, who simply said, “Where do we start?”
In that moment of paying it forward, Milk Stork was born — a startup that makes it easy to ship milk home or transport it through TSA. Companies such as media giant Viacom and multi-national law firm Latham and Watkins offer Milk Stork services to the working moms in their midst — paying it forward again. Just like Levy's in-house memo, the key to this startup's success is that, at its heart, it's about moms sharing the love (and wisdom) with one another.
As Nava says, the key is finding the ones who will remind you “you’ve got this” — and you do.
August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month. For more stories about nursing, pumping, or choosing not to do either, head to our Mothership page.
*Some last names have been withheld to protect privacy.