When Megan Hertz* went back to work after her first son was born, she breast-pumped in a file cabinet. And not just any file cabinet—one that was in active use during the day.
“Often times I was interrupted and yelled through the door, ‘Come back in 20 minutes!’” she recalls. “I definitely stopped breastfeeding earlier than probably would have liked since it was just too damn hard some days. I even got myself an adapter for the car and would pump on my way into work and on my way home to avoid pumping too many times during the official ‘work day.’ My employer was less enthused and understanding of the demands of my motherhood, but I wasn't so much concerned about what they would think—more that I would be let go.”
Megan isn’t alone. According to a recent survey of 774 expecting mothers by breast-pump maker Aeroflow Healthcare, nearly half of pregnant women are concerned that breastfeeding/pumping at work could impact their career growth. And nearly two-thirds said there’s a stigma attached to moms who breastfeed at work.
That’s despite the fact that lawmakers have passed legislation in recent years to make it easier for moms to pump at work. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), passed in 2010, requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide a clean, private area (that isn’t a bathroom) for breastfeeding moms to pump. It also requires employers to allow nursing moms to take reasonable breaks for pumping throughout the work day.
But not all companies have 50 employees, and of those that do, not all of them are following the law. The ACA doesn’t specify a penalty for noncompliance or provide an enforcement mechanism for the law, so companies don’t face any repercussions for refusing to comply. Like at Megan’s job, a property management firm in New York City, about half of workplaces still aren’t set up to support breastfeeding moms.
In the Aeroflow study, only 49 percent of respondents said their employer has a breastfeeding/pumping policy in place, and only 47 percent said their company has a designated lactation area with everything they need. That dovetails with a 2015 study in the journal Women’s Health Issues that found only 45 percent of women had access to a private space that wasn’t a bathroom.
Then there’s the fact that some jobs simply make breast-pumping more challenging, especially ones where break time is scarce and women spend most of the day on their feet.
That was definitely the case for Jingjing Li Sherman, who breast-pumped for 11 months while working as a chief general surgery resident in her fifth year of medical school. Sticking to her nursing schedule meant stopping to pump wherever she found herself at the moment.
“I pumped in a call room where residents dumped their bags and dirty scrubs. I would put a sign on the door saying ‘please knock,’ but sometimes they would barge in,” she says. “I pumped between cases, often asking interns to transport patients out of operating rooms so I would have time." But a couple of times, she stopped working before she was done to pump.
With these realities, it’s no surprise that rates of women who exclusively feed their babies breastmilk tend to plummet around three months, when many women in the U.S. head back to work (if not earlier). Pumping takes time. It takes energy. It takes equipment, like an electrical outlet and a fridge for storage. It often takes a comfortable spot, just to keep the milk flowing.
That’s a big enough barrier to breastfeeding for many working moms, who are operating on a less-than-optimal-amount of sleep, but when you add hostile co-workers to mix, the pressure to put down the pump can be insurmountable. Almost 35 percent of moms in the Aeroflow study said they’d “had a negative interaction with a co-worker because of breastfeeding/pumping-related activities or discussion.”
It can leave many working moms caught between a rock and a hard place. Do they continue pumping and put their job at risk? Or do they stop pumping, even if they believe breastmilk is best for their baby? Understandably, most choose to stop pumping and switch to formula. That decision, however, can come with a heaping dose of guilt—especially in a culture that reveres breastfeeding as another marker of an idealized “natural” motherhood.
The reality is that “natural” motherhood in the United States is exhausting. We are the only developed country without paid maternity leave—meaning many women go back to work before they’ve even had a chance to establish their milk supply. And, as this survey shows, the American workplace is still a chancy place to be a woman who breast-pumps.
“It is deeply disturbing that the negative connotations around breastfeeding and pumping in the workplace—ones we believed were prevalent throughout the corporate world—have been confirmed by expecting mothers in this study,” says Jennifer Jordan, Aeroflow director and a mom of a baby. “Simply put, this is unacceptable and we must do better. Breastfeeding and pumping are activities that should be strongly encouraged and normalized—not only in the workplace, but in American homes, culture and day-to-day life.”
As for Megan, she left her job at the property management firm and is happy to report her current employer was much more understanding in terms of what she needed when she had her second child. Without many other ways to compel employers to make breast-pumping comfortable, Megan’s solution might be the only way for nursing women to exercise their power: Pack up their breast-pump and vote with their feet.