What It’s Like to Be a Mom Pumping at Work

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends feeding infants just breast milk for six months and nursing them for at least a year, continuing as long as mom and baby are both happy. Unfortunately, most American moms have to return to work soon after their children are born, which means they have to choose between weaning their babies or pumping milk at work.

The Affordable Care Act encouraged more conversations about pumping at work when it required that employers give nursing moms the opportunity to pump during the work day for the first year of a child’s life. The ACA also requires that companies with more than 50 employees provide a space other than a bathroom for mothers who need to pump.

However, nursing at work is still fraught with anxiety for some. Some women find themselves expressing milk in bathrooms or afraid to ask for their pumping breaks. Even those with supportive employers say that pumping — and being away from such a young child — is very difficult. We talked to six mothers to find out what it’s really like to be a mom pumping on the job.

Pumping at the Police Department

Heather Shea-Clark of Newport, New Hampshire, was a police officer when her son was born. She worked a 12-hour overnight shift, and often found herself pumping in the locker room at the station. Six years later, she was working a desk job for the sheriff’s office when she began pumping for her daughter. Although pumping in a male-dominated and unpredictable job wasn’t easy, she was determined.

“I was older when I had my son and more comfortable with who I was,” she says. “I was able to stand up and say, ‘This is right for me, and I’m not going to let other people stand in the way of that.’”

She did once have to explain to a supervisor the physical discomfort that happened when she wasn’t able to pump on time — especially wearing a full police uniform with a hard, bullet-proof vest pressing against her chest. Although her male coworkers were sometimes squeamish about her pumping, Shea-Clark was not.

“I was comfortable with it, so it didn’t really matter to me whether they got it or not,” she says. “I took advantage to poke fun at the guys and make them uncomfortable now and then, but it ended up being an opportunity to educate them.”

Creating the Solution

When Maine-based Amy VanHaren pumped for her first child, she had a supportive employer and a dedicated space, but that didn’t do much to make pumping easier.

“The space was a broom closet with a broken chair that didn’t make you feel very at ease,” she said.

With her second child, VanHaren ran her own business and pumped at many different clients’ facilities.

“My key clients were Patagonia Provisions and Amy’s Kitchen, and they both supported my pumping fully, even aided my shipping milk and finding of dry ice.”

Despite the support, the process was still very stressful for VanHaren, and she turned to other moms in person and online for support. That led her to create pumpspotting, an app that helps pumping moms connect with each other and find great places to pump.

“What started as filling a personal need has grown into a personal passion,” VanHaren says. “Pumping at work — or pumping at all — is challenging, emotional and vital, and I believe that by bringing together all the pumping women of the world, we can help moms make it one more pump, one more ounce, one more day.”

Making Pumping a Priority

Jennifer Jordan, director of mom and baby at Aeroflow Breast Pumps, learned that pumping was an essential activity that she couldn’t skip.

“One of the most important things a busy, working mom can do is remember to make time to pump,” she says. “Ignoring your body’s cues to express milk can lessen your milk supply. When necessary, I would block time off on my calendar so no one would schedule a meeting or appointment during my pumping time.”

She also worked with a lactation consultant to develop a pumping schedule and routine that accommodated her breastfeeding needs and her career demands.

Do What?

Kelli Barry, an IT applications administrator in St. Louis, ditched the guilt about taking time out of her day to pump when she remembered that people take breaks for plenty of other reasons. “People who smoke cigarettes spend more time not working than I did when pumping,” she says.

Barry had some funny moments during the course of pumping for her two children. Once, she got milk into the tubes of her pump (which isn’t supposed to happen and can damage the machine). She posted in a mom’s group for advice and was told to clean the tubes and then swing them around her head like a lasso to get all the moisture out.

“It is so funny to think back to when I was standing in the pumping room at work, swinging my tubes around my head like a lasso to dry them for my next pump,” she laughs.

When Employers Aren’t Supportive

Yolanda Rambert-Marshall, a counselor from New Jersey, twice had to stop breastfeeding because her employers were not supportive. When her first son was born, she worked for a busy pharmacy that had no place to pump and that balked at giving her pumping breaks.

“I had to go out to my car, sit in the back seat, pump, and hope no one saw me,” Rambert-Marshall says. “The entire experience was uncomfortable for me, so after being back at work for a month, I decided to stop giving my son breast milk.”

She stopped breastfeeding her second child before returning to work to avoid repeating the situation. However, she encourages new moms to speak with their employer to plan ahead.

“My advice for other moms would be before you return to work let your employer know that you plan on breastfeeding and ask them to have a private space where you will be able to pump,” she advises.

Missing Baby

Grace Per Lee, a copywriter from Vermont, worked for a supportive employer that provided space for her and other mothers to pump. However, that didn’t diminish her sadness over having to leave her infant at home.

“What was hard was being away from my baby,” she reports. “I had a very hard time with it in general, and my pumping breaks were like this horrible reminder that I wasn’t really where I wanted to be. I had great employer support, but it was still very hard for me personally.”