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

10 moms share what it’s like to continue to breastfeed their baby – and return to work.

It’s World Breastfeeding Week, when we celebrate and raise awareness of mothers who nurse their children. 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, and the future of the ACA is uncertain. 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 10 mothers to find out what it’s really like to be a pumping mom on the job.

Pumping at the Police Department

Heather Shea-Clark of Newport, N.H., 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.

Far From Easy

Gina Cherwin is the executive vice president and chief people officer with MWWPR, a public relations company in Manhattan, New York. She said she’s lucky to have a “mom room” with comfortable couches, a refrigerator, and places to clean and store pump parts. Despite all of that, she says pumping at work is still difficult.

“My employer couldn’t make it any easier for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” she says. “So much of my day is consumed with planning around pumping and then actually pumping. Even though I have two daily recurring blocks on my calendar at 11 and 3, I am constantly moving them around to attend meetings or even just finish up work. There are so many days where I’m two hours past my scheduled mom time and end up rushing into the room at the point of near emergency.”

She struggles with putting work on hold for the 20 to 30 minutes it takes to pump, get dressed, and clean her supplies, and she regularly finds herself bringing her laptop into the pumping room, which creates another problem.

“That doesn’t really lend itself to the relaxed state of mind that facilitates a good output,” she says.

Do What?

Kelli Barry, an IT applications administrator in St. Louis, Mo., 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.

Asking for Flexibility

Kelsey Hamman of Austin, Texas, has pumped for all three of her children, both at school and at work. For her, pumping is a necessary evil.

“I hate pumping and never feel like I get enough out, but it suffices,” she says.

Her employer provides a pumping room that Hamman says is nothing fancy, but has everything she needs. However, the real way that her employer supports her is by allowing her to work from home two days a week.

“This is mostly the reason I requested to work from home, so I didn’t have to pump,” Hamman admits.

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.

Fashion Faux Pas

Tiffani Greenaway, a NYC-based mom who works in payroll and runs the website MyMommyVents.com, shared a pumping room with other moms at her company. Because of that, the room wasn’t always available when she needed it, which once led to disaster.

“I couldn’t just come in to pump at any time and ended up leaking because I waited too long,” she recalls. “I had to buy a new shirt on my lunch break.”

Pumping Professionals

Lydia Markoff worked for a very parent-friendly company in San Francisco, Calif., when she pumped for a year each with her two children.

“This company went the extra mile: several private, lockable pumping rooms in the building, booked via Outlook and unavailable for any other purpose. I steamed the pump parts in a microwave at the end of my hall, and stored the milk in the break room fridge,” Markoff says. Even so, pumping still wasn’t easy.

“It was as convenient and discreet a setup as one could have, but still a gigantic pain,” she remembers.

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.”

Join the Discussion

2 Responses to “What It’s Really Like to Be a Pumping Mom at Work”

  1. M.C. Nachtigal

    When I exclusively pumped for my first child while working full time as an RN, I pumped in the car while commuting to and from work as well as both breaks in the locker room and later the bathroom. I had very rigid breaks which was good and bad but at least it worked. Here is a slideshow of some pumping spots in Seattle. http://kuow.org/post/slideshow-lactation-rooms-around-seattle-and-beyond

  2. Julie Raney

    Ahhh this brought back memories!! My baby is now 19 and pumping at work was a bit new when I was doing it. I worked in a fairly advanced law firm, but some of the older male partners just did not know how to deal with this. One would slip notes under the door – as if I could get up and get them! I was on jury duty and the court didn’t know what to do with me either. They allowed me to use the staff copy room and just taped a do not disturb sign on the door. Comfy.