Privacy, understanding and facilities are essential if companies are to support breastfeeding mothers back into the workplace.
By Tessa Cooper
I had to return to work when my daughter was just four months old. I knew it would be emotionally difficult to leave my daughter but not once did the complexities of breastfeeding and working crossed my mind. No-one spoke about it with me, partly because our society still expect women to stay at home for longer, and partly because the percentage of women that are still doing some breastfeeding in the UK after six months is only 34% (and only 1% exclusively).
My naive assumption had been that I’d express a load of milk for the first two months and then my daughter would be on solids by six months. Simple. But I was grossly unaware of the sheer exhaustion your body feels trying to convert itself into liquid gold for a ravenous child that seems to want to eat every couple of hours. My health visitor gave limited advice, she simply thought it was odd I was returning to work and told me to not express for the first few months in case I caused any supply or latch issues.
But thanks to the help of my partner and the many US forums on the topic of expressing (more women have to return to work sooner due to poor parental leave pay) I somehow managed to stock up few feeds in our freezer in time for my return to work in April. My company was supportive, but as a young company I was the first woman to return to work after maternity leave, so they’d never had to deal with this before. We were all about to embark on a huge learning curve.
In the first couple of weeks there was no allocated room for me to express in that didn’t have windows. My colleagues helped me to plaster the windows of a meeting room with paper, but it wasn’t sustainable to take up and down three times a day for when I needed to express. Plus there were times when people would accidentally walk in on me with my boobs out and a strange machine attached me pumping fluid. I found it awkward and embarrassing but they handled it well. Like many breastfeeding women, I had moments of hiding in the toilets expressing because I felt self-conscious and unsure of how to ask for what I needed. I was distraught and unable to cope.
Things improved when we moved offices a couple of weeks later and our brilliant support team immediately put a lock on one of the new windowless meeting rooms. They had made me a safe space where I could relax and not worry about people disturbing me. But unfortunately due to the nature of my role, I was still struggling to find time throughout the day when I could sneak off to my little room to express.
I vividly remember skipping an express one morning due to meetings and suddenly feeling like I was going to vomit from the pain during a meeting and desperately trying to interrupt people to explain why I need to leave.
After this I realised if I wasn’t going to be able to continue with work and breastfeeding unless I plucked up the courage to express in meetings with colleagues. So I invested in a good scarf, bought a fairly quiet handpump and practiced stealth pumping. My team always reassured me that it wasn’t distracting and that they barely noticed which helped me to build up my confidence about it. Some of them were positively intrigued too and I remember that feeling of utter relief when I could talk to them about it openly.
Six months of breastfeeding came and went and I had it fairly under control. I still had some moments of distress when I forgot my pump, or left my milk in the office fridge (a very kind colleague took it home and froze it for me to keep it fresh), or the worst moment where I accidentally spilt my milk (trust me the phrase ‘no point crying of spilt milk’ should not be used with any woman who loses her precious breast milk)
Attitudes of others: helping people to understand
But one day I needed to express during an all-staff meeting due to the timings of it. Suddenly there was a wave of murmurings across the wider company that some people felt uncomfortable about it and didn’t understand the need for me to do it at that particular time. When I heard this, I broke down. It felt like no matter what I did, no matter how discreet I was, there was still a lack of understanding. It was in this moment that I realised, as a minority within a company, how important it is to get your needs listened to. In society, more generally speaking, it can be so easy to feel isolated and alone in a world where you are perceived as ‘abnormal’. But at least for me I knew my situation was temporary, and I would receive my company’s support. For many who deal with ongoing physical or mental health issues at work I cannot begin to imagine how exhausting and distressing it must be to have to battle against societal norms on a daily basis.
When I first heard of some of my colleagues’ uneasiness I left work and was on the verge of handing in my notice. But my CEO called as soon as he heard and gave me his full support, offering to stand up and talk openly about how he wanted our company to support me. Instead I wrote an email to all staff explaining why I expressed at work – I wanted it to come from me, I needed to make a stand for all future mum’s. Our CEO responded with his own email offering his full support and endorsement. I received positive responses from many women, as well as people who were silently suffering from mental health issues, who felt empowered by my actions.
From then on it became much easier – once I had explained the need to express, I felt more understood and determined to continue with what I was doing, but also my daughter was growing up and needing less milk so I started to wean her off. I gave her her last breastfeed last week, a month before her first birthday. I feel proud at what I have achieved in spite of the difficulties, I am grateful for the support of my close team and my CEO to battle stigma that surrounds women and breastfeeding, and I feel positive about the future for other mum’s who wish to work and breastfeed.
Tessa Cooper is Organisational Development Lead at FutureLearn
If your company would like to support breastfeeding mum’s, or if you are returning to work and breastfeeding, please get in contact with me for some more practical tips around what you can do to make the experience a positive one.