In full disclosure: This column contains language not often found in this space. There will be many references to breasts, and it doesn’t involve the Hooters business model or a sexual harassment suit.
For much of this year, Leiha Macauley had this sign outside her office door:
“WAIT, just a minute please. Nursing mom at work.”
Macauley is a partner at the Boston law firm Day Pitney, specializing in estates and trusts. When that sign was out, it meant her shirt was unbuttoned and there was a plastic pump attached to each breast as a machine methodically extracted milk.
To keep her supply up, she pumped just about every three hours. She pumped before work, after work, sometimes at the dinner table. She pumped in airplanes, public bathrooms, and cabs between client meetings.
“I’ve often wondered what the taxicab driver thought I was doing in the back of the car,” she said.
Did she think about stopping?
“Every day,” she said, but “because I am a working mom, this is the one thing I can do for my child that I can feel proud of. That’s why I held out for so long.”
It is the new working mom’s guilt: breastfeeding until you drop. More than ever, pediatricians advocate “breast is best” and urge mothers to breast-feed for at least a year. Mother’s milk, we are told, is the ultimate superfood, providing babies all the nutrients they need to grow and to immunize them against disease.
When you hear this, as a new mother, it’s a no-brainer. You breast-feed. That’s what I’m doing with baby number two, who is 9 months old. When I was home on maternity leave, it was easy. Relaxed, your little one latches, your milk flows, sometimes you both fall asleep.
Going back to work is a whole other story.
One minute you’re in a meeting with colleagues; the next minute you’re in a bathroom, topless, fumbling with tubes and bottles. Add in the whir of the breast pump machine, and you realize there’s not much difference between you and a Vermont dairy cow.
Pumping demands dedication. Each session can take 15 to 30 minutes, and some women pump three times during the workday. But there is dedication, and then there’s Cathy Cono, a Connecticut consultant, who would pump, perched on the toilet of a handicap stall in Grand Central Terminal during her monthly business trips to New York.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Rebecca, a local doctor who is a bit embarrassed to share her last name, can’t claim she thought of this, but she is a self-described evangelist of “friends help friends pump and drive.”
Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Storrow Drive one day, Rebecca looked over at the car next to her and saw a woman pull out a breast pump from underneath her steering wheel. “I was completely inspired,” she said.
And if Rebecca would ever to be pulled over, say for speeding, what would she say to the cop? “I figured it would be self explanatory,” she said.
Beyond time, you have to devise a system to store your milk. Some women bring their own coolers, others use the office fridge.
Nancy Cremins, a Boston start-up lawyer, still remembers an encounter at a former firm with an older male colleague in the office kitchen.
“‘Ah, what’s that?’“ he asked, eyeing her bottles of milk.
Cremins wasn’t sure if he was serious, but responded anyway: “It’s breast milk.”
He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
“There is a certain amount of discomfort for everyone,” Cremins said.“We don’t want to think about you and boobs. But we can’t not.”
Breast-feeding rates fall sharply as women return to work. About 62 percent of mothers in Massachusetts are still breast-feeding when their babies are 6 months old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number drops to about 29 percent when the babies are 12 months old.
To make pumping easier and encourage a letdown — the point at which the breast releases milk — lactation consultants advise mothers to think about their baby.
But what I like to think about is all the other working moms before me and alongside me who are breast-feeding as long as they can. At times, they have sacrificed sanity or suffered indecent exposure.
We are amazing, doing what we believe is best for our children, and it’s all in a day’s work.Shirley Leung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.