Friday, October 3, 2014

Pumping is a Right, Not a Privilege

I have been a mother for five years, but until two months ago, I had never given birth. I had never breastfed. My son is breathtaking. I love feeding him. I love it when we’re wide awake, and I love it when we’re drowsing through it. The other day, I loved it when he latched on in the parking lot of Publix, his cries from being in the car immediately silenced—we’d been fighting his aversion to nursing, something that had taken hold after I returned to work, and this was the first time he remembered that nursing came with a kind of comfort that bottles couldn’t provide.     

I am a breastfeeding mother now, and I’m also a working mother. So when I watched this news report, it left me cold. The story is about an assistant manager at Popeye’s Chicken with a breastfed infant, like me. She’s a secondary supervisor, like me. She has to take breaks at work to pump milk for her son to eat the next day, like me. Unlike me, though, her manager cut her hours and then demoted her from her assistant management position...for feeding her child. This woman’s boss went so far as to tell her that she would have both her hours and her position back if she quit breastfeeding. Wow. Okay, first of all, that’s illegal in the United States. I know because I looked it up before I returned to work after my son was born. The Fair Standards Labor Act mandates that all companies who employ more than fifty people are required to provide nursing mothers with clean, private spaces (read: not bathrooms) to pump milk, and time in which to do so. Now, I work for a city fire department, and they employ about 500 people, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing a national restaurant chain is bound to have at least as many. They have to let her pump. They cannot fire her, demote her, cut her hours or in any other way discriminate against her for pumping at work. The only thing they can do is refuse to pay her for the time she spends pumping, which, oddly enough, she says they didn’t do.

As bad as the legal ramifications of illegally treating your employees like crap are, though, it’s the comments underneath the article that really get to me. I know…don’t read internet comments. I should know that by now. But it’s kind of like a train wreck…I really just can’t help but glance down, and once I have, I can’t erase what my eyes have seen. People ridiculed this woman. She should be using formula. She’s ungrateful. She’s taking advantage of her boss. She’s getting more breaks than other employees and that’s not fair. Of course she got demoted—she can’t supervise if she’s pumping milk. Really, the ignorance was almost impressive. It’s 2014, and people still haven’t learned that babies have to eat. I don’t expect people to know obscure breastfeeding laws if they don’t breastfeed (although it helps to know them before you comment on a breastfeeding news report, or you just end up sounding like an idiot when you say they had every right to demote her), but I do expect them to have compassion for hungry infants whose mothers are doing their best to both feed them and make next month’s rent. I also expect them to possess enough common sense to be able to deduce that a woman taking a break to pump milk isn’t actually taking a break.

See, my breast pump and I have gotten very familiar with one another in the three weeks since I’ve returned to work. My bosses knew I would be pumping milk because I told them so. And after I told them so, they verified with their bosses that pumping breaks were a thing now, and they also looked up the FSLA laws because, I don't know, they were born with both brains and the ability to google. They’ve been great. They provided me with a room that has a chair, a door and an outlet (and no toilet in sight…or smell). They give me all the time I need to pump throughout my shifts, and they don’t even take the breaks out of my pay. None of my co-workers are angry about it, and no one cares that I store my breast milk in our refrigerator for the duration of my shift. They couldn’t be more supportive if they tried, and you know what? Pumping still sucks.

So, since I’ve learned that I can’t rely on people to a) care about hungry babies or b) have the sense to know that pumping isn’t like playing with a barrel of puppies, I’m going to explain a little about how breastfeeding and pumping work. First of all, a woman who’s taking a break to pump breastmilk isn’t having fun. She’s not catching up on last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy. She’s not drag racing in the parking lot. No, instead she’s likely sitting in a closet and exposing parts of her body that she usually keeps hidden so she can hook herself up to an electric machine that sucks her nipples repeatedly into hard plastic tubes and treats her like a dairy cow…every 2-3 hours, every shift she works, and every other time she has to be away from her baby. 

See, every two and a half hours (it’s what works best for my supply, and it’s different for every pumping woman), I have to leave my cushy, expensive chair and my laptop that might very well be playing last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy and relegate myself to the storage room in my boss’s office. I prop my electric pump on a wooden box and assemble my pump pieces on another wooden box and then connect it all together. Lift my shirt, unhook my bra cups and expose my breasts to the cold air. Rub them a little to warm them up and get the milk ready to, hopefully, flow. Push hard plastic funnels up against my nipples and hold them there for what feels like a very, very long time while milk flows into the bottles underneath. My breasts are too large for hands free bras, see, and I can’t actually pump in any position other than leaning forward, otherwise the milk oozes out around the plastic funnels that are supposed to be sucking it down into the bottles, and all I succeed in doing is soaking my shirt, my pants and the floor, but not actually catching any milk for my kid. Seriously—whoever said you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk clearly never had to use a breast pump. So I sit in my chair, lean forward while holding the pumps against my breasts and stare at the same leftover batteries and packs of alcohol wipes on the same shelves that I’ve been staring at during every other pumping break…for fifteen minutes…every two and a half hours…for twelve hours in a row, for forty to sixty hours a week. Do you have any idea how much hell that puts my back through? And my arms? It’s enough to make me cry. And then there’s the guilt for being in the closet rather than at my desk when I hear the phone ring and the fear that my milk supply is dropping when my letdown takes longer than usual and the constant worry that nothing’s going to come out at all, and all of these things don’t do anything to make crying any less likely. And then after crying (I mean…pumping…), I have to get up, go to the kitchen I’m lucky to have access to, pull apart my pump, wash and scrub all the parts, set it out to dry, and then come back two and a half hours later to reassemble it (hopefully without breaking the most delicate bits because replacements ain’t cheap) and start the whole process over again.

These aren’t super awesome fun breaks. These aren’t smoke breaks that leave you relaxed and smelling of fresh nicotine when you come back in the door. They aren’t let-me-walk-around-the-parking-lot-and-see-the-night-sky breaks. They aren’t oh-my-God-I’m-starving-and-need-a-Snickers breaks. They aren’t even breaks at all. The only reason to do it is to make sure your kid has enough to eat when you go back in to work tomorrow. I mean, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never been a big fan of starving my kids. I think there might even be a law against that or something. Read: if a mother doesn’t pump, then her baby doesn’t eat. 

You know what else happens if a breastfeeding woman doesn’t pump? Her milk supply drops or dries up altogether. Or she can get engorged, which is when her breasts get so full they’re painful and hard to the touch, and it’s difficult for her baby to latch on properly. Or she can get clogged ducts—those are painful lumps in her breasts that can quickly get infected. Speaking of infection, she can get mastitis, which can lead to hospitalization and have a drastic effect on her milk supply. All of this because some people think that her taking breaks isn’t fair to the other employees, or that the mere presence of breastmilk in the building is a crime against humanity, or that her productivity will suffer because she’s taking time away from work to pump. Feel free to let me know how that nasty boob infection affects her performance next week, though, okay?

Breastfeeding is hard. And breastfeeding women are badasses. On a daily basis, they deal with sore nipples, cracked and bleeding nipples, sorting out lip ties and tongue ties and shallow latches, working through oversupplies, undersupplies and foremilk/hindmilk imbalances, exclusively pumping because their baby is unable to latch, babies who need to feed every hour, every forty-five minutes, every twenty minutes because they are going through a growth spurt, nursing strikes on the part of the baby, nursing and/or pumping aversions on the part of the mother, infections, thrush, clogged ducts, screaming babies who refuse the bottle, screaming babies who refuse the breast after being given bottles, babies who bite, babies who kick, punch and scratch, babies who tap dance on one breast while eating from the other (It’s true, believe me…I have one of those), pumping every couple of hours at work, pumping at home after baby’s eaten or while baby is taking a nap because pumps aren’t as efficient as a baby and pumping at work doesn’t produce enough to actually cover baby’s needs, and a thousand other struggles. On top of that is the embarrassment of having to undress in public to feed your child every time you go out, the fear that someone will say something and you’ll a) cry, b) punch them, or even c) both of the above. Then there’s the constant fear that you aren’t producing enough, that your milk isn’t fatty enough, that what you’re eating is hurting your baby, that your medications are hurting your baby, that the mimosa you had at dinner is hurting your baby (it isn’t). Then there’s wondering whether you should breastfeed your baby when you’re sick and whether it’s safe to give them milk that you bled into (yes, you should, and yes, it is). 

Then there are doctors who are still using weight charts based on formula-fed babies and are telling you that your child is being starved to death and you have to supplement, doctors who weren’t taught anything about breastfeeding and tell you that breastmilk is garbage after twelve months, nine months or even six months, and doctors who don’t know it takes several days for a woman’s milk to come in after birth and urge formula feeding instead or who don’t know that breastfed babies lose more weight after birth than formula fed babies and again, urge formula feeding instead, and doctors who don’t know enough about latching on a baby to help teach a new mother how to do it and, yet again, urge formula feeding instead (it’s amazing how much doctors just don’t know, isn’t it?). And then there are employers who (illegally) turn pumping into a nightmare and do things like demote a woman or slash her hours and tell her she can have her former position back if she quits breastfeeding her child and know they can get away with it because those women need those jobs to pay their bills and it’s damn hard to find another one. 

It is a freaking badass woman who can still breastfeed in the face of all that.
I never used to be a breastfeeding advocate. I never gave breastfeeding much thought before I had children, and my first child was largely formula fed. My wife (she gave birth to our first child) had issues with her milk, and we didn’t know much of anything about how to address them at that point, so we switched to formula. We were fine with it. We’re still fine with it—our daughter is happy, healthy, amazing and alive. There’s no way of knowing now whether access to a lactation consultant could have fixed the problem. We didn’t even know there were such things as lactation consultants and the La Leche League available to us to ask back then, and that’s okay. I mean, it’s not really, because these are things that all women should be told about when they give birth or even when they adopt a baby, but we’re at peace with it. I didn’t really start thinking about breastfeeding until I got pregnant last year and realized I was having a son who, due to health concerns that run through my family lines, needed—absolutely needed—to be breastfed. But when I realized that, I started researching it and reading everything I could about it, and I believe now that we all need to be advocates. We all need to learn about breastfeeding, whether we have children or not. Why?
Because breastfeeding saves lives. Breastfeeding is so important that women whose babies have weaned still pump milk every day so they can donate it to babies whose mothers can't provide it for them. Breastfeeding is so important and so amazing for the body that scientists are trying to use breastmilk to cure cancer. Breastfeeding is so important that the Surgeon General of the United States has issued a call to action for breastfeeding support. Why? Because formula fed babies have a higher risk of SIDS. Let me say that again, in a different way: feeding a baby formula instead of breastmilk increases its risk of suddenly dropping dead. Formula fed babies have a higher risk of developing asthma (which also increases your chance of suddenly dropping dead), and they have higher instances of infections, like ear, throat and respiratory infections, as well as higher incidences of repeat infections. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding a child for at least two years, for health purposes. Do you know how many American babies are still exclusively breastfed (meaning, without supplementing with formula) at even twelve months? I do—13%...and only 8% among African American babies.
It’s a human rights issue—babies deserve to eat the best food we can give them and women deserve the right, the ability, and the knowledge, encourage and support needed in order to give them that. There’s a reason that formula fed babies have a higher rate of illness and SIDS…formula is, at the heart of it, unnatural. It will never be as good for a child as breastmilk. America has the highest infant death rate of any first world country. With all our research, all our pharmaceutical companies and cutting edge medical procedures, we have the highest infant death rate. Our low breastfeeding rate is definitely a contributing factor there, and the way we treat breastfeeding women is, in turn, a huge contributing factor to our low breastfeeding rate. Being an advocate for breastfeeding and for the rights of women to breastfeed their children literally saves lives. By humiliating a woman for daring to breastfeed her child in public, by sexualizing breastfeeding, by making it hard or impossible for her to both pump milk and keep her job, by not educating our doctors on the way breastfeeding really works, by pushing formula on women and sending them home with it in the hospital even when they intend to breastfeed, by not making breastfeeding help and support easily available to all women from the day their children are born or even before, by not mandating paid maternity leave like every other first world nation has done—by doing all these things, we drive women away from breastfeeding. We make it embarrassing for them. We make it a struggle. For some, we make it impossible and for others, we keep them from realizing that it’s even an option. And some of those children who were switched to formula or never breastfed in the first place will suffer for it. Some of them will even die. And some of those women who didn’t breastfeed or who stopped when they had a problem, like we did with our daughter, will regret missing out on an experience they really wanted to have.
I’m lucky. I gave birth in a breastfeeding friendly hospital, attended by a breastfeeding friendly midwife, and my son has a breastfeeding friendly pediatrician. My family and friends are supportive and not at all grossed out by the sight of a baby having dinner, and they don’t think I’m flashing them for attention or to flirt with their husbands (or wives, in my case…) when I feed my son at their houses. My milk came in with no problems. I have a good supply and I respond well to a pump. My baby doesn’t have any difficulty latching or with taking bottles; my employer gives me no problems about my need to pump milk at work, and I have ready access to an extremely competent lactation consultant (she’s friends with my sister…yippy!) who has never hesitated in answering my questions.
Even with all of that, we’ve had our struggles. My son had jaundice and a slow weight gain for the first month of his life. I had a pump I didn’t respond to and not enough money to buy a different one ($200 is a lot of money to spend on something when you can’t test it out beforehand, and there’s no way a woman can know which pump will actually work for her in advance). I have a high needs infant who needs to be nursed constantly, which makes it hard to sleep…or cook…or clean…or shower, and yet, after I started working, he developed an aversion to nursing because the bottles required less effort on his part. The days of screaming while we worked through that almost drove everyone in my house to insanity. There have been days I have wanted to quit, days that I almost didn’t care that formula feeding my son would increase his chance of developing celiac disease, if he hasn’t already been born with it.
But I haven’t quit, not yet. Nine weeks (such a short span of time…), and I haven’t quit. The best piece of advice I was given was, “Don’t quit on your worst day.” So on the bad days, I breathe, I cry…and I go again the next day. And the next day I remember that I love nursing. I love his giant eyes looking up at me and the look of intense concentration on his face when the milk starts flowing more slowly and he has to work harder. I love this simple picture I took with my crummy phone

I love how his eyes roll back in his head and he starts looking like a tiny drunk person about halfway through, and I love how my wife texts me when I’m gone because he’s screaming nonstop, so I take a short drive home, give him a kiss and a cuddle, pop a breast into his mouth and bask in the way he stills, calms and goes right to sleep after a few minutes of us nursing together. I love that last night I pumped fourteen ounces of milk at work, and sixteen ounces tonight in between writing this, even though I usually only get ten or eleven ounces. I mean, really…that makes me feel like a freaking superhero.
And this woman, this woman who works at Popeye’s…she’s freaking epic. She’s doing her damnedest to give her kid the best nutrition she can, and she’s facing a lot of opposition to do it. Think about that for a second. A woman lost her supervisor position. She lost her full time hours. She had those things stripped away from her…because she was trying to feed her child. When is it ever okay to punish someone for feeding a baby? The worst thing about it to me is that this woman’s boss, this person who is treating her so very badly for simply being a mother and for acting within the bounds of what the law allows her to do, is another woman. When women are discriminating against other women, against each other, it’s a sign that there is something very, very broken in our society.
Support breastfeeding women. Support women, period. Don’t compare our pumping at work to another person’s thirty cigarette breaks. Don’t accuse us of slacking off or taking advantage of our bosses or fellow coworkers. I take so many pumping breaks that I don’t even like taking a regular break because I know there are other people who need to get up and do things. So, in order to feed my child, I have given up walking at work, lifting weights at work, just breathing in the rainy air outside or even indulging in eating dinner away from my desk at work, because I am thinking about other people. If you don’t know how breastfeeding or pumping works, then ask before you accuse. I mean, if there’s one thing women with children have in common, it’s that they love talking about their babies.  Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my last pump break before I go home and feed the baby who will wake up as soon as he smells my milk jugs walk through the door.