September 11, 2009

It's Time to Play Breastfeeding Soap Box!

To play along, first you have to read the title of this blog post with that Muppets Game Show Host character's voice in your head.

Ok. I'm torqued about this conversation stirring over the woman who was fired (in 2005) for taking unauthorized breaks to pump milk. It hits close to home with me because I left my full time job over something similar. While I commend Ms. Allen for making the choice to breastfeed her child, I believe she could have made other choices in addition that would have suited her and her son's needs better rather than causing herself undue turmoil, but hey, we live and we learn, right?

First let me just say that this story has been spun several different ways till Sunday. According to The Columbus Dispatch article, along with some other references with credible citations, the woman was fired for taking unauthorized breaks, NOT for pumping her milk. Let's get the story straight here, folks. Her employer never said she couldn't pump her milk, they did say she would have to do it on their terms at the times they specified and there wasn't any wiggle room.

According to the details of the case (the ones I've read and believe to be cited properly — keep in mind, I wasn't there) — the woman took on a temp job (I remind you this was just a temp job, she wasn't making partner in a law firm) and she negotiated the terms of her employment regarding her needs for taking breaks to pump her breasts during authorized times that were approved by her supervisor. After some time, she discovered (as we all do, because we're freakin humans, not machines) that these break times were not sufficient for her pumping needs.

Duh. I'm sorry, but unless your breasts are bionic, who can pump reasonably within 10 minutes time?

She was not granted any more flexibility when she asked about adjusting her break times.

Ok, real shocker there. This was a production job and she was a temporary employee. Not a whole lot of flexibility for something like this when you're on an assembly line making gloves and umbrellas. So, what did she do, she took unauthorized breaks to pump (read by the employer as "sneaking") and then got caught and penalized for it.

Now, no one should be penalized for draining their painfully engorged breasts just like no one should be penalized for having to drain their bladder. Pumping, however, is not the same as a bathroom break or a smoke break or any type of break. It's really not a break at all. Your body has to work and burn a tremendous amount of calories. It is medically and physically necessary to pump at regular intervals and not every woman can drain her breasts in 10 – 15 minutes, so why anyone thinks they can get away with being told by an employer when they can and can't pump is beyond my understanding. Perhaps it's because pumping and the details of proper breast care and milk management are beyond the scope of most employer's understanding anyhow. After all, it's not really the job of the company to educate themselves on all things health related like pumping breast milk, or insulin injections or blood testing for diabetics, is it? We're talking about personal health management here and there are privacy issues at stake. This means it's up to the individual to manage their own health care needs. Be responsible for yourself.

Sometimes I feel women have been brainwashed over the years to think that we can just do it all and it will all work out perfectly. Just give us a device that replaces a natural function of our bodies and we can do anything we set our minds to. We don't need no stinking ovulation, menstruation, or lactation! What a hassle? As if! Come on, body, I HAVE to go to work, punch in and check out. I have no time for these processes! Imagine all the money we as a nation spend on drying ourselves up with all of these devices, products, drugs and procedures that basically just de-feminize us over time while others spend money on devices, drugs, products and procedures to make the perfect woman plastic, plump and juicy. Just what the hell does it really mean to be a woman anymore if I have to make a choice between denying my body it's natural processes or turn myself into a machine so I can run with the big dawgs?

And then we wonder why marriages fall apart, our children suffer in schools and our health care is failing us.

This coming from a geeky mom who has in fact tried to do it all while pumping. I am Super Lactation Woman, hear me Moooooo! I can leap mountains in a single bound, manage 160 computers on a network at the same time, put out fires, make phone calls, email instructions, fix a problem remotely with a few clicks of the mouse, consult employees, create Excel spreadsheets and print them correctly too — all while attached to my breast pump!! All the while I was doing that, once I got the hang of it, it was great and I was able to pump 20 ounces a day while at work. I was so proud of my little cooler filled with mommy juice and couldn't wait to put it in the fridge all neatly labeled at day care the next morning. That sounds pretty impressive to the working woman and I did feel very accomplished.

However, the whole time I was doing this, my mind was NOT on my precious son. I was mentally distracted trying to cover over the heartache I felt each day I had to leave my baby with strangers so I could go to work. Whenever I took him in to the day care (a room filled with cribs and crying, neglected babies plopped in swings, high chairs, and play pens — in other words, a tiny little prison camp) I would try to nurse him before putting him in his crib to sleep. Then I would dart out so as not to be late to work, imagining my little angel just laying there sleeping the whole 8 to 10 hours while I worked. I couldn't bear the thought of seeing him just laying there crying with no one paying attention to him except for to put out fires like feeding and changing diapers. I also hated the idea of how hard it was for me to pump that precious, liquid white gold only to have some other woman cuddle and feed my son the milk out of my body from a plastic liner and silicone nipple.

It was just all so unnatural, I couldn't stand it!! When I started getting sick and couldn't recover, I knew I was going against the natural grain of things and I had to make changes. My body was literally screaming out to me to stop the madness and succumb to the primal urges of being a mother.

I feel some people lose sight of the fact that draining your breasts while you are lactating is a natural, biological need as well as a health care need which becomes interrupted when you are working and away from your baby. Pumping is a mechanical intervention which attempts to narrow the gap between working mother and child. When you mix working outside the home with lactation, it's often not a good match no matter how hard you try. (Not saying it isn't possible, I know women who have pulled it off very gracefully. I attempted to be one of them.) It just interrupts the natural cycle of biology and primal instincts. When it comes to lactation, there just is no replacement for a real baby just like there is no true replacement for breast milk. Pumping is to proper breast care management as formula is to breast milk replacement. It's a best guess, but it's not the real thing, so you get what you pay for. In the end you do the best with what you have to work with given the circumstances in which you find yourself. Keep in mind that those circumstances are many times within our own control and changes can be made to compensate to get what you need to be healthy. No one said the balancing act would be easy. Nothing is guaranteed. Be careful about expecting entitlement.

I just feel perhaps the mother involved in this court case might not have planned enough for what pumping at work would really entail. How could she? It's not a perfect science where everyone magically knows what to do. It takes practice and coordination. Maybe she didn't educate herself enough beforehand and just thought it was a mechanical process? Maybe she felt too intimidated and under pressure to ask for more than her employer was willing to offer when it came to her health needs? If she really wanted to breastfeed and it was that important to her, I think she should have made her health needs a priority over that particular job. Did she really, really need that temp job to make ends meet? Couldn't she have sought out some type of assistance? Reason I ask these questions is because I find it hard to believe that a temp job had such a high salary that she could justify all of the costs of going to work like childcare, transportation, etc. Maybe she had family helping her with childcare, who knows, but something's gotta give somewhere along the line.

I'm not clear or sure if she was given a warning and did not comply, but either way, she broke the rules that were handed down to her instead of trying to negotiate further or simply bow out and look for another place of employment. That's my beef.

Do I think her employer was right in not allowing her to adjust her pump schedule? I believe the employer made decisions based on the best interest of its company, not the employee. Is there something wrong with that? It depends on the company. No one is forcing you to take a job there. It's a job to make money just like any other. You're there to do a job and get compensated for it. Period. If the job isn't conducive to pumping, then GET ANOTHER (TEMP) JOB, stay at home, or give up breastfeeding.

What frustrates me is that everyone is stressing over this woman who (4 years ago this happened, mind you) was fired for taking unauthorized breaks, not over whether or not this woman made the right choice about taking on this temp job in the first place rather than staying home to breast feed her son OR find another job that was more conducive to breastfeeding. The jobs are out there, not many, but they are out there. You have to look, ask and be diligent. This case was not really about them not allowing her to pump her milk. It was about her not complying with the conditions in which they DID allow her to pump her milk. Like I said, if she felt the terms were insufficient then she should have made a choice of the job over the pumping. It's a sad reality that it comes to that, but that's the way it is. We can not expect employers to make these kinds of adjustments for us. We must be the ones to make the adjustments ourselves. If we keep accepting the fact of having to go to work and not demanding more out of life, then corporations will keep dishing it out and we'll keep eating it. I don't think the answer lies in companies making room for nursing mothers. I feel the answer lies in longer maternity leaves so a woman doesn't have to pump while at work. A woman should be able to take enough time away from working to do what is natural and then return to work when it's more manageable and the child is better equipped to be separated from mom like when they go to school.

Now, I really disagree with part of the court's ruling on whether or not breastfeeding is or is not a condition of pregnancy. According to the court's decision, they say that "... [Allen's] condition of lactating was not a condition relating to pregnancy but rather a condition relating to breastfeeding."

That one really burns me, but I believe it's a separate issue than that of Ms. Allen's not following the rules she was given.

Ok, so let me try and wrap my mind around this one. So, lactation is a "condition" because a woman chooses NOT to take drugs to dry herself out or open herself up to the risks of infection if the milk is left to build up until the lack of supply and demand is enough to stop the process of lactation. I'm really, really pissed at the notion that the courts deem lactation as a "condition" as if it's a bad thing, as if it's like acne or psoriasis that can be "treated" with drugs or other interventions to prevent it from happening. What the firetruck?

The court's decision on this aspect of the case wasn't very well thought out. I mean, I'm no judge, but I have lactated enough to know better than a judge that there is a lack of critical thinking involved here and it is just plain wrong and not factual. I'll be interested to see how that whole ball of wax plays out. While they're at it, I'd really like to know which came first? The chicken or the egg?

Everyone has to make choices that are in their own best interest or in the best interest of someone they care for or manage. The employer and corporation has to make choices that are in the best interest of their ability to make a profit. Otherwise, why be in business if you're not after a profit? Sometimes the choices they make involve sacrificing employees. Everyone is replaceable.

The mom has to make choices that will directly affect the well-being of herself, her children and her family. IN THAT ORDER. Everything else is secondary, especially a job. It costs money to work. It takes sacrifices to go to work. Only you can decide if those extra costs and saccrifices are a better choice for you over staying home and making different kinds of sacrifices in order to do that.

On the other side, for many women, the choice to work over staying home is important and does contribute to the well being of herself, her children and her family because of the long term investment and how it will affect the outcome of her family in the long run. For some women, the short term upbringing time is a time they CAN and/or are willing to sacrifice in order to be a good provider, especially when they are the sole provider. What if you spent your entire life preening your career as a lawyer or teacher? It's hard to step out of those positions. When that's the case, we make the necessary adjustments.

My personal ruling on this whole thing? QUIT THE TEMP JOB. STAY HOME AND DITCH THE PUMP. A temp job is not worth this much aggravation. Choosing to work at this job was an unwise and unhealthy decision for this mother and she should have cut her losses and moved on. Either find a different job or make the sacrifices to stay home and nurse if it was such a priority for her. I'm not saying every woman in this position should or can quit their job to stay home. I'm not saying every mother should be a stay at home mom either. I just think this story got a little twisted out of control and it could have been avoided.

Perhaps she felt like she had no choice but to sneak breaks in order to pump because she couldn't bear the thought of asking supervisors for more time because she felt weak. Again, if that's the case — GET ANOTHER JOB.

Pumping while at work is not easy and especially when you don't work in an environment that is conducive to it. Some women have it made. I've worked at places where they actually had a designated pumping area complete with comfy couch and designated refrigerator! These jobs are out there, but you have to look and ask. If a job does not have these accommodations, it's not their fault, you will have to create an environment yourself — but you will first need to clear it with your supervisor and make your intentions clear.

Before I left on maternity leave with my first son, I had my office and areas all scoped out and set up. I consulted with other co-workers who had done something similar and my working environment was supportive. My co-workers and supervisors were caring, supportive and understanding. Unfortunately, it didn't stay that way. When I came back from maternity leave, 8 short weeks later, I was transfered to another site. After all, Family Leave Act DOES guarantee you'll have a job to come back to, it just might not be the same job or the same place.


When I returned to work, I was totally unprepared. I had to start all over again with a whole new staff and surroundings. It SUCKED. I tried to negotiate all sorts of arrangements. I even tried to see if I could be transferred back to my original location. Again, an employer does what it thinks is in its best interest, even at the sacrifice of an employee regardless of the job they are doing. (I was well liked and was told I did a great job.)

Employees are replaceable.

So yeah, I've been there, done that. It's painful to think about what I had to go through to get to where I am today. Think dark storage closet. Bugs. Germs. Pressure. Stress. Mastitis. Infections. Angry co-workers with no sympathy. Angry parents not understanding why my door had to be closed at times. One parent even attempted to insinuate that I might have had students in my office behind closed doors. People are afraid of what they can't see out in the open but for some dumb reason, my administrators thought it better to NOT disclose the real reason why I needed privacy. Yeah, that makes sense. Make a parent worry when all they needed to know was I was providing for my own child.

Ultimately, I quit my job so I could breastfeed. (I didn't get fired, but I was "asked to resign" and I did so happily after the way I was treated.) That's the choice I made and I'm happier for it. Trying to pump at work was a truly awful experience and people were real jerks about it enough times to make it taxing. (and I worked with mostly other women who had children in an education setting so it's not just men who don't understand.) To me, that job was just not worth sacrificing my health, my son's health or any of our happiness. We all must make choices based on our priorities in life. If breastfeeding is a priority for you, like it was for me, and your work environment does not make it comfortable, then you may need to make a choice and compensate for that decision. I personally don't think involving government or even your employer in many situations is going to change anything about the stigma attached to this. It's sad, but a reality. If you really want to breastfeed and be successful at it, then don't work full time unless you have a good working relationship and environment. Trying to force the issue will just stress you out more in the long run.

Whoever says breastfeeding is not essential or necessary, that is an OPINION not based on FACT and it's that attitude that perpetuates the reasons why breastfeeding is not the "norm." For me, it WAS a medical necessity, to pump and not just for 15 mins. either. It disturbs me when people think that pumping should only take 15 minutes to complete. This is just not true for most people whether or not they realize it. You're a human, not a machine for crying out loud. You're not completely draining the breast and getting the hind milk out and it's only going to diminish your supply over time if you follow that course. You must also take into account time to walk to the location and back, set up and clean up time and any interruptions along the way that make it take longer. If you're only taking 15 min breaks to pump, that means you're really only pumping for 10 mins and in lots of cases, that's not nearly enough time to get the job done properly. Why even pump at all?

When I tried to pump at work, I DID work extra time to make up for my breaks, so in the end I was working the same amount of hours as anyone else and then some. However, the time it took out of my day each day kept me from being there when people needed me during normal working hours and that wasn't fair to them either. Towards the end, I was able to work out a better schedule because I was able to pump at my desk while working and had a partition put up for privacy. I arranged it with several co-workers who needed to consult with me during times while I pumped that they could meet with me while I was pumping if they were female (or an understanding male) and weren't squeamish about seeing the tubes hanging out of my shirt. I was completely covered, the only thing they saw were the tubes and machine and so long as they didn't mind, it made it a little easier. This worked well for a little while, but in the end it just wasn't a good enough solution because too many people who were squeamish about the idea complained about my need for privacy and my inability to just get up from my desk and come to them.

It just wasn't a good fit for any of us. I was there to do a job and provide a service for which I was being paid. They needed me to be available and approachable by all, not some. The adjustments I made to try and incorporate my health needs were not good enough. In the end, I made the decision that these employees along with this type of job was just not conducive to my need for breastfeeding. I decided that my son, my happiness and our health mattered more then a job and being accepted by peers. Our family has made many sacrifices, but the best part is we're happy and that's all that matters.

There will be other jobs, but there will never be another chance to breastfeed and bond with my babies. Jobs come and go, really, they do — but babies don't keep. Figure out what you really, and truly NEED to get by in life and compensate accordingly. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. You would be surprised at just how much it really costs overall to work full time. Sometimes I feel we're all just a little bit brainwashed by the Corporate world and the expectations make us lose sight of what really and truly matters. We keep on putting up with it, so it keeps getting dished out. Unless you change this cycle, then you only have yourself to blame. You CAN make adjustments to get what you want out of life and it's not like it's permanent! Government involvement is not the solution. Employer intervention is not the solution. Make a choice and adjust accordingly. If it doesn't work, try something else. Don't expect the world to revolve around you. Carve out your own life and be your own center. The world just might be a better place for it. :)