Three months after her daughter was born, Michele Peterson was ready to go back to work. But she wasn't ready to stop breast-feeding.
"It would have been the easiest thing in the world to use the lack of facilities and support as a reason or excuse to turn to the bottle, but I wanted to provide my baby with the best start in life I could and simply tackled the problems as they popped up and it worked out just fine," said Peterson, who was working for a Boston-area publisher when her baby was born 12 years ago.
Her circumstances were less than ideal. There was no "lactation room," as some employers now have. Like most of her co-workers, she worked in a cubicle. "I had to pump with a manual breast pump in the office ladies' room. I used the handicapped stall, which was at least fairly roomy, and I brought an office guest chair into the bathroom, where it remained for the duration. I washed my supplies in the bathroom sink and gave them a more thorough cleaning at the end of the day. It was large company and not everyone knew everyone else. . . . Several people asked me if I was diabetic and injecting insulin. Rumors of all kinds swirled around my clandestine stall activities."
At first, she put the breast milk in a freezer at the office, but then a new problem arose: "I caught the office weirdo tampering with them." After that she kept them on ice in a cooler in her cubicle, where she could keep an eye on them.
The biggest problem, though, was meetings. At first her co-workers were a bit inflexible. Eventually they began to give her some notice, so she could plan pumping around the meeting times. "If I did have to excuse myself no one made a big deal, I was simply filled in on what I missed when I returned or after the meeting."
Peterson said she stopped breast-feeding after about a year. "It was a little earlier than I would have liked, but I was glad we were successful and that I did not let the obstacles get in my way."
While motherhood was once considered a career-ender for many young women, fewer women today show any reluctance to bring into the workplace one of the most obvious expressions of motherhood -- breast-feeding.
A 2000 study by the Virginia Health Department found that 64 percent of infants were breast-fed at least in hospitals, and 32.6 percent were still breast-fed at 6 months. In 1990, the survey found that 46.1 percent were breast-fed in hospitals and 15.2 percent at 6 months.
"When I see women nursing in public settings now I smile, yet feel a bit envious as I remember how many times I had to nurse my baby in a restroom. How would you like to eat in a bathroom?" Peterson said. "Many public places do make accommodations now for nursing, it is a lot better now than it was a decade ago, but we still have so far to go."
Sondra Jackson's experience would likely make Peterson smile. "When I was five months pregnant, I was considering leaving my job once my baby was born. I have a feeling that my boss knew I was considering this, so he approached me about bringing my baby to work with me. . . . He actually broached the subject, as he was afraid of losing me."
So after her leave was up, she brought her daughter, Isabella, to work with her. Her employer, American University, arranged for a private room with a television set so she could breast-feed her daughter. "There was a kitchen across from my office, so I could feed her solids and socialize with others there," she said. "Also, the Sutton Place Gourmet is downstairs from my office, so at lunch time we visited with friends that worked there.
"Bella came with me to work until she was 11 months old and too big to handle and still get my work done," she said.
While most employers are not that accommodating, many are willing to make efforts. But it is usually up to the new mother to take the initiative.
Laura Adams, 30, an accounting assistant from Bowie, brought up the subject with her boss while she was pregnant with her daughter, now 2. "I always knew that I would nurse my children and talked about it with my boss before I left for maternity leave," Adams said. She returned to work six weeks after her baby was born. They cleaned an empty office for her and arranged her schedule so she could pump three times a day. "The hard part was the feeling of proving to our [general manager] that I could still be as productive as I was before even though I was taking three 15-minute breaks a day. . . . After a few weeks, it wasn't an issue at all. Everyone got used to it."
Adams's office is small -- about 10 people -- and she said she got a lot of support from her boss and co-workers during the 14 months she breast-fed her daughter. "Our assistant GM's wife had also nursed and returned to work with her two kids, so he was very aware of the benefits," she said. "My office is very family-friendly."
While Jackson and Adams were fortunate to work in places where their breast-feeding was openly accepted, other mothers are not so lucky. Many women complain that when they asked their supervisors for a place to pump breast milk for their infants, they were shooed off to filthy maintenance closets or public restrooms. Others said the office climate was so hostile that they did not bother asking for help, they just took great pains to be discreet.
Many employers, including federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency, have maternal wellness programs that include "lactation programs."
Even when such programs exist, mothers still find they have work to do. Sylvia Ann Ellison, 38, lives in University Park and is a health statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control. Ellison said her office has a lactation program with a space to pump, a hospital-grade rental pump for moms to use, and free phone consultation when needed with a certified lactation consultant. "This sounds great, and is an institutionalized program, which is much more than most working moms have," she said.
However, Ellison still had problems. "The designated space was a junky storage room full of boxes and file cabinets, and it took a while for the pump to be brought to the site. It was difficult to get the one key to the room from where it was kept, and the key had to be returned to that location after each use -- inconvenient and time-consuming -- two characteristics not at all helpful for an endeavor during which relaxation is necessary for success. People would come knock on the door trying to get files while I was pumping."
Ellison had the files and boxes moved out, and she requested a key for each mom to use while in the program. "I became the de facto on-site coordinator of the workplace lactation support program. Though initially there was a lot of pushing required on my part, I knew I could get things set up properly because the support for nursing . . . is a requirement in my office."
Ellison said the two biggest problems are time and space. Many women work out systems for pumping in shared offices, using curtains or blinds. The time issue requires understanding from co-workers and supervisors. "People look twice at the amount of time a mom takes to pump over a period of months when they don't question the amount of time another co-worker spends smoking over a period of years."
If you have an eye on a career, your decision to breast-feed matters only as much as it matters to your office bosses and/or co-workers. If you work in an environment where the special needs of breast-feeding are not accommodated at all, or even discouraged, yet it is important to you to breast-feed, then you might want to pursue your career someplace else.
Ellison said the workplace does not need to be "all warm and fuzzy" to be supportive. "A selfish employer will support the nursing mom when [he or she] realizes that on average nursing moms will miss less work time for baby-related illness, and have shorter absences when they do miss work. Working moms who have the opportunity to continue to breast-feed have higher morale and return to work earlier from maternity leave on average than moms who do not breast-feed."
E-mail Mary Ellen Slayter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join her for "Career Track Live," an hour-long chat on issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. Nov. 4 at www.washingtonpost.com.