Workplaces must give moms space to pump breast milk. Women share what it’s really like.

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Crystal Early’s son took to breast-feeding right away. At 10 weeks, James was already more than 13 pounds and “hungry all the time,” Early said recently. But in just two weeks, she would be back at work and would need to pump breast milk.

“I’m nervous about the time it takes out of the day, and making sure I can take that time to really do what I need to do and also not miss important pieces of my job each day,” Early said. “I never want someone to think that I’m taking a quote-unquote break, or that I’m missing out on work.”

Early is one of the lucky ones: Her company, a Tampa staffing firm where she’s worked for six years, has a new pumping room with a door that locks, and has even decorated the space with photos of the babies whose mothers are pumping. Even so, she worries — about leaving her son when he’s “still so little,” about what she might miss while she’s pumping and about how she’ll pump when traveling for work.


“That is one of the number one sources of stress: how they are going to manage” the breast milk supply, says Aimee Danielson, director of the Women’s Mental Health Program at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital. “One of the biggest factors in whether it’s something tedious versus truly stressful is the ability of the workplace to have institutional support for pumping.”

Earlier this year, The Washington Post’s On Parenting section ran an article explaining what is required of companies that have workers who need to pump. In response, we received nearly 200 stories from federal employees, emergency workers, teachers and others at companies large and small. Some gushed about pristine pumping rooms, but many others had less pleasant tales.

In a country where there is no paid parental leave and where most leaves consist of just 12 weeks or less, women are returning to jobs when their bodies (and hearts) might be wanting them to do otherwise: They suffer from painful breasts, leaking milk, the stress of trying to balance a job with new family demands, plus a stigma that a mother can’t excel at work.

We heard from new moms who pump as they sit on dirty floors in storage rooms and watch as roaches scurry in dark corners. We heard from teachers who pump during a short free period in their classrooms that don’t lock, one with a video camera recording. And then there was this nightmare: “The CEO of the company used to announce when I was going to pump by singing a little song for everyone to hear: ‘Pump, pump, pump it up!’ ” wrote a woman who worked in a Silicon Valley tech start-up. She also recalled a time when she wasn’t permitted to leave a meeting and her milk began to leak through her shirt. (She quit and recently began her own consulting company.)

The workplace is full of obstacles for mothers, and pumping is a big one. Here, women share their stories.

A place to pump

So what does it take to pump breast milk? A room with a lock. And, of course, there’s the pump, which typically costs about $300, although many pumps are now covered by insurance under the Affordable Care Act. New mothers also need sanitized bottles, storage bags, tubing and other accessories. Some very proactive employers provide a hospital-grade pump, and nursing moms bring their own equipment to hook up to it.

Women should have a space to set the equipment while pumping, a sink to clean the equipment, a refrigerator to keep the milk cold and a microwave, so the equipment can be sanitized after every pumping session, which usually lasts 15 to 20 minutes. (Add time for walking to the pumping space, storing the milk and cleaning the equipment.)

An employer, no matter its size, “has an obligation under the law to provide the space necessary to allow her to express milk in private and to have the time to do that,” says Bob Simandl, a lawyer with von Briesen & Roper who focuses on employment and labor law. The area needs to have a locked door and no windows, or a covering over the windows. “The employer and employee need to have a very open discussion as to timing of breaks, whether they will coincide with paid breaks, expectations for where and when, and what is most convenient for employer and employee,” Simandl says.

Sara McClusky of Reston is a product analyst at a digital consulting company in the District. The first person at her small firm to have a baby, she found there was no designated maternity leave or pumping space.

But McClusky, who has a 1-year-old daughter, was more fortunate than some. “I basically was told to come up with a wish list, and we’d walk through it and make a plan,” she says. “I was fortunate that my boss at the time had been a working mother and had done the pumping thing. Before that, no one would have understood what I would be talking about.”

McClusky’s pumping area is “in a small printer room, which also has a fridge. It’s not too bad; sometimes I have to slide people’s printouts under the door.” But, she said, her company is so small that she was “really . . . paranoid” to ask for it.

After her daughter was born, McClusky took four weeks of paid leave provided by the company, two weeks of paid vacation time and then six weeks of unpaid leave.

She knew that she wanted her daughter to have breast milk for the full year recommended by pediatricians.

She put her pumping times on a shared calendar so people knew to try to avoid scheduling meetings with her during those two to three 15-minute breaks. That didn’t always work, so she would call into meetings as she pumped. “I was pumping once while on an internal call, and someone asked if there was a large toad in the room with me,” she said. “I work with a lot of younger developers, mostly men. So I said it was ‘mommy time’ and I just left it there.”

Being the only new mother in a small office has been difficult. “It’s been a bit lonely. I had very small, but very lonely, victories,” she says. She would have liked to celebrate when she downgraded to pumping just twice a day, or even gloat when she pumped a whopping 20 ounces at work in one day. “It’s kind of like, ‘Who’s going to commiserate with me?’ You just don’t realize how much time is going into thinking about it.”

What other women said:

“I was grateful for a space to pump, but when it was cold, the room was not heated ― I would take a small blanket or an extra jacket.”

“It’s not the most pleasant if I’m pumping right after someone has used the restroom for a bowel movement, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”

“Yes, there were roaches, but it was awesome to have a room with a door that shut and a place to wash my pump parts.”

“A network engineer with a master key decided to unlock the conference room door and walked in on me. When I objected, he told me that it was my fault because I hadn’t scheduled the conference room (no, he hadn’t knocked...).”

“It was about as close to perfect as you could ask for. My workplace has a windowless room with a lock and code to get in. The lock triggers an occupied sign so others are aware. Inside is a mini fridge, seating, soft lighting, lavender aromas and the best part: a Medela Symphony (hospital grade!) pump that you only need to bring your own tubing, flanges, valves. Also pump wipes, nipple ointment, breast pads ... truly the best setup you could ask for. I consider myself very, very lucky.

“I bought a car adapter for pumping in the back seat of my car, which I had to park on the street. By the time I got to my car and got set up, some days I pumped for 15 to 25 minutes and barely got anything.”

“It definitely felt demeaning and frankly gross to sit in a bathroom pumping my milk.”

“There was a metal folding chair I could use, but it honestly felt like I was being locked in a dungeon.”

I had to put a blanket across my cubicle in an office of nine people, including one male.”

“The pumping room had a cardboard cutout of a cow in it — I’m not joking.”

Workplace culture

The worst stories come from women with clueless (and in some cases crude) co-workers or bosses. Some reported male co-workers trying to peek, or banging on the door when they knew a woman was pumping. Others had co-workers tell them that they wished they could have a “break” like pumping mothers do. (Not only is pumping physically demanding, but many of the women we spoke to continued to work while pumping.) And some co-workers and bosses expressed frustration with schedule disruptions. But pumping can’t wait: A woman needs to pump at regular intervals to avoid leaking, pain and potentially serious infections.

What happens when a company fails to create a culture that supports pumping employees? “Well, bad news spreads fast,” says Julia Beck, founder of the It’s Working Project, which helps companies bring parents back into the workforce. “A person who feels their needs were dismissed, they’re not going to be quiet about it. . . . It will affect not just retention but recruitment.”

The best stories are about organizations that understand the transition for women returning to work after having a baby.

Cynthia Calvert, president of Workforce 21C, helps companies manage their workforce and advance women. “If you support a new mother in the workplace, you gain loyalty, not just from her, but all her colleagues,” she tells managers. And for women who feel guilty about asking for required accommodations? “What you’re doing is making it possible to remain employed,” she says. “Know your worth; this isn’t special treatment. This is a setup required so you can continue to be employed. And it’s just for a short period of time.”

At Ayrika White-Mfoudi’s workplace, pumping was the norm. White-Mfoudi has three boys, 7 and 3 years old and 20 months. When she returned to work as a veterinarian at a busy practice in Catonsville within eight to 12 weeks of giving birth to each of her babies, she was one of several women who were pumping breast milk. So when they needed to pump, she and her colleagues took turns using the office of a vet who only came once a week, putting a covering over the window. “It was fine. I know we had it better than most,” she says.

The all-women vet squad’s male boss was understanding, so the women felt like they could actually take their breaks to pump. “He has daughters and a wife and is very supportive of family,” White-Mfoudi says. “We got very lucky.”

Of course, even with a decent space and a break to pump, it wasn’t easy. “No one understands. It’s just you’re attached to a machine for 15 minutes. There’s no love, you’re isolated, no one is talking to you,” she says. “It’s hard enough just to do it, then to hear these stories from women who aren’t supported is just terrible. . . . It’s just not understood.”

What other women said:

“I did not even ask for a room. The managers had this ‘You’re lucky we gave you a job while pregnant’ attitude.”

“I had to pump on the floor of our server room. Our IT director went on and on about not wanting all of ‘that’ going on around his equipment.”

“Yesterday I asked myself, ‘How miserable is too miserable?’ and started looking for a new job. However, if it’s this bad here, it’s likely to be far worse somewhere else.”

“Everyone was really helpful except one older man in the office who had a bit of a reputation as a sexist anyway. He repeatedly asked to look at the pump and asked weird questions.

Luckily, I have a private office with a locking door; I pump in my office with a hands-free bra so I’m able to work. I brought in a mini fridge so I could store my milk privately. My supervisor is also supportive (he awkwardly asked if I needed anything the first day and now kindly pretends he can’t hear the pump through the wall).”

“The CEO of the company used to announce when I was going to pump by singing a little song for everyone to hear: ‘Pump, pump, pump it up.’ It was so embarrassing.”

“I work with a lot of men, and I can tell that they get annoyed when I tell them I have 20-minute slots blocked out. It feels weird telling them, ‘I have to go pump,’ but it also feels weird saying a ‘break’ because they think I’m relaxing in there.”

“I’ve gotten comments like ‘Oh, can I watch?’ in response to learning that another pumping co-worker and I shared a space while pumping at the same time.”

“I feel lucky to have a safe-ish place to pump without much interruption, and the luxury to do it when needed and for however long I need. However, if I pump much longer than a year here, I know they’re not going to be happy. It is disruptive to the normal course of business for others, and I often feel guilty pumping.”

“When my boss saw me walking back, he’d make derogatory comments about my pumping time.”

“Luckily, my management is very supportive of my transition back to work, so the time to pump is not seen as a negative on my work product. (I actually get quite a bit of emailing done and taken a few conference calls while pumping.)”

Outside the 9-to-5

For many women who don’t work in an office, pumping may feel nearly impossible. This includes teachers, retail and fast-food workers, women in the military, and women who must travel often for work. (Trying to get through the Transportation Security Administration with dozens of ounces of breast milk adds another layer of difficulty; one mom suggested using frozen peas as ice packs.)

Twins Victoria Clark and Ryan Evans are police officers who live in District Heights and the District, respectively. Clark has a 2-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son, and Evans has four children: a daughter who is 8, a son who is 6, and a twin boy and girl, now a year old.

Clark stayed home with her newborn daughter for eight weeks, then headed back to the police station, which had a space dedicated to lactation with a comfortable chair, a small table, an outlet, a microwave and a refrigerator.

Being in the station, rather than on patrol, gave her a degree of freedom. “I just told my supervisor that I needed to take a break, and I pumped twice a day,” she says. “No one bothered me; it was great.”

But soon enough, she was itching to get back “on the streets,” she said. The first day she went out on patrol, she asked the dispatcher for a break. “In the middle of pumping, she said, ‘We need you to go out!’ ” Clark had to radio back for all to hear: “I have no clothes on!” That was the last time she pumped at work.

Evans recalled a supervisor telling her that she had to email him each time she went to pump and again when she came back. To her, it felt like a “violation.” When people took a smoke break or ate lunch, they didn’t have to email their supervisor, she thought. “I pumped at the same time every day. It was kind of like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ ” And after a few months, she stopped pumping because of stress.

If she had to give advice to other women considering pumping, Evans said she would still encourage them to do it, but she would also tell them to speak up. “Don’t be quiet. Look up what your rights are. Look it up for yourself. You have every right,” she says. “You can take care of your child the way you want to.”

What other women said:

“I had a 20-minute lunch that I used to pump in my classroom. The closest bathroom was shared with students, and I refused to clean pump parts in what was seemingly the world’s dirtiest bathroom. Thankfully I provided my own mini fridge. I also covered all windows and locked the door, but every administrator, janitor and tech personnel person had a master key and could come in as they saw fit.”

“For my first child, I had to pump in my share of bathrooms, storage rooms, etc., and many people were confused by the request for space, refrigeration, etc. I just hung up my pump for baby No. 3 last week, and it’s been an amazing difference. So many more people are aware of the laws and regulations, and no one batted an eye at the numerous conferences, hotels and offsite meetings I attended and asked for space to pump.”

“While on military duty, I had to pump using a manual pump in the woods, with a few Marines standing guard around me to ensure no one invaded my privacy, as if I really had much at that point.”

“There was nowhere to pump other than in a shared, public space -- but more importantly, we did not get breaks. I worked in a health-care setting, so I had to see patients as they came in. ... By the time I finished my shift, my breasts would be hard and aching.”

“I had to pump in my classroom during lunch and my conference period (when I wasn’t in meetings). I was frequently walked in on by custodians and other staff, despite having a sign on the door and locking the door.”

I pump in our open break room. I work in fast food. I cover up with a blanket, and people walk by or come in since it’s a break area.”

Speaking up

With the “patchwork of laws” that provide protections (including the Affordable Care Act, Title VII and the Fair Labor Standards Act), “even the most well-meaning HR departments may not be on the cutting edge of this,” says Tom Spiggle, owner of the Spiggle Law firm in Arlington and author of “You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired!

“If you are paid an hourly wage, chances are you’re entitled to” pumping breaks and a clean, private room to pump in, he says. It pays to know what’s required and then ask for it. Employers and employees can educate themselves by reading the requirements on the Labor Department website.

Lauren Zelin has a 4-year-old boy, a 2-year-old girl and a 3-month-old boy. She is the media relations manager for a nongovernmental organization in the District.

“I know there are a lot of horror stories out there, but there are exceptions,” she wrote to us. “My co-workers and I are extremely lucky to have a great lactation room because we strongly advocated for it when our office was remodeled.”

Zelin compiled an email list of the moms in the office who had previously pumped at work, asking them, “­What do we need? What should we do? Would you go with us to HR and tell them what we need?” she says.

Zelin and her co-workers requested eight bays, knowing they wouldn’t get all of them (they got four). They also asked for a refrigerator just for breast milk, shelving to hold the pump, and a sink to wash pump parts.

Today, there’s a schedule, and all four bays are usually in use. The organization has 370 employees in its D.C. office and is “steadily growing,” she says. “As we grow, the number of moms grows.”

“Some people think you’re just sitting around, but moms want to work and get home,” Zelin says. There’s a desk in each bay where they can plug in laptops. “We pick up our work, drop it down and keep working,” she says.

Such a welcoming setup can be a retention and recruitment tool, Zelin says. “Some of that was included in how we pitched it: ‘This is a thing we need. Breast-feeding is good for babies’ health, so it also cuts down on long-term health-care costs.’ But we especially talked about how it makes a difference in the workforce. We can work and be moms and be supported in both.”

What other women said:

“My bosses and co-workers are all very respectful about accommodating my need to pump, and I hope things continue to go this smoothly until my daughter is 1 year old. I realize that, sadly, my scenario is probably less common, and my heart goes out to all those moms who have to fight for their rights to pump, or must do it in less-than-ideal conditions.”

“I have to say that they make it extremely easy for returning mothers. They even have a lactation nurse that we can see if we are having any issues.”

It was really great (to the extent pumping can ever be described as “really great”!). I work at a law firm downtown, and my office has lactation rooms with hospital-grade pumps (and sinks and locks on the door). When you first come back to work from maternity leave, they give you a new set of pump parts to use with the pumps.”

“Three times a day I would climb under my desk, set up my equipment, pump and answer emails. HR called me at one point to ask me about my ‘lactation situation.’ I imagine they were referring to the fact that I pumped under my desk, but they didn’t specify. I asked if there was an issue that I needed to be aware of, and they ended the conversation.”

“I helped my employer ― a municipality with very forward-thinking leadership ― to procure and install a Mamava lactation pod to guarantee that all of our nursing moms would have a designated place to continue pumping in privacy and wouldn’t have to even consider the “potty pump” in the bathroom. (Yuck.)”

“When we went to administration about the dangling cord and infestation of ants, we were to told we were lucky to have the space. And guess what? We felt lucky to have this space.”

Photos by Linda Davidson. Audio by Anne Li. Design by Emily Chow.