Mama, let's pimp up our pumping rooms
BY GUEST WRITER, HEATHER LIN
"Follow me,” your HR manager clips briskly, leading you down the hallway at an efficient pace. Together, you wind and turn through the bowels of your workplace, entering new lands you never knew existed. “Here we go.”
With the flick of a humming halogen light and the heavy shove of a wonky door that doesn’t quite open right, you are shown your new domain.
“Ahh,” you comment politely, quickly taking in the precarious wall of cardboard boxes marked “CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS” stacked unevenly to the ceiling, the dust particles floating under the glaring white light. The small table set out with an office chair obediently parked beside it. “Thank you so much,” you continue as your HR manager waits expectantly for your reaction.
It has happened. Maternity leave is officially over. You have been shown your new home away from home. Your workplace pumping room.
Let’s face it. It’s a bit of a lucky draw.
Some workplace pumping rooms have custom-made upholstered furniture, can accommodate multiple mothers at a time, and are placed in a central location. I have seen them with my own eyes. I have sat on the padded sofa with my own bottom. Other pumping rooms are literal supply closets with shelf space masquerading as a table, and just about enough room to perform a quarter turn at a time. Some places haven't thought about pumping rooms at all.
If you are fortunate enough to work for a company that values breastfeeding working mothers, then hooray!
Champion the individuals who made those key decisions, and talk glowingly about your roomy quarters to others. Your additions to the room can be purely aesthetic, and that’s a wonderful thing.
If you instead have to wrestle with mops, boxes or worse, a toilet stall door to enter and exit your domain, if you have to balance your precious bottles of milk on a few centimetres of shelf space or on your own lap, then perhaps there are a few things you can try with your Human Resources department before turning your mind to the aesthetic of the closet--er, space.
Step 1: Approaching Human Resources
Returning to work after a (sometimes lamentably short) maternity leave is no small feat. Mothers who breastfeed their babies often need to pump several times a day during their work day in order to ensure enough milk for their baby, and to ensure the robustness of their milk supply for the duration of their breastfeeding journey.
Oftentimes, mothers prepare for this task of pumping milk by having a conversation with their superior or with their Human Resource department prior to their return to work.
In my experience, it has served me well to enter such conversations with HR by stating expectations, instead of making requests. Framing one’s needs as demands that you expect to be met, instead of requests that you hope your employer might magnanimously grant you can be a powerful tool in your working mother toolkit. Confidence and a steady hand can help position you as a person who requires to be taken seriously.
“I will be breastfeeding my baby, so require a place to pump and store milk, as well as time to pump.”
“I will need to pump X number of times during the work day.”
Another tool to slip into your belt is preparedness.
The adage of “come to me with solutions, not problems” is relatable to many who work in managerial roles, or roles of responsibility.
Coming prepared with clear needs and solutions of how they might be met, potentially makes things easier for your company HR as they effectively just have to follow your instructions.
If your HR manager has very little or no knowledge of breastfeeding and pumping, providing a plan is better than leaving them to figure out how to meet your needs.
“The room you showed me is lacking X, so I propose we amend that by bringing in Y.”
“I will require these following items in the pumping room.”
“The pumping room is too far or inaccessible, so I propose that I use this space instead.”
Finally, the third tool you need is ... information.
If your HR manager or superior’s first impression of you as a returning working mother is that you are informed to the teeth about your rights, your needs and the breastfeeding theory of why you need to pump, you might find yourself leading the charge while they defer to your expertise.
Typically, managers do not wish to antagonize individuals for the pleasure of it. If you can present your needs, the solutions and your justifications in one breath, you might have just done all of the HR manager’s work for them, and hopefully gotten exactly what you want.
“I cannot reduce my pumping sessions at the time, as my breastmilk is my baby’s main/only source of nutrition.”
“The WHO advises mothers to exclusively breastfeed until about the age of 6 months. To do this, I must pump X number of times during the work day.”
“I wish to pump at these scheduled times, as failing to do so could result in blocked ducts, insufficient output, decreased supply, etc.
So, hopefully, you’ve gotten what you need for the sometimes onerous task of pumping.
Now, you can turn your sights on making your environment as pleasant as possible. This is, in my opinion, is an important endeavour for two reasons. Firstly, being in a nice space makes people happy, and being happy is a good thing. Secondly, bringing positive attention to a workplace pumping room celebrates it, values it and encourages others to be aware of it. Both reasons can have wonderful knock-on effects for the sub
sequent mothers who will walk the same hallway paths in your footsteps, to that same stuffy little closet.
Step 2: Decorating the pumping room
Tidying up the space can be a great start.
Use workplace supplies like baskets, trays and containers to give mothers a designated space to put their pumping bags, their milk bags, the pens for scribbling down the date. Wipe off gathering layers of dust, since dust could signal that no one cares enough to keep that space clean. Straighten things, remove unnecessary items, wipe off that suspicious brown stain that’s been there for longer than Greg in Accounts.
Adding a splash of colour or a hint of a theme can feel as comforting as a hug from someone who cares.
Drape a scarf you never use over the chair. Buy a roll of pretty contact paper and cover the table. Ask maintenance if they can switch out those harsh white halogens for softer yellow ones. Print posters with motivating statements or interesting breastfeeding facts, and hang them up. Print a colourful “Pumping Room” sign for the outside of the door.
Promote a sense of community
If you have several mothers pumping during the day, perhaps you can get together on a chat group. Pool in old photo frames that no one needs (everyone’s got some of those in a drawer somewhere) and display photos of your precious babies for whom all this work is for. Put a Hall of Fame poster up where mothers who have pumped in that workplace can proudly sign their names. Leave a pair of baby socks for an anxious mother to put over her bottles, so that she doesn’t obsessively watch her yield. Leave post-it notes for each other with encouraging messages. Keep a jar of sweets for everyone to share, and watch as mothers organically start contributing their own packets to share.
Provide reading material
Have you got a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding lying around? It’s an excellent reference book to pop into the pumping room. Print off your country and workplace’s policy on breastfeeding mothers pumping in the workplace. Print off information for your local La Leche League chapter, so that mothers know where to go if they need support. Print off inspiring or practical blog posts for mothers to thumb through while their pumps whir comfortingly in the background. Put a compilation of memes, your favourite trashy novel, foodie magazines you nicked from the dentists...anything your particular community of pumping mothers might appreciate and have a laugh over.
Investing time and effort into the space can feel rewarding.
While mothers tend to be a responsible demographic to begin with, having a nice space you personally invested into might motivate others to keep it tidy and delightful.
If the decor of the room can make a mother smile before she embarks on her pumping task...who knows, maybe those endorphins will cause an extra few millilitres of liquid gold! And if it only makes her smile...to me, that still seems very worth the effort.
Regardless of how many smiles a decorated pumping room causes, bringing attention to the room will also have another important effect: it will force people to notice it.
Non-parents will notice it. People will chat about it, for however briefly it may be. Bringing attention to a pumping room brings attention to mothers. Valuing a pumping room values mothers. Celebrating a pumping room celebrates mothers.
Making a difference for the next generation
Decorating my workplace’s two pumping rooms is one of the first things I did when I began my job at Victoria Shanghai Academy. I asked my deputy principal for permission, and he immediately acquiesced.
That same day, my principal approached me and said he had heard about my project and reassured me that he would find a budget for it if needed.
I was so heartened by their immediate and continued support.
Women in the workforce come in a huge variety of shapes and forms: One of those is the breastfeeding mother who manages to pump 3 times a day, on top of performing her regular job.
As one of my colleagues commented when he saw me giving a bottle of my pumped milk to a fellow breastfeeding mother and colleague, “You ladies are amazing.”
Yes, we are.
Breastfeeding mothers who are visible in the workplace are a good thing. Decorating a pumping room is just another way to make sure that they are seen.
Um, Excuse Me, My Workplace Doesn’t Even Have a Pumping Room
This is a reality. It has happened, and will continue to happen. If your workplace cannot or will not carve out a space for you to pump in, you might have to roll up your sleeves, get your proverbial sledgehammer and make one for yourself.
If you are pumping in a public toilet, a back stairwell or paying a taxi driver to take you around the block for 15 minutes, that is not fun. If you can personally put up with this, then give yourself a big hug for being able to adapt to demanding situations. If this sticks in your throat worse than a too-big mouthful of spaghetti and meatball, then mama, it’s time to swing that sledgehammer back and take aim.
Pump in the open
Is the only space a common staff room? An open-plan office? A light shawl and a healthy dose of not giving a fig might come in handy. #Ittasteslikelove founder Liz Thomas made the decision to pump in her open plan newsroom because there was nowhere else to go - and found her colleagues' response surprising.
It is very likely that the person losing brain cells over this endeavour is you, not your perceived audience. However, it could and has happened that antagonistic colleagues might choose to make your life difficult.
Arm yourself with the knowledge that their discomfort is not your fault, nor your responsibility. You are providing for your baby, and are most definitely not doing anything wrong. If you have colleagues who dislike seeing you pump in public, suggest that they devote all of that energy into productively helping you find a suitable private place to pump. If they will not do that, then I suggest you blissfully tune them out.
Some mothers have set up a tent in their staff room to pump in. Can a curtain or a movable screen solve most of your concerns? Is there a connecting shopping mall that has a glorious, upholstered breastfeeding room you can use? Can you shack up in a friendly colleague’s office? Creative solutions might be there with a bit of riddling out and asking around. Also, you can feel satisfied that all of the problem-solving you’re doing will likely help ease the way for subsequent mothers who encounter the same problems you are. Their battles might be less exhausting for them, due to the work you have done to ensure that you can pump in dignity and relative peace.
You’ve got this, mama. Sometimes, what mothers need most is a sympathetic ear and the knowledge that others have gone through similar trials. Breastfeeding communities can serve to provide that emotional boost. Surround yourself with other mothers, and give yourself permission to rant and rave about what upsets you. Likely, you will be running into the open arms of a village of women who offer you their support and care. Mothering was not meant to be a solitary task, and balancing the complex forces of being a working, pumping mother is even more so a task to be achieved communally.
Head up and boobs out, mamas!
“This is my second child so second time pumping at work and Heather's decorations have made a huge difference to the space and my overall experience! Her posters cheer me up and inspire me to keep breastfeeding as long as possible even though it's so hard with such a full-on schedule and having to pump four times a day whilst often planning lessons, marking work, or replying to emails! Merci mille fois!” - Rosee
“It was a lovely surprise to walk into the pumping room and see it decorated; it made my day. Pumping at work can be very lonely so to have a member of staff recognise the efforts that are made was very encouraging. The reminders that we are enough as mamas are appreciated every day when we are running between lessons and trying to pump during break time. I also like that I can pump at the same time as someone else, I know some mums would prefer being alone but I love being able to have a chat with a friend and share photos of our babies, it makes it more pleasant and less isolating.” - Victoria