Women make up 47 person of the American workforce— in other words, working motherhood is not a niche activity. And as breast-feeding rates continue to rise, many new mothers are attempting to continue to breast-feed their babies after they go back to work. For most women, this means bringing a machine – a breast pump – to work with them.
To be clear, no one can make this pumping job easy or fun. (Just ask one woman I interviewed, who had the Harlem Globetrotters walk in on her while she was pumping in a supposedly unused locker room at a conference venue.) But there are some strategies that can make a real difference:
1. While you’re still at home with your baby, build up a stash of milk in your freezer. Do a pumping session every morning, immediately after you feed your baby. You won’t get much milk at first, but over time you’ll start to see results.
2. Be proactive about writing a pumping plan for work. Talk to other mothers in your workplace, and figure out where and how you’ll pump, and how you’ll make it work with your schedule. Solve as many problems as you can. Then present it to your boss or human resources contact. You’ll look like so much more of a pro than if you just walk in and ask for help.
3. Rip the “this is awkward” bandage off ASAP. Yes, you’re going to have to talk to your boss about your breasts. Don’t dance around the topic. Try: “This is an awkward conversation so let’s just get through it.” You’ll thank yourself later on.
4. Learn how to do “hands-on pumping.” A baby sucks and compresses when breast-feeding, while the pump just sucks. Using your hands to add in some compression can boost how much milk you produce – and that will save you a lot of stress and anxiety.
Because pumping at work is such a strange and physical job, it’s also a good idea to have a few time- and awkwardness-saving hacks on hand. Start with these:
1. Don’t wash your pump parts between sessions. It’s totally sanitary to throw them in a wet bag and into the fridge. They’ll be refreshing (aka COLD) next time you go to pump, but it’ll save you the embarrassment of washing your pump parts in the office sink when Tim from accounting walks in.
2. If you travel for work, pack each pump part in its own Ziploc bag. If your airport security agent wants to inspect the pump, you do not want him handling your pump parts with hands that have already touched a thousand travelers that day.
3. If you face the horror of having to pump in a public restroom, keep a pack of sticky notes in your pump bag. Stick one over the automatic flush-sensor on the toilet to stop it from flushing while you do your business.
But the most important life hack of all? Do not measure your worth as a mother by the ounces you pump. Pumping and working is hard, and it doesn’t work out perfectly for everyone. Your success or failure at this one job has nothing to do with how great of a mother you are.
Jessica Shortall is a mother of two with a career dedicated to business and doing good. During her breast pump years, Jessica was the director of giving for TOMS Shoes. She holds an MBA from Oxford University. She is the author of “Work. Pump. Repeat: Facing Down the Challenges of Breast-feeding and Going Back to Work.”