Pumping at Work Is Still Awful, but It Might Be Getting Better

On Friday, the House voted to strengthen laws around lactation at work and make the lives of many breastfeeding parents easier.

Returning to the Office Means Extra Indignities for Breastfeeding Parents
Photo: Getty Images

Post-pandemic, pretty much everything about the way we work has changed. But even as workplaces are adding increased COVID safety measures, one thing has remained the same: Pumping at work is still miserable for many parents. Thankfully, there is legislation on the way to make things better.

On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, which will let nine million more nursing parents have space and time to pump at work, as well as ensure that more people can express milk on the clock by including parents of adopted children, surrogates, and those who experience a stillbirth.

"We've seen, since the start of the pandemic, millions of women needing to leave the workforce because workplaces are so inhospitable to the needs of working mothers and working women," says Sarah Brafman, senior policy counsel at A Better Balance, a workers' rights advocacy organization that supports the PUMP Act. "And thinking about pumping at work and how we can make workplaces [better] for nursing workers is part of that conversation."

Claire*, 34, a research scientist in Philadelphia, is one of the many parents who wants her workplace culture to change in order to improve the lives of nursing workers. She says she already felt ambivalent about going back to work in September when her son, Max*, was 4 months old, but figuring out how to pump breast milk for Max to have at daycare was one more logistical layer on an already stressful time. Still, like so many moms have done over the last 19 months, she sucked it up. She didn't have much choice.

That is, until she saw the "room" her lab had set aside for pumping breaks, and her ambivalence turned into rage. It was a tiny pod — the kind that can be useful when you're in a rush at an airport, but she had expected her office to do better since she would be using it several times a day. For months. On top of that, it was in the middle of a busy break room, which feels even grosser to her amid COVID.

"The pod has an open roof and is right next to people fucking eating without masks on," she tells InStyle. "I feel like pumping and breastfeeding makes me generally more conscientious of germs, because it's so steeped in 'wash your hands, wash your supplies, let nothing get contaminated,' and so then it makes me even more COVID-jittery." Plus, there's the tragicomedy of face-covering and undressing simultaneously. Or, as Claire put it: "I feel weird tits-out with a mask."

These circumstances have been so disappointing that they have left her in tears. "I have to look at pictures and videos of Max to get a let-down," she says, referring to the fast flow of breastmilk that can be harder to achieve with a pump than an actual baby. "Imagine doing that when literally outside the door of your roofless Porta-Potty there are men obnoxiously talking about their most recent escapade."

But even as these types of pumping experiences are enough to make some quit breastfeeding and wean altogether, Claire says she is going to keep going as long as she can so she can pass antibodies to Max through her milk. Claire says she felt she had no choice but to invest in the fancy $500 Elvie pump, discreet breast-shaped cups that go inside a bra and work wirelessly, which she can use while sitting at her desk. But she's still worried her coworkers can hear the Elvie and see it through her shirt, or that at the very least it makes her boobs look comically huge.


I feel weird tits-out with a mask.

— Claire*

While the Delta variant has delayed some office reopenings indefinitely, many employers are still requiring (or have never stopped requiring) in-person work, despite one-third of remote workers in the U.S. saying they feel uncomfortable going back.

Returning to the office "post"-COVID is stressful on its own for many. But for breastfeeding parents, it's an (often literal) pain in the boob. Not only do they have to sanitize and pack all of their pumping parts (why are there so many damn parts?!) and schlep them to their workplace day in and day out, but they have to carve out time during the day to pump, and potentially negotiate for time and space to do so, with a boss who might not have the slightest knowledge of breastfeeding or how any of this works, and how much it matters.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively until at least six months of age, and until one year of age together with solid foods. And yet one in four mothers in the U.S. return to work within just two weeks of giving birth, and over half go back before their children are three months old. Society encourages us to breastfeed, but at the same time it also encourages (or demands for) us to leave our babies in someone else's care and get back to work. Then we're on our own to reconcile these two expectations. On top of, you know, just generally spiralling because shit is so intense right now.

At the intersection of Big Breastfeeding and capitalism, there's a sad Porta-Potty. And inside it, there's a lonely and frustrated mother trying to respond to work emails on her phone while making milk for her baby.

If it weren't for the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law of 2010, part of the Affordable Care Act, not even that sad Porta-Potty would exist. The bill requires employers to provide "reasonable break time" and a place other than a bathroom "that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public" for workers with babies up to one year of age to express breast milk. Some states provide additional protections.

The PUMP Act would strengthen the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law by extending coverage to include teachers and nurses, two professions largely filled by women, as well as to parents of children up to two years of age.

"Workers who need time and space to pump are facing additional hurdles as they return to offices that are too often inhospitable or antagonistic to pumping at work," Brafman says. This antagonistic environment, she adds, can spell the end of breastfeeding for some people who have to endure it. "They end up not only weaning, but sometimes developing mastitis because they've had to stop cold turkey." Stopping breastfeeding can be uncomfortable and, oftentimes, a downright emotional mindfuck — and doing it while going back to work takes even more of a toll.

At the intersection of Big Breastfeeding and capitalism, there's a sad Porta-Potty. And inside it, there's a lonely and frustrated mother trying to respond to work emails on her phone while making milk for her baby.

In addition to the PUMP Act, another piece of legislation is making its way through Congress that would help workers who pump: The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which already passed the House in May. It would cover parents like Sandrine Etienne, 40, a medical social worker in Queens, NY, who works out of her car, by protecting their right to certain accommodations around pumping, like schedule changes. Etienne says that when she goes back to work in December, when her son Gavin will be six months old, she will likely ask for a schedule that brings her closer to her house. If all else fails, she says she'll use her wearable BabyBuddha pump on-the-go; at $200, another expensive option that is sometimes necessary for those who pump at work and can't access so much as an electrical outlet in a private space. "I can only pump in the car, but that has a layer of anxiety surrounding it," she says.

Even if the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act are signed into law, there's still a long way to go before pumping at work is both universally accepted and truly comfortable. While the government encourages employers to use "creative options" like storage areas and closets as pumping spaces — exactly the types of spaces many workers find demeaning — the onus is still on nursing employees to advocate for themselves rather than on employers to improve conditions.

"At least make it private," says Claire. "Comfortable would be ideal. Make sure women know where it is and how to access it without hunting people down when our boobs are literally about to explode."

Meanwhile, if your employer is giving you a hard time about pumping and you need help navigating this conversation, Brafman says you can call A Better Balance's free and confidential legal helpline at 1-833-NEED-ABB or 1-833-633-3222.

*Names changed for privacy.

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