7 moms on what it's like to pump breast milk at work

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby, then comes . . . the breast pump. Even as families take on more shapes and forms, many employers still don’t offer comfortable, beneficial, and respectful solutions for working women to pump their breast milk at the office.

Depending on milk production, most new moms can expect to pump for 30 minutes to an hour at least twice a day during traditional office hours. While federal law currently does not require companies to provide breaks for nursing mothers, they may be required by state law, and the Department of Labor encourages employers to provide these breaks.

Between scheduling meetings, filing reports, completing projects, and filtering emails, those precious moments to escape can offer uninterrupted quiet to think clearly or relax from the rollercoaster of emotions and changes that are happening in your body, mind, and life. But when you’re shoved into a closet, asked to pump in your car, or stuck in a meeting until your breasts are painful, your stress level will reach an even higher high.

Here, moms who pumped on the job share their good and bad experiences, as well as offer their best advice to employers and working mothers.

“I used my boss’s office”

When Lisa Munjack, now the president of her new company, Munjack Marketing, was a new mom, she worked at a newspaper in New York. At the time, the company didn’t offer many places for her to pump. Her cubicle had no door and a window that faced the street.

Her solution? She asked her boss to use his private corner office. The move didn’t come without blunders, though.

“If you’ve ever breastfed, you know how urgent it can be to express milk,” she said. “If you don’t, then we’re talking leakage. So I’d run in with my breast pump and tell him he had to clear out quickly. He was an older man, so he’d always be embarrassed but would gather up whatever he was working on and go to my desk.”

A better option would be for employers to offer a small, private, dimly-lit room for this purpose, Munjack said. 

“I was upfront about the needs I would have”

Lisa Wright, now the executive director at Complex Care Texas, said she was pleasantly surprised by the offerings of her company when she had her first child. Not only did the company provide individual rooms for moms who valued privacy, but it also created a larger room where working moms could pump together and store their breast milk in lockers.

While the accommodations for new moms were impressive, scheduling proved to be a more difficult task, Wright said. She said she set an alarm clock and sometimes had to leave meetings to pump. 

Wright’s advice to working moms is to never make excuses for why you’re late or need to exit a meeting earlier, since your body — and your baby’s health — is your top priority in the newborn months.

“You have to ensure you communicate in advance to all meeting organizers if you are going to be late, need to leave early, or will have to step out of the meeting for a bit,” she said. “You have to be confident to speak up.”

“I struggled with getting comfortable without my baby”

When Carrie Aulenbacher, an executive administrator and author, had her first child, she said her company was gracious and patient with her experience.

“I was allowed to lock myself in the upstairs conference room for privacy and space to set up my pump,” she said. “This gave me more room than the bathroom and a desk to set up the pump, plug it in and more. No-one interrupted with calls or messages, and I was able to plan my break about halfway through my workday when I would normally have fed my baby. It was a bit awkward at first, but knowing I had privacy made it easy.”

However, getting the breast milk engines rolling was a taller order. Her body wasn’t responding on demand, and sometimes it took longer, she said.

Her advice? Keep pumping breaks fluid.

“New moms can’t always milk on command like a dairy cow, and it takes a bit of transitioning from work mode to mommy mode to get started,” she said. “Just know that the more leniency and privacy you can give a pumping mom, the more she appreciates it. We already feel guilty for being away from our baby and giving us the trust and space to pump helps lower that anxiety.”

“Sometimes I would have to drive home fast because I was in so much pain”

Sophia Eng, a growth advisor for large enterprise companies, pumped at work from the time her baby was three months until 19 months. During that period, she had to come up with many solutions to make her routine manageable. 

There were many days that I would take meetings in the mother’s room with the pump in the background,” she said. “And there were days that the rooms were all booked during lunch, and that was the only free time I had. I would have to wait until my meetings were over for the day and would be in so much pain until I could drive quickly home to feed the baby instead of pumping at the office. There were days that I would have to take my hospital grade pump to conferences into San Francisco in heels and pump in the bathrooms.”

Though she made it work, she advised moms to be easier on themselves, especially during this huge lifestyle shift.

“I taped paper over windows for privacy”

When Wei-Shin Lai, now the CEO of SleepPhones, was a full-time doctor, she breastfed her son until he was 2-years-old, which required her to pump up to four times a day. Luckily, another new mom was in the same predicament. They figured out a way to time-manage their pumps — but not without chaos.

“Scheduling the alternating pumping while seeing patients on time was sometimes challenging since we couldn’t control how much time a patient needed,” she said. “We had a vertical window in the door, so we taped paper along the window for privacy. The blinds had to be pulled down when we pumped too, especially in the winter at 5 p.m. when it would be dark outside already. With a box of tissues and the pumping equipment, it was actually pretty smooth.”

She said she hopes other employers will be flexible with new moms and their needs, too, especially since it’s not just a physical approach that’s important, but also an emotional one.

If we’re relaxed, it’s easier to pump than if we are upset about something,” she said. “So it’s really hard to schedule precisely to the minute. Having a private office with a desk and computer allows us to be productive while we are pumping. A bathroom is no place to make food for a baby — that’s just gross.”

“Management announced I was pumping to the whole team”

Eighteen years ago, Jennine Leale, now the CEO of HRPRO Consulting Series LLC, was working as a human resources manager at another company when she became a mom. She shared an office with an assistant, and her manager thought it would be “inappropriate” to ask the assistant to leave twice a day. Instead, Leale was permitted to use the computer room, a large space with the air conditioning on high to cool the large servers. 

“In amongst the servers, on a folding chair balancing an electric pump on my lap, I pumped and stored my baby’s milk in a portable cooler,” she said. “I was not only uncomfortable but very embarrassed. Then I would commute home, by subway and train with the pump and cooler.”

To make matters worse, her management team announced she would be pumping, calling unwanted attention to a very personal matter, she said.

“Aside from the cold and the embarrassment, my expressing milk lead to comments from others about how I should be home with my baby, that they better not see any issues with my work because of the time I am taking away from work and the resentment from coworkers for being allowed to take ‘breaks,’” she said.

Her advice to employers? Remember the age-old rule: happy employees are better employees.

“I pumped while on the pot”

When Dr. Shruti Tannan, a board-certified plastic surgeon, had her first baby, she went into labor while operating. She finished the case, scrubbed out, and delivered her baby. This multitasking attitude would extend far into her first year of motherhood, too. Worried that her career would suffer if she didn’t return back to work in a timely manner, she was back in action six weeks to the day of her delivery.

She recalled one time she was faced with a tough decision. She hadn’t had time to eat, drink, or pump, and was needed in an emergency surgery.

I am about to scrub into a 12+ hour case to reconnect the blood vessels, bones, nerves and tendons in this patient’s hand,” she said. “I can pump now, in the bathroom, while I am eating a Cliff bar and well, using the facilities. Or I can wait 12 hours and then basically let my milk supply dwindle from 18 hours of disuse. I chose to pump while on the pot.”

Not all careers — especially those that deal with life-or-death situations — are always conducive to a pumping schedule, so goal-oriented mamas have to make their own time, Tannan said. Even so, she said she hopes conditions improve.

“My hope is that five years later things are different for women,” she said. “I hope women everywhere receive support in the workplace. No one should have to decide between job security or breast milk for their newborn.”