When I was pregnant with my first child, I was fixed on nursing him. But we had a logistical obstacle to that goal: I worked in an office, and we couldn’t afford to have me quit to stay home full-time. So I planned to pump for him and nurse when home. We proceeded to do that, and it was a royal pain in the petunias. Worth it, yes, but horribly annoying.
My wonderful boss helped it work for us by letting me work at home half the week, which was a major boost to our family and resulted in a happier and more loyal employee. I would just sit on the couch snuggled with the baby on one arm, typing on my laptop with the other. That was far and beyond better than pumping at work to make bottles my husband fed baby while I was gone the other half of the week.
It turns out I’m not the only mother who experienced frustration trying to nurse a baby after getting back to work. From the “how is this obvious thing a headline” category:
How do I hate pumping? Let me count the ways. First, it makes you feel like a cow being milked with a machine, because that’s what’s happening. Second, it takes so much time. Your body doesn’t respond as well to a machine as it does to an eager little baby, so it takes longer to release the milk, and besides that there is all the bottle cleaning and sterilization and proper refrigeration and rewarming. Seriously annoying.
Third, it feels socially awkward, because even with the office door closed and a good, quiet pump it has a soft mechanical sound. Songwriter Nicolle Gallyon describes below how, four weeks after giving birth, she cowrote Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” while pumping, joking (although not unseriously) that the song’s beat tracks with her pump. I can still close my eyes and hear that beat in my head.
Fourth — and I’m trying not to give TMI here — the pump is also not as good as baby at cleaning out all the food, which for me led to excruciatingly painful recurring problems with milk buildup and clogging.
On the good side of the ledger, I didn’t know anything about the mechanics of nursing so allowed my newborn to bludgeon my body as we both tried to figure things out together in those first few weeks, so on one side I needed to pump exclusively for nearly two months because it hurt so horribly when baby tried to nurse through my lacerations. I know, I know, so gross.
But pumping still allowed me to accomplish my goal, which was to give my baby his own perfectly calibrated natural food and hours and hours of bonding time (he seriously nursed every 45 minutes for something like four months, and had the adorable baby pudge to prove it). Pumping allowed me to be with baby, in a sense, while I was away, and to give him the gift of myself during those many hours we missed each other.
However, given this you will understand why I happily ditched the pump with my second child, because by then I’d gotten a job that allowed me to work entirely from home. It was such an improvement for all of us that I can hardly describe it. Baby wants to eat? Baby gets to eat, and not ten minutes later we’re all zipped up and cooing at each other. No bottles, no cleaning, no er-er-er-er machine squeaks, and lots of cuddles all around.
CBS’s tweet links to an article discussing a new study that shows “Mothers working 19 or fewer hours a week were much more likely to maintain breast-feeding through their babies’ sixth month of life, compared to moms who had returned to full-time employment.” Well, duh. Anyone who has ever pumped could have told you that.
Any return to work caused some decline in the number of mothers who still breast-fed their babies, according to results Xiang and her colleagues obtained from a survey of 2,300 working mothers in Australia.
But women employed up to 19 hours a week only faced a 10 percent chance that they quit breast-feeding altogether by their baby’s sixth month, the researchers found.
On the other hand, women working between 20 hours and 34 hours a week had a 45 percent chance of stopping, and moms working 35 or more hours had a 60 percent chance that they’d drop breast-feeding.
We could just say “huh” and move on if it weren’t for the fact that nursing babies has been proven to spare them from higher rates of many physical maladies, including ear infections, sudden infant death syndrome, asthma, diabetes, and obesity. Nursing babies also increases healthy bonds between mother and child that promote better emotional health for both. So the earlier mothers in general return to work, the worse off kids are going to be in general.
Nearly a quarter of new moms return to work after just two weeks out. That’s when you’re just getting used to breastfeeding. The average U.S. maternity leave is just ten weeks, or less than three months. Baby is still nursing exclusively then and typically just beginning to even out his eating habits.
This Doesn’t Justify Government Interference
Now, typically when mainstream publications bring up this sort of information, it’s to push government to mandate that employers provide a certain amount of leave time. While I have long known the huge benefits to mothers, children, and society of establishing healthy mother-child bonds and the better nutrition that nursing offers, I still don’t support maternity leave mandates. That’s for several reasons.
The first major one is that it is unfair to employers. Companies hire people because they need work done. They’re not nonprofits or the government. So if the work they need done isn’t getting done while a mother is away on an admittedly beneficial to her family extended maternity leave, we’re requiring the company to hurt itself, which is ultimately unfair to them and even to childbearing-age women in general, who will understandably find employers worried about hiring them given that they may have to pay women or keep their jobs unfilled (or both) if the woman becomes pregnant.
It’s unfair for me to ask employers to put themselves out for me if it doesn’t benefit them. Mutual benefit is the whole reason people enter into contracts. Work is not welfare. I have to provide something of value in exchange for my salary, or it’s not something I’ve earned, it’s an entitlement I’m coercing others to provide. Now, I’ve heard of cases where some company owner was humane enough to be willing to make things work for an employee in an extraordinary situation, such as when an employee has a very sick child or comes down with brain cancer, and we can all commend that, but it’s not fair to mandate what is actually an act of charity.
Need Is Not an Excuse for Force
Instead we need to be clear about who is responsible for what here. Parents are responsible for their own children, and need to make whatever decisions they can to fulfill that responsibility, including considering the real and negative likely effects to the family of mom returning to work soon after giving birth.
Companies are responsible for treating employees as human beings, not machines, who are going to need at least some time off occasionally and who have not signed up for a life of indentured servitude where the company is more important than family at all hours of the day and days of the year. Company cultures that demean parents for not sacrificing their all for the almighty dollar are ultimately dehumanizing and turn off potential quality employees. CEOs should realize that money can’t buy them love, but a generous spirit towards employees’ needs as whole persons can earn them respect, loyalty, and earnest work during office hours.
Lawmakers should stop trying to insert themselves between employers and employees and instead consider ways in which they’ve already gotten in the way of allowing families to develop creative work-family arrangements. They should take a look at the Etsy earner agenda: ending penalties for self-employment and contract work, end favoritism for employer-provided health insurance tied to working full time, and end ethanol subsidies and other horrible energy and agriculture policies that drive up the costs of running a home and feeding kids so as to ease the financial pressure on moms to work outside the home while children are small.
Society has a role to play here, too. If we want to support healthy childrearing, neighbors and grandparents need to step up and help families with young children. Get off Facebook and stop shouting at TV news, and go help someone. Bring over meals when a family has a baby. Offer to take the baby for an hour or two so mommy can get a nap sometimes. Invite the older kids over after a new baby is born. Hold baby at social functions for 15 minutes so mom can chat without being interrupted every 20 seconds.
Don’t make nasty comments when a mommy discreetly nurses in public. Do grab the older toddler who is running away in the library while mommy and little brother are finishing up a nursing time. Help a mommy carry groceries to her car so she doesn’t have to wrangle kids, purse, and a carload of shopping bags while everyone is grumpy because they need snacks and a nap. In words and deed, affirm and support the goodness of raising and prioritizing small children in a society that is often hostile to childbearing and personal sacrifice.
These little social graces go a long way towards affirming motherhood and family bonding while respecting the duties that belong to each party in these social and financial transactions and not crossing the line into unjust coercion of arrangements people have a right and responsibility to work out themselves.
Now, if you’ll excuse me (true story), I have to nurse the baby.