Savvy Gal Pumping

Totes/Isotoner, the popular accessories maker, fired an employee because she took unauthorized breaks. It seems like a fair enough reason for dismissal, doesn’t it? But will this make you think differently? The female employee was taking the breaks to pump breast milk. Her manager had told her she could break every five hours. If you’ve ever had a baby, you know that five hours is a long time to go without expressing milk. In that amount of time a woman’s breasts can become engorged and painful. And, they can begin to leak.

While the Isotoner situation may sound extreme, it is indicative of the challenges nursing mother’s face when they return to work after having a baby. Magazines like Working Mother are full of stories about companies that offer lactation rooms, flex time and generous leave for mothers. And those companies do exist — but they are the exception, not the norm.

The reality is, many women find themselves scrambling for a private place to pump, let alone a short break every few hours. And many managers are ill-equipped to help. Often they do not know their company’s policies, or, more likely, there are no policies in place.

When my first child was born I worked in retail as a fully-commissioned sales person. I had only just started at the company. The store where I worked had two bathrooms — one for women and one for men – and were used by both staff and customers. The only private office belonged to the manager. When I inquired as to where I could pump, the manager told me I would have to use the bathroom. I tried but I found it very stressful to have customers and employees knocking on the door and asking me to please hurry. I went back to my boss and explained my dilemma. I asked her if I could use her office but she said no. She said she couldn’t leave me alone with the personnel files. Because I was a new employee trying to prove I was committed to my career, I was too nervous to suggest she lock them in a file drawer. I finally settled on the electrical closet. It was dark and full of spiders but at least I knew it was private and no one needed to come in.

Since the sales team was paid commission only, we worked on a rotating system. We were each assigned to a customer as they entered the store, based on the day’s rotation. If I was in the electrical closet when it was my turn, I was passed over and had to wait a full rotation before I got another chance. Again, I went to my manager to ask if I could go to the head of the line when I missed a turn and again she said no. She said if she did that for me, she’d have to do it for the salespeople who took smoking breaks too.

Did I deserve special treatment? No. But is a pumping break the same as a cigarette break? My boss and the bosses at Isotoner seemed to think so. Because I felt unsupported and stressed about hitting my sales target, I eventually left. The move was a lose-lose situation. I quit a new career in sales without giving it a fair chance and returned to marketing where I had worked for years. And my company lost out on a return from all of the training they had invested in me.

They might not have been required by law to assist me, but they could have chosen to work with me.

What I learned from my experience is that new mothers should arrange where and when they plan to pump before they go on maternity leave. Returning to work can be very stressful — you are worried about leaving your new baby, you may have added time and distance to your morning commute in order to drop off your child, you are sleep-deprived, and you want the boss to know you are committed to your career and not about to quit and stay home full-time.

Discussing breast milk with your manager is the last thing you need.

Before I gave birth, I wasn’t sure I would breastfeed. In fact, I assumed I would not. But I recommend that even if you are unsure about nursing, make plans at work anyway. No expecting mother can predict how she will feel once she gives birth. So it is better to make arrangements and then cancel them than to scramble to figure it out when you come back.

Here are some tips to prepare you for pumping at work:

  • If your company has an HR department, start there. The HR department should be aware of company policies, may have helped other women find a pumping solution, and should help advocate for you.
  • Before you speak to HR or your manager, look around for a private, clean and comfortable place to pump. Don’t feel like the bathroom is your only choice. After all, you wouldn’t want someone preparing your meal in a bathroom, would you?
  • Anticipate any conflicts your using a space may cause. If the copy room looks like your best option, are there certain times when people absolutely need to access the office equipment? Offer to avoid pumping during peak usage times. Do the offices have windows? Suggest hanging sheets of paper for privacy.
  • Let your boss know in advance that you will need to take several breaks during the day. Plan for at least 15 minutes every 3 hours to set up the pump, express milk and rinse your equipment. Remind your boss of your hard work and dedication and ability to meet deadlines. Offer to eat lunch at your desk, or use the pumping time to read industry-related articles in order to minimize any downtime.
  • Think about where and how you will store the milk. While it should not be a problem storing expressed milk in the company refrigerator, it may invite unwanted attention. Consider your company’s culture. I worked with all women who were unphased by my pumping, but I still preferred to store my milk in a refrigerated bag I brought from home.

That way, I wouldn’t forget to bring it home each night.

We should continue to work toward a future where businesses are more supportive of working parents. And in the meantime, we should be savvy about preparing ourselves, and our managers, for what we need.

Liz O’Donnell is a freelance writer who writes about women, work, family and fashion. Liz blogs at


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