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Breastfeeding Moms: Jessica Shortall Has Your Back, and Your Well-Being at Heart

By By Carolyn Davis Cockey, MLS

Breastfeeding Moms: Jessica Shortall Has Your Back, and Your Well-Being at Heart

She’s not politically correct, falls short of espousing standard breastfeeding recommendations and pedagogies, still lactivist Jessica Shortall is blowing up breastfeeding in the workplace, one Viking warrior at a time—and women and companies are listening, and acting.

Jessica Shortall knows breastfeeding and she knows shoes—two topics near and dear to almost any mom’s heart. She was director of giving for TOMS Shoes when she circled the globe pumping for her two children. Her experiences since that time and her quest to bring a voice to the sisterhood of moms are rolled into a new book: Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work. Here’s why she wrote it, the hacks that will help you persevere when it’s your turn to pump, and the support every lactating mom needs when she feels her loneliest.

Your TED talk on paid family leave is a jaw dropper. When it comes to the consequences of birthing without paid parental leave, you describe an all-out assault on parents—especially moms who return to work so quickly after birth and who try to pump breastmilk for their babies. Into this morass you penned Work. Pump. Repeat. What did you want to see happen when your book hit the streets?

Jessica Shortall: Pumping at work is one of the loneliest experiences; you’re literally hiding yourself away. Women are all over the spectrum on breastfeeding—and have the right to be. It’s their bodies, their lives, and they don’t need to be uncomfortable about breastfeeding. I have no tolerance for people who try to shame women either for breastfeeding in public or for deciding that’s not for them; it’s your body, your baby, your family, you decide.

I wrote Work. Pump. Repeat. because I wanted to collect advice and tips from parents who have been around the block a few times. I wanted other moms to know there’s a sisterhood of women who have gone through this who will have your back; you’ll get through it.

Alone, pumping breastmilk for 15-20 minutes at a time hardly feels like a revolution.

Jessica Shortall: I have yet to meet a pumping mom who relishes the idea of pumping while on a conference call, but it happens. When you’re pumping at work, you’re hiding yourself away. I did a piece for ELLE where women sent me photos of their lactation spaces: They’re pumping in server rooms, bathrooms, closets, cubicles.

It’s lonely and isolating. You don’t want to talk about it with your coworkers; you just want to get it done. You’re stressed the whole time and that’s where I say to these women: You’re not alone. Don’t say you failed at breastfeeding when you went back to work because you failed at pumping and providing enough milk for your baby. No; you did not fail. The system failed you. The system is not set up to support you. If you got even a drop of breastmilk out of that pump at work then you’re a Viking. You beat the odds; you beat the system, even for that minute.

Our country is the only industrialized country that doesn’t have paid parental leave.

Jessica Shortall: We send women back to work while they’re still bleeding, their nipples are cracked, and their breasts are engorged with mastitis. The system says to them while they’re slipping away to pump throughout the day: You have to be totally ‘back’ at work because we’re watching to see if you really are back; if you really can handle your responsibilities now that you have a baby. Emotionally and physically your body has been through a war—there’s no easy way to get a person out of another person.

You’re trying to pump even while most workplaces aren’t set up for it. You’re financially vulnerable because you have a new baby. If you file a complaint, and you get fired, even though they’re not supposed to fire you—who will pay the mortgage? The rent? The whole system is set up against you. So if you get ANY amount of breastfeeding done, you’re a Viking in my eyes.

You should be super proud of yourself for managing work and new parenthood. Mine is probably the first breastfeeding book that doesn’t say “breast is best,” because, first of all, you bought it – I assume you get that breastfeeding has benefits. Second of all, this is a book for working mothers, and our work culture is often not compatible with pumping. Breastmilk is wonderful, and great, but it’s not possible for every woman. Yes, some women muscle through it and accomplish breastfeeding, but not nursing doesn’t make you a failure.

Every woman is entitled to her own approach. Some women will say, “I want to exclusively provide breastmilk to my baby and I’m going to do that come hell or high water,” and that works for them. Then there are women who say that but it doesn’t work for them, and they feel horrible.

And there we find so many women, alone in their struggles.

Jessica Shortall: That was the case with my first child. I couldn’t keep up. I was having so much anxiety; I suffered from really horrible postpartum anxiety after he was born. It’s really scary and I talk about it a lot because I really want to help normalize it.

With my second child, when I started to feel that anxiety coming back I knew that I had to protect my health for my own sake, and because I matter—period—to my family. I started supplementing with formula when my daughter was probably 6 months old.  That decision extended breastfeeding for me and my daughter because I didn’t spiral into horrific anxiety.

I felt like, ok, I’m not the only one shouldering the nutrition burden, and for me, that helped me breastfeed her far longer than I breastfed my son. I want women to know it’s not always about just trying harder—which is what women hear a lot. Our lives are complex and we should respect that.

Our magazine is written by the nurses who are right at mom’s side when baby enters the world—98% of all births occur in hospitals. That first hour after birth is important—baby will be hungry and in a quiet, alert state. That’s the best time to begin breastfeeding. Yet, where’s mom at 24-48+ hours when we send her home into a world that’s not set up to support lactation and continued breastfeeding?

Jessica Shortall: Right! This is another crisis point. You’ve just had that baby. You’re learning to breastfeed; that tiny mouth is trying to find its way. And then so quickly after birthing we’re sending you back to work without the same kind of “all hands on deck” type of support you received in the hospital.

It’s a scary, lonely time; there’s really no network of support around breastfeeding women returning to work. There’s just pressure. And dads are working people too, but have you ever noticed that we use the term “working mom” but we never say “working dad?” Dad is just a guy at work; being pegged as a “working mom” contextualizes us and it makes women understandably afraid to be visible about being a working mother. But new motherhood is a time when we need a lot of support.

Working moms are in their own category; their own herd—if there is a herd where you work.

Jessica Shortall: You should never apologize for being a working mother. Not apologizing sets a precedence in the work environment that “yes, I’m a working mother and I can do my job. And for this limited time period I’m going to be making food for my baby at work.” I know it’s   

really hard to say this; and it’s really hard not to say sorry. Just say thank you if people are helpful to you. You are setting the precedent for others.

Any woman who’s pumping at work feels like she is always asking to leave a meeting early, always asking to borrow an office, always late to something or always wondering in the back of her mind whether everyone thinks she’s not working hard enough.

“They already call my maternity leave my vacation; and now they think I’m taking all of these breaks during the day.” There’s this constant ticker—like the headlines that run across the bottoms of your screen on the news channels—“Where am I going to pump?”

You want to find someone and say, “Hey, if we’re together in a meeting and I make this little signal, can you be the one who will say, ‘we’ve been meeting for an hour—I could really use a 15 minute break’ so that it’s not me all of the time?”

Just shouldering some of that load for these women who are just barely keeping it together can be an enormous mental relief. A breastfeeding woman who has just returned to work is very vulnerable physically, emotionally and financially. She now has a baby to support. She doesn’t want to be mommy-tracked. She doesn’t want to fight the battles when people are inappropriate or rude.  She just needs another person to step in, have her back, and take some of the awkwardness out of the situation. It’s really, really hard to explain this to the person who signs your paycheck. 

So, into this harsh environment your book is like a best friend and toolkit of sorts to help women navigate this new territory.

Jessica Shortall: The temptation for new moms going back to work is to dance around the situation, “Oh, I have a new baby now, and I’m going to have this thing that I’m going to need to do a few times a day . . .” So you tiptoe around pumping when talking with your coworkers. Have you ever noticed when you go to the bathroom, you don’t tell others where you’re going, and you don’t spend all of your time worrying, “What if they wonder where I’m going all of this time?” 

It’s culturally accepted that I’m going to have to step away from my work duties a few times a day to go into the bathroom to do a thing we don’t need to talk about all the time. So you have to normalize pumping at work in the same way. Before you go on maternity leave you just have to have this awkward conversation with your boss—I call it ripping off the Band-Aid®:  “Look, this is a really awkward conversation. When I come back to work, I’m going to be breastfeeding and that means that I’m going to have to go into privacy with a breast pump. I’m going to pump breast milk for my baby a few times a day. I’ll put together a plan and present it to you on how I plan to make that work, and what kind of support I will need.”

Where are dads in this? They may take some scheduled vacation or unpaid leave at baby’s birth or later on, and dads are also some of those bosses. How do you talk to a male boss about a dad’s role?

Jessica Shortall: Because this is an issue that almost exclusively affects women—although there are transgender dads who nurse their babies and who pump at work—it gets treated like a women’s thing that people have to tolerate. Men in any managerial position, or any position having a voice in the workplace, should reflect: You’re going to see your wife going through this. You’re going to see a superhuman in a number of ways creating a baby, birthing a baby and then pumping at work to provide food for her baby. 

Dads should tell their stories in their own workplace. Go into HR and say, “Hey, you know my wife works in a totally different company, and she’s pumping at work. It made me wonder, ‘what’s our lactation policy?” Stepping up as a man and advocating for women to be able to do that at work is powerful. It’s not viewed as a woman coming with her hand out asking for something, which is not what it is, but unfortunately some people see it that way. Men bringing their own experiences to work and telling their stories can go a long way to normalizing parenthood in the workplace.

In my book, there are templates an individual employee can use to figure out her own pumping plan, with sample emails to send to HR. Millennials will be 75% of our workforce by 2030, and at the corporate level, companies are slowly starting to realize that they need to fight for Millennial talent, and that women make up 47% of the American workforce. Some are starting to add paid leave.

Still, many women are silent about their lactation struggles at work; they’re just getting through their day because they’re overwhelmed. There are only so many battles you can fight when you’re doing three jobs at once: being a new parent, working and making milk all day for your baby. But supporting lactation is part of having a human workforce, which means saying “we support you, and we don’t want this to be hard for you.” It doesn’t take that much to bring a working mother to tears of gratitude when an employer is supportive. I believe lactation support is the next frontier for corporate culture.

How would you describe your own evolution as a working mom? From breastfeeding your own children to advocating for moms-to-be to be able to do the same?

Jessica Shortall: With my first baby, I never wanted anyone to tell me that I had to breastfeed my kid for ‘X’ amount of months. That is too prescriptive and fails to take into account so many dynamics that are unique to each individual family. But I was also super judgy about people who breastfed their kids for what I thought was ‘too long’; I was that person. And then I went, “wait a second; this goes both ways. This is a family decision and there’s no such thing as too long. We don’t have an epidemic in this country, or anywhere else in the world, of un-weaned 10-year-olds. This is something that has always worked itself out in human history.” 

I had to check myself and say: Support all families and all mothers, and their choices and their approaches. That’s been a big evolution for me. I’ve also evolved to making sure I’m thinking about all parents – pumping and lack of paid leave are hard enough in an office environment; we need to think about blue- and pink-collar workers, about teachers and nurses and others who often have even less support.

You’ve always been fighting for social justice, in one way or another. And now the case is about paid family leave.

Jessica Shortall: I always tell myself “dig deeper, below ground.” Breastfeeding and paid leave are deeply connected. So are economic health and paid leave. American pediatricians tell us that we should breastfeed our babies for at least a year. But we don’t hear ‘should,’ we interpret this as ‘you have to or you’re a total failure as a mother.’

World Health Organization has their own recommendations about breastfeeding, so does the CDC. And yet our government’s rejection of paid leave as an economic and social necessity tells us “go back to work within two weeks of giving birth,” which is true for almost 25% of working mothers in this country. And women are managing more than breastfeeding; they’re managing postpartum mood disorders when their bodies and minds should be healing. Families are more likely to be on public assistance in the first year of parenthood when they don’t have paid family leave. Babies are less likely to have their well-checks and vaccinations on time if mom has returned to work within a few weeks. The public health, economic, financial and mental health impacts are astonishing. And that also includes affording dads the right to be equal partners, to help raise their kids.

If you had 3 wishes for mothering in the US, what would those wishes be?

Jessica Shortall: First, paid family leave for all. Our workforce is made up of humans and human lives are messy. Our economy requires both men and women to work; paid family leave is good for the economy by keeping people in the work force so they don’t drop out, which results in lower lifetime earnings and savings, more families on public assistance, health problems for parents and for babies.

Wish two would be that working mothers wouldn’t feel like they have to hide or over-compensate for being working mothers. 43% of households are headed by a woman bread-earner. Being a working mother should be woven throughout the fabric of our economy and culture in ways that are celebrated as women have babies, go back to work, and are honored for raising families. They’re contributing to the economy of our future. Children are our most valuable renewable resource; we need children to continue to be born and raised, be educated and become healthy adults with the ability to do all of our jobs when we’re old and need care. Parents produce our future generation; we should respect that.

My third wish is for a public health imperative that supports breastfeeding for the full 47% of women who make up the workforce.  This isn’t a niche activity, but right now we have a patchwork of laws that apply to different groups, with different rights in different states, so that women can’t fully know and understand their rights regarding breastfeeding. We need to fully make room for breastfeeding in our society if we’re going to thrive economically.

For more:

Beginning Breastfeeding: You, Your Baby and Your Nurse

How to Keep Breastmilk Flowing During a Busy Schedule

Tips for Pumping Breastmilk


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