Sunday, November 15, 2009

Guest Post: Becoming Your Own Advocate

I'm pleased to present this guest post by Angel, a mom who had to become her own advocate in order to continue pumping at work. Her story is really inspirational and shows how one mom can make a difference for all the women at her job.

Working in the Health Department of a community college, and having a boss who had exclusively breastfed all 3 of her own children, I did not anticipate any barriers to pumping at work after returning from my maternity leave. My boss was gracious enough to provide me with a temporary office, so that I did not have to worry about finding a place to pump, or interrupting my work for frequent pump breaks. As a lactivist and aspiring lactation consultant, breastfeeding was near and dear to my heart, and I was so proud to be working full-time, and still be able to breastfeed my son with no need for supplements.

However, one day out of the blue, the dean called me into her office and proceeded to reprimand me for taking excessive breaks and violating college policy. Apparently, a coworker of mine had called the dean and reported that I was spending 2 hours and 45 minutes each day pumping! This was such a ridiculous overstatement, that I thought she must be joking, but to my horror, the dean not only believed the report, but threatened to cut my hours and pay in order to make up for the time I was allegedly spending.

I was speechless; the room was spinning. I saw all my intentions and personal goals thrown out the window, along with my innocent baby’s right to be breastfed. I started worrying about how our family would keep up our budget and get by with a reduction in pay.

Then I snapped back to reality and realized that this woman obviously had no idea what a huge can of worms she’d just opened. I told her that it was my right under Illinois law to pump at work, and that there was no way I could be in violation of college policy, since the college HAD no policy on this—I had checked. Furthermore, I couldn’t be in so-called violation, since the break times reported weren’t in any way accurate. I told her that she could check with my boss or any of my coworkers, if she needed confirmation. She seemed momentarily stunned into silence. I told her that I would email her the information on Illinois law, and promised to continue to keep my break times within the allotted time.

I was furious! I was shaking by the time I got back to my office, and of course, the coworker who’d ratted me out had called out sick that day. I racked my brain, trying to figure out how in the world she’d come up with 2 hours & 45 minutes, when at that time, I was only taking 2-10 minute breaks and a 25-minute lunch, which totaled up to the 45-minute lunch afforded to full-time employees. Even when I first came back from leave, and was using a dying secondhand pump, it was probably an hour & a half a day, max. Plus I worked through most of my pumping, so it wasn’t even exactly a “break”. To make matters worse, my other coworkers were all privy to what this meeting was about, since she’d been complaining about me to all of them. I realized at that moment that my boobs had been the latest topic of discussion around the office. I was mortified.

My boss was beside herself at what my coworker had done, & promised to back me if I ever needed her testimony. I contacted the college’s union rep, but there was no union available to classified staff. She did sympathize with me, however, and advised me not to allow the charges to go unrefuted. I decided to type up a letter of rebuttal. I submitted this to HR, along with a signed statement by my boss confirming my actual break times spent. In the letter, I wrote that I was dismayed that nursing mothers would now be portrayed in a negative light, as it had been my intention to schedule a positive, proactive meeting with HR to set up lactation rooms and implement a program and official policy at the college. I attached a copy of the Business Case for Breastfeeding which is a wonderfully thorough & educational packet for businesses on how and why to become a breastfeeding-friendly employer.

I set up a meeting with the director of HR, pleaded my case, and expressed my interest in creating a lactation program & space at the college. She expressed regret at my circumstances, but didn’t seem to understand the importance of a lactation program, or care much about finding space (even though I did offer to do all the work). She hadn’t even read the packet I’d sent. She requested a month to “research”. A month turned into 2, and before I knew it, she’d retired.

In the meantime, my coworker and I had not spoken in over 2 months. Workdays were horribly awkward and stressful, and pumping at work was now a nightmare, knowing that she was timing me and reporting back to the dean with her “findings”. My milk supply took a beating, and although I knew damn well from all my research that I could boost my supply by relaxing, I was incapable of doing that. I spent most of my breaks crying and wishing I could be anywhere else.

After weeks of depression, stress, and anxiety, I couldn’t take it anymore. I decided to take the high road and asked my coworker out for a cup of coffee. We addressed our issues and came to somewhat of an understanding. Work slowly become bearable and I found the strength I needed to follow through with my goals for the college.

I scheduled a meeting with the new director of HR, and offered my assistance in starting a committee, finding space, and handling the logistics myself. She, like the previous director, had not even bothered to read the packet I’d sent, and just couldn’t imagine that there was a big enough need to justify creating a lactation room, let alone 7 rooms campus-wide, as I’d suggested. She insisted that there was no space on campus, but I gave her the names of several college employees who’d suggested places for such a room, and a list of pregnant employees who would use such a room if it were available. I told her stories of what other nursing mothers on campus had gone through in order to breastfeed (discrimination, harassment, pressure to wean, isolation, etc.), and insisted that it wasn’t right.

I left the meeting thinking that she, too, had blown me off. But a week later, I got an email letting me know that she’d found a room, and was working with maintenance to make the space appropriate! I was incredulous! In the 30+ years since the college had opened, no one had been successful in getting a lactation room built, despite countless requests. But now, we had one! I felt nothing but exhilarating joy at the thought that all future mothers on campus would not have to go through what I did just to breastfeed their babies. I had thought this an impossible situation, but somehow, I got someone to listen.

Finding a room turned out to be much easier than HR had anticipated and they’re now willing to work with me on creating a lactation program and an official college policy. I’m so happy that some good came out of this horrible situation, and that other nursing mothers will benefit from my experience. If I could offer any advice to moms out there, it would be to educate yourself about your rights and the law, be proactive about getting your employer’s support, and don’t give up at the first sign of resistance. Most employers find that accommodating their nursing employees was surprisingly easy—it’s just getting them to agree to do it initially that can be tricky. You shouldn’t have to deal with discrimination, and if you don’t fight it when it happens to you, you’re also enabling your employer to mistreat the next nursing mom.

You have resources! Contact La Leche League and a leader would be happy to work with you or your employer to make your company breastfeeding-friendly. All the literature is on your side! Do what’s best for you and your baby and advocate for breastfeeding whenever possible! I’m so glad that I did, and I’m happy to report that my son is one year old today, and is still a happy booby baby, with no intention of stopping any time soon.

Angel is a wife and mother of two who works full-time and attends classes part-time at the same college. Soon to pursue further education as a lactation consultant, Angel currently assists new mothers as a post partum doula while also raising awareness as an unwavering breastfeeding advocate. When given a moment to relax, she enjoys napping, reading, playing board games with friends, and beating her husband at Guitar Hero.

Want to learn more about lactation programs on US college campuses? Click here.

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