person in a suit holding a baby
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My calendar alert dings, notifying me that my first appointment of the day, one I’ve labeled simply “Pump,” is about to begin. I sling the bag that contains my equipment over my shoulder and trudge past cubicles, careful not to make eye contact, and enter a door marked “Mother’s Room.”

The flimsy paper sign establishing that this room is for nursing strikes me as the working mom’s version of a “No Boys Allowed” sign tacked to a tween’s bedroom door. Though unlike the exclusive all-girls clubs of childhood, I can’t imagine this one has anyone clamoring for membership.

As I bolt the door to the space I share with four other keyholders (none of whom are nursing moms), I cringe thinking of the time one of them barged in on me before a sad little yelp declaring the room “occupied!” could escape my lips. The look of horror on my colleague’s face will probably be etched into my mind well into my baby’s college years.

Inside the “Mother’s Room,” an upholstered chair, mini fridge, and a plastic-plant-bedecked end-table (a nice touch, to be fair) are tucked in the corner. They form an unlikely still life in the space predominantly occupied by Solo cup towers, economy-size condiments, and trail mix packets. That’s because until a few weeks ago, this wasn’t a room for nursing at all; it was a walk-in pantry.

I unbutton my shirt and attempt to set everything up as quickly as possible. I’m careful not to disturb the laptop that’s still pinging with email notifications from its precarious perch on my knees. I’m like a one-woman NASCAR pit crew, only instead of anchoring tires to an axel, I’m tethering myself to a wheezing breast pump.

One of the realities of choosing to breastfeed is that you spend a lot of your time with your pump in a confined space. The only somewhat-private area my company could offer was the supply closet. Sitting there three times a day, goosebumps dotting my exposed skin, my pump groaning in a steady rhythm beside me, I couldn’t help but think about how perfectly this experience encapsulated what it was like to be a working mom in 2018 and about what I’ve already learned.

Being a Working Mom Isn’t Picture-Perfect

When I’d previously pictured what being a working mom would look like, I envisioned something straight out of a stock photo: a woman in a power suit, a baby on her hip, a briefcase dangling from her arm, a phone pinned between her shoulder and ear, and a weary but confident smile plastered across her face.

The ideal and the less ideal stock photos of working mothers courtesy of carebott/Getty Images and Mary Squillace.

I didn’t imagine myself shivering topless in a supply closet, nestled among La Croix cases and Pirate’s Booty bags. But there I was, trying to pump as much so-called liquid gold as I could in 20 minutes.

Major Time Crunches Can Lead to Superhuman Efficiency

Even if my bleak surroundings reflected an equally bleak state of affairs for working parents, I can’t deny the ways this new routine—including the thrice-daily “Mother’s Room” scramble—has made me better professionally.

I used to wear late nights as a badge of honor; I could tell you the exact moment the AC and lights would shut off. Post-baby, every minute I stayed after 5 PM put me perilously close to racking up overtime charges at daycare.

Of course, my workload didn’t lessen once I became a mom, so I was forced to find efficiencies wherever I could. My pumping breaks, I discovered, were the perfect time to catch up on emails—a task that I could do easily with my computer teetering on my lap and wouldn’t require sustained focus.

Limited Energy Forces You to Spend it Wisely

I also had to prioritize. With limited energy (because let’s be honest, I wasn’t sleeping more than three hours at a time), I couldn’t waste time overanalyzing whether the lack of exclamation marks made an email seem too bitchy or stewing over a rude comment made in a meeting.

I quieted some of my control-freak tendencies and learned to delegate. Sadly, this also meant I had to cut down on things I enjoyed, like dissecting the HBO drama du jour with my co-workers. But overall it was a relief to pare down my days to the things that matter most.

US Laws Are Still Woefully Behind the Times

As a country we’ve certainly taken some steps forward in recent years—employers have been required to provide pumping moms with a private space and break time since the Affordable Care Act passed (yes, only since 2010)—but clearly we have a ways to go.

And my shabby pumping digs are totally #firstworldproblems compared to what many face. After all, I’m lucky enough to live in California, one of only seven states that have passed legislation mandating paid family leave. I’m also not an hourly worker, so I never had to worry about taking unpaid breaks to pump.

Sure, some companies have been making improvements, particularly in industries like tech where it’s become trendy to do so (think: Netflix’s year-long paid leave policy), but this kind of piecemeal progress still leaves many working parents behind.

Companies Need Working Moms in Leadership Roles

Still, I wondered, if there had been more women—and particularly other moms—helming the company, would they have been motivated to provide a more comfortable space?

I also thought back to a previous employer, which threw swanky holiday parties featuring prime rib carving stations, but didn’t offer any paid maternity leave. Companies like these flaunt ping-pong tables and happy hours to entice talent, yet do little to create a more appealing environment for employees who happen to be parents.

When I’m sure I’ve wrung out the last droplet of milk, I detach myself from my pump, wipe down my accessories, and put everything in the fridge. I’ve estimated this saves me the five or six minutes I’d spend walking to and from the kitchen to hand wash everything. (See? I can find efficiencies everywhere!)

Providing my son with as much breast milk as I can for as long as I can is important to me, so that alone gives me plenty of motivation to tolerate the awkwardness of pumping at work. The experience has also introduced me to both the challenges and benefits that await me in my new life as a working mom.

Stripping down in this dreary shared space three times a day has tested my mettle in ways I never expected. While I hope other working moms are able to express milk without being forced to stare down Cheez-It boxes or brace themselves for keys jingling on the other side of the door, my time in the supply closet has opened my eyes to big-picture issues worth fighting for, as well as my new strengths as a working mom. And isn’t that kind of insight worth a few shreds of dignity?

I sure hope so.

percentage of women in leadership roles

Updated 6/19/2020