Tuesday, January 25, 2011

academic mothers and breastfeeding

Many working mothers would like to breastfeed. Not all do, and babies do fine on formula, but many of us struggle with working full-time and nursing. I'm not an expert on breastfeeding, but this post about my own experiences is for first-time mothers, and administrators/fathers/coworkers who want to support a breastfeeding-friendly environment.

Before I had kids, I assumed that a good pump and my own office was all that I needed. My first child, Bunny, was 6 weeks old when I went back to work. My supply was strong and Bunny was a good nurser. I rented one of the top-end machines, and headed to my office. By the time Bunny was 9 months, she self-weaned, a reaction to my continuously diminishing milk supply. What went wrong? First, my job was not terribly flexible, for an academic position. I literally had to fill out a time sheet if I wasn't planning to be on-campus between the hours of 9 and 5 each weekday. As a result, I couldn't run home and nurse over lunch, or for a short break. Second, I attended a couple of conferences and I had a few job interviews that required multiple-day absences from home. Pumps are great, but they are no substitute for physical contact with your baby.

I realize that many women don't breastfeed for 9 months, so I'm not crying a river over Bunny's nursing history. Still, I had planned to breastfeed exclusively until she was a year, and I had no particular weaning date in mind. (My cousins, some of whom are La Leche leaders, have nursed their children until 3 or 4.)

With my second child, Pumpkin*, I wanted more time to enjoy his first year. This was not just because of the nursing relationship, but that was part of my decision making. Luckily, I was in a more flexible, tenure-track position. I was able to make some changes, and Pumpkin was exclusively breast-fed until we introduced solids at 9 months, and cow's milk at a year. At 14 months, he's still getting 50% of his calories from breastmilk, and I expect to nurse until he self-weans.

Here's what I did with Pumpkin:

1-part-time, instead of time off: Luckily, Pumpkin was born a couple of weeks before Winter Break. I finished up the Fall semester, and had 6 weeks to recover before the next semester began. Technically, I could have taken another 6 weeks off, before going back full-time, but instead I negotiated a one-course release for the Spring semester. I went back to work at 6 weeks, but I only had two classes, instead of three. Unfortunately, one of those classes was a lab, so it was 50% more classtime than a lecture course, but still, I had an easier than normal semester. I only put Pumpkin in daycare four afternoons a week, so I could be home with him every morning and all day on Tuesday. No, I didn't get anything done all semester (except teach the classes), but it was my maternity leave, so I gave myself a break. That following summer, I was able to spend most of my time with the baby, and in the Fall I only had one class (for programmatic reasons), so Pumpkin was in daycare 3 days a week, and I stayed home with him Tue and Thur. (On the Thursday, Dr. Mr. Palimpsest stayed home and cared for him, but I worked at home so I could nurse and help with emergencies.) Pumpkin didn't start full-time daycare until last week; he turned 14 months on Sunday.

I'm very lucky to have this flexibility. (It also helps that I'd easily get tenure at my current institution with my existing publication record, so I wasn't under a lot of pressure to get other things done.) I know not everyone can do what I did, but some women may have the opportunity to go part-time - rather than take time off but then go back to work full-time when the child is still less than 6 months - and that may work better for them than more traditional forms of maternity leave.

2-family bed: Bunny was a good sleeper from day one. She would sleep in her own crib for 6 hours straight by the time she was 6 weeks old. Pumpkin was the opposite. We switched to the family bed when he was less than a week old, since it was clear we would never sleep again if we didn't! I know there are dangers to the family bed, and I'm not advocating it for anyone else, but it worked for us. I've gotten more sleep with Pumpkin than I did with Bunny. One side-effect is that Pumpkin nurses all night long. This has helped maintain the nursing relationship, even when Pumpkin and I were separated all day.

3-family-friendly environment: I am blessed with a job at an institution with a family-friendly environment. Pumpkin attended a series of meetings his first semester, and nobody complained (even when I spent the meeting walking him up and down, soothing and jiggling). I nursed in meetings, and at social events with my colleagues. Obviously, most academic mothers can't choose their environment, but if you are a colleague to a new mother, I beg you to remember that creating a family-friendly environment means more than supporting generous maternity policies. In fact, my institution has pretty awful maternity policies (6 weeks for new mothers, 2 weeks for adopted parents and fathers, no other considerations allowed). But, the administration and my colleagues were willing to work with the rules. And, they have been very open and understanding about my schedule needs.

Again, I'm no expert, but many people fail to understand that many women need more than a commitment to nursing and a pump to be successful at breastfeeding. Administrators may never be willing to make the changes necessary to support nursing in the workplace, but first-time mothers should be aware of the challenges while they're planning their child's first year.

*When I was pregnant, I used to call this child Boo Too, since Bunny is our Bunny Boo, but now I call him my Pumpkin Pie, so I'm changing his name on the blog.


  1. One of the very nice things about this post is the open acknowledgment that yes, this will require some time off and some schedule interruptions. (This in contrast to women who claim they never took any time off, ever, for a newborn!) These most inflexible aspects of early parenting occur for a very short time within the context of your entire life's work. It's no good to blow it out of proportion (OMG I AM NOT GETTING ANYTHING DONE) or worry that if all of our colleagues don't love our behavior for these few months, we're getting fired. Obviously, we aren't talking about dropping everything--you point out several good ways to flexibly meet and re-negotiate obligations. --MB

  2. Thanks. I was hesitant to post this, because I think it's hard for a lot of us to acknowledge that the first year of our child's life takes time away from our job. As you say, it's such a short time within the context of our whole career, and yet, we're embarrassed/frightened to admit that having a child will slow us down, at least for that period.

    I think it's also hard for many of us to acknowledge that babies do better when their mothers take time off or re-negotiate obligations during their first year. Dare I say babies actually need their mothers to take some time off? Honestly, I think that's a lot harder to admit than the truth about the short-term negative effects on our research productivity. I believe our culture is in denial about the needs of young children. Part of it is economic, I'm sure, since significant changes to maternity leave policies would also require significant labor re-organization. I think a lot of it is ideological, though. I don't know about you, but I was raised on a diet of "women can do anything!", "real women can have careers and families without missing a beat!", "I can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan!" When I say "actually, my baby needs me at home", I feel like I'm betraying every woman on the planet. All the dead feminists are rolling in their graves, and all of my female ancestors - the ones who fought and bled and worked their fingers to the bone so I could have opportunities for education and career advancement - are screaming obscenities from the Beyond.

  3. I know. Especially given what we go through to get these jobs in the first place. All I can say is, our culture is in denial about the needs of most of its members!! What would we need to do to better support caregiving--by mothers and fathers, by children of aging parents, by spouses and friends?

  4. Even pumping is an issue for grad students and postdocs, most of whom don't have private offices to pump in. There's ONE designated "lactation area" for students on my university's campus, and an onerous reservation process to go through every single time one needs to use it. I was incredibly lucky to work with nice people who had no objections to my pumping under a nursing cover in a (fairly private) corner of a lab, but not everyone's colleagues will be so understanding.