More on the Workplace

After my last post, I read a few recent articles about breastfeeding and the workplace. Returning to work still may act as an impediment to continued breastfeeding. So, how can we support mother’s in this process?

A two year study out of the University of Cape Town (UCT) showed that mothers with employers who supported them in breastfeeding or pumping at work remain more committed to that employer and maintain increased productivity. Lower turnover also means lower costs to the employer. The linked article quoted Ameeta Jaga, Associate Professor in the School of Management Studies at UCT, as saying the issue boils down to gender equality in the workplace:

“‘Employers must rethink how they can support breastfeeding at work, and in turn contribute to a more productive workforce and an equitable society. There is this stigma about breastfeeding … because the idea of breasts is still sexualised,’ she said.

She added, ‘Breastfeeding is a workplace issue. And it’s not just a woman’s issue that ends with maternity leave. In the context of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically on health and well-being, decent work, gender equality and the overall future of society, supporting breastfeeding at work is vital.’”

If we as a society believe that we should promote breastfeeding because of its benefits, we also must create a support system to coincide with those efforts. I read articles daily that discuss how long mothers should ideally breastfeed. The AAP tells families that mothers should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of a child’s life and continue to breastfeed while introducing complementary foods for one year or longer as mutually desired by mother and child. The WHO also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and thereafter continuing to breastfeed with the addition of complementary foods through two years of age or beyond. Additionally, both national and international goals exist to increase the overall rate and duration of breastfeeding. We must look at this advice and these goals in context with the fact that most mothers receive at most three or four months of maternity leave in the United States.

Another article in the Washington Post discussed some of the costs of breastfeeding. The author, Anna Momigliano, cited two studies that she used as a basis fer her article. The first was authored by Chiara Daniela Pronzato, Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Turin and Emilia Del Bono, Professor of Economics and Director of Research, University of Essex. Part of the conclusion follows:

“Using data from the 2005 UK Infant Feeding Survey on a sample of women who are working before their child is one year old, we find that the availability of breastfeeding facilities is associated with higher breastfeeding rates at 4 and 6 months after the birth of the child. By contrast, we do not find any significant positive association between breastfeeding and the availability of other family-friendly policies – such as part time, flexi time, extended breaks and shift patterns. Our main result, however, is that the availability of breastfeeding facilities is positively associated to the probability of working at 4 and 6 months after the birth of the child, resulting in a shorter duration of maternity leave. This is so only for highly educated women, while we do not find any significant association for the lower educated group of mothers.

We do not find that the availability of breastfeeding facilities is much greater among highly educated workers, and no indication that it is endogenous to breastfeeding intentions. There are therefore two other possible explanations for this finding. As higher educated mothers are much more likely to breastfeed for longer periods of time than lower educated mothers, the availability of breastfeeding facilities informs the decision to return to work for the former but not for the latter. Another possibility is that lower educated mothers have less choice in relation to the duration of their maternity leave, perhaps because of income considerations, and therefore the availability of breastfeeding facilities is likely to play a very marginal role on their decision to return to work despite its effect on breastfeeding rates.”

Notably, the study showed the overall rate of breastfeeding for ‘higher educated’ mothers was more than double that of the ‘lower-educated’ mothers during the study evaluation from birth through ten months postpartum. The percentage of higher-educated mothers who returned to a workplace also was higher over the same duration. Ms. Momigliano attributes these different breastfeeding rates to socioeconomic status, similarly alluded to in the quote above.

The fact that the provision of facilities and not other so-called family-friendly policies were more influential as to whether a mother returned to the workplace is an interesting result and completely runs contrary to my own experience. To me, providing “breastfeeding facilities” in the workplace seems so basic. After all, breastfeeding is a basic biological process and part of our human experience. Like any basic need, we need to make sure every mother has equal access.

I had an employer that provided a lactation room, and I had access to a refrigerator or other facilities as needed. I still really struggled with whether or not to return to my job after maternity leave. Prior to my leave, I never anticipated not going back. I liked my job. I liked my co-workers. I felt valued and had opportunities for advancement. As my maternity leave progressed, however, so did my anxiety about returning to my full time job.

My husband and I struggled for fourteen years to bring my son into this world. I simply was not ready to go back to my old schedule. I also knew that my priorities had massively shifted. I am a dedicated person by nature and my career received the benefit of that trait. I worked a lot and enjoyed it for the most part. The prospect of going back to the same schedule and commitments felt overwhelming at best. The thought of under performing (based on my own expectations) felt equally unsettling.

As for breastfeeding, it was finally going smoothly at that time. I wanted to keep going. I am not a super responder to pumping, which I knew would impact my supply. My work had a lactation room available, but my schedule, including at least monthly travel, would make blocking consistent and dedicated time to pump difficult. I can’t say that having a lactation room available influenced me one way or the other. It’s lack of existence, however, may have been more persuasive.

I received comments from a couple people about returning to work. The comments were on opposite sides of the spectrum from “What’s the point of having a child if you want someone else raise it while you work” to “Your child needs to be with other kids or he’ll become socially stunted.” I don’t espouse to either extreme and would have preferred that the speakers just kept their thoughts to themselves. Just like the decision to breastfeed, families need to make the best decision at the time based on all the facts and circumstances. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum, and I see benefits (and drawbacks) to both alternatives of staying home or going back to work full time. I recognize our privilege to have some options even while choosing to make significant sacrifices.

If I had it all to do over again, I would have done things differently. I would have talked to my employer prior to going on leave about some part time or flexible work options upon my return. In the final weeks of my maternity leave, I spent hours trying to come up with a proposal for my employer incorporating part time or remote work hours. Would its availability have made a difference? I don’t know. Maybe. I still have mixed emotions. Regardless, I do not regret my decision one bit and am happy about how everything worked out for us.

I’ll get back to the next study discussed in the Washington Post article in my next post.

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