More on the Workplace II

Continuing from my last post, returning to work can complicate the goal of continued breastfeeding, but we can ease that tension with support. That support can come from a variety of places including the government in the form of legislation, employers through mandated or voluntary breastfeeding (family) friendly work policies, and social and educational efforts.

I discussed one of two studies in the Washington Post Article in my last post. The authors, Chiara Daniela Pronzato, Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Turin and Emilia Del Bono, Professor of Economics and Director of Research, University of Essex, found that the provision of breastfeeding facilities and not other so-called ‘family-friendly policies’ like flexible work arrangements and part time work were more influential as to whether a mother returned to the workplace.

I noted that this result differed from my own experience, and it turns out I’m not alone. The popular blog Mother Pukka is dedicated to promoting flexible work arrangements. It provides a plethora of information and statistics on the benefits of these arrangements to both employers and employees including including increased productivity, cost savings and improved employee retention. Organizations like the 1 Million for Work Flexibility (1MFWF) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) promote and support flexible work arrangements as well. Perhaps the lesson here is that, as with everything parenting, one size does not fit all and more options benefits everyone.

The other study in the Washington Post article was conducted by Mary Noonan, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa and Phyllis Rippey, Associate Professor of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa. They looked at mothers who returned to work and breastfed for a shorter period of time (defined as less than six months), breastfed for a longer period of time (defined as longer than six months), and formula-fed.

All three groups realized a decline in earned income over the five year period following the birth, but the group that realized the most drastic reduction in earnings were the mothers who breastfed for a longer period of time. The study also found that mothers who breastfed for a shorter period of time earned more money than mothers who formula-fed in the same five years following the birth.

This reduction in earned income was attributed to the fact that mothers who breastfed for more than six months were more likely to be unemployed and work fewer hours in the first years following birth. This reduced time in the workforce then depresses these mothers’ earnings trajectories. The authors note that their data cannot identify the reasons underlying mothers decisions to leave the workplace but identify personal (and cultural) preferences and un-family-friendly workplaces as possibilities.

I certainly fall within the study’s statistic relating to mothers who breastfeed for a longer period of time. At fifteen months, we are still breastfeeding and my income, by virtue of part time versus full time employment, has decreased. I also recognize and accept that my career path has changed course because of this decision.

The authors also say that promoting breastfeeding without acknowledging the need for additional support isn’t realistic:

“Because breastfeeding promotion focuses almost exclusively on encouraging women to breastfeed—without providing adequate economic and social supports to facilitate the practice—it reproduces gender, class, and racial inequality.”

This comment echos those made by Ms. Ameeta Jaga in my last post. Ms. Noonan and Ms. Rippey propose a few solutions to bridge the gap. They suggest that if the United States government wants to promote breastfeeding as a practice that it should promulgate additional legislation to include benefits such as mandatory paid parental leave and onsite daycare to allow women to breastfeed during the work day.

My approach may have been different if I had different work arrangements available to me with my prior employer. I was so happy to find my current employer who allows me to take advantage of these options. I wonder if having an onsite child care would have influenced me to make a different decision. I’m not sure, but at the least, the option would have provoked additional thought and conversation.

The authors also recommend public health campaigns to encourage and educate the mothers’ partners and support systems on the importance of assuming more responsibility for domestic duties to relieve some of the working mothers’ overall burdens. Finally, they suggest that breastfeeding advocates and health professionals recognize these “hidden cost” of breastfeeding based on current realities and recognize why some mothers make different choices.

Again, as with everything parenting, one size does not fit all and more options benefits everyone. I hope we continue moving towards a place where our society fully supports breastfeeding including in the workplace. That support may come from many places including in the form of legislation and public campaigns as noted above. It also may come from employers who are open to alternative work arrangements or are willing to accommodate women’s and families’ needs absent legislation.

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