Welcome to the latest edition of “The Faces of Pumping & Working” where we learn about the triumphs and challenges of the increasing number of parents working to provide breast milk for their own child(ren) while contributing their unique skills to the paid workforce.
Amberlee Venti is a Behavioral Health professional and a pumping & working vet who reached her breastfeeding goals despite working in a very challenging environment without clear policy. One specific negative element of her day to day pumping routine was a treacherous trip to the office refrigerator to cool her breast milk. Inspired to make sure others don’t suffer the same fate, she co founded @PippySips, where she has spent 4 years working on an innovation called Maia, a sleek breast milk cooler that avoids the need for a refrigerator to keep milk chilled. Amberlee’s experience reminds us that pumping employees work in all kinds of environments with a long list of unique challenges that are difficult if not impossible to traverse without deliberate and official support from an employer. It also reminds us not to crack ridiculous jokes about using a coworker’s breast milk as creamer in your morning coffee.
Amberlee’s circumstances permalink
During my pumping & working experience, I was the Director of a mental health outpatient clinic in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. The location of the clinic was very close to an El station on a busy corner and open to anyone in need of mental health or substance use services. Our unit had a walk-in clinic 4 days a week so it was a very busy, loud and hectic environment. We were providing outpatient services for people with all types of diagnoses/symptoms including: depression, schizophrenia, substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety, personality disorders, etc. We often had crises including individuals who were suicidal, homicidal or going through withdrawal. The work environment was sometimes frightening and often overwhelming. In this environment, I had to figure out how to successfully pump breast milk, several times a day, after returning to work following the births of my two children.
I wanted to breastfeed/pump for at least 1 year for each of my two children. I did reach the goal; the journey included 10 months of pumping & working after returning to work following each of their births.
Amberlee’s access to space permalink
At the clinic, I had a private office with a lock and a window (and blinds for privacy) which served as my main pumping space. Unfortunately, my office was right near the waiting room where many crises would occur so it wasn't always quiet or peaceful when I was pumping. I would often feel the need to end my pumping session early to intervene in a crisis situation. I also oversaw over 30 staff members who frequently needed my assistance and would knock on the door in my pumping sessions. They would also often slip pieces of paper under the door (which I always found funny). If it was a woman I trusted I might open the door a crack and speak to them.
I also worked offsite on occasion which meant I had to find a temporary space to pump. I usually ended up pumping in a bathroom, a rehabbed closet or my car.
Something that all of these pumping spaces had in common was a lack of refrigeration. At the clinic, the refrigerator I used for my breast milk was in a room where group therapy took place. It was super awkward to get in and out of there and I would dread doing what felt like a breast milk walk of shame multiple times a day.
On one occasion, a co-worker saw my breastmilk bottles in the fridge and cracked a joke: “Should I add this to my coffee?" This refrigeration challenge is what drove me to create a new product enabling the chilling and storage of breast milk without the use of a refrigerator. I can only hope the innovation will prevent the next generation from having an experience like mine.
Amberlee’s access to written policy permalink
There was definitely no written policy or guidelines of any sort that I recall seeing before or during my time pumping. This left me to figure out what to do on my own. The nature of the work I did often made it near impossible to find the time and space to pump without specific guidelines. Our clinic experienced crises on a near daily basis and I often had to help de-escalate.
I did talk with my boss, who was also a mother but hadn’t had a personal experience pumping at work, about my goal to continue breastfeeding. She was very accommodating and encouraged me to do what I needed to do to get my pumping in but she was offsite most of the time and without a policy, that was an agreement between the two of us and didn’t really take into account the daily challenges and adjustments it would take to give me the time and space I needed.
I think a written policy that EVERYONE is aware of would be helpful. I imagine a poster about how to support pumping employees; that would be awesome!!!
Don’t look directly at the breast milk permalink
The culture at the clinic was sink or swim. We were all in survival mode. Because there was no real playbook for people to follow regarding pumping, behaviors and reactions varied depending on the coworker and the situation. For the most part, I was on my own.
There were some understanding coworkers (men, women, people with or without children) and their support meant a lot! One time after pumping before an important meeting, I came out of my office and had breast milk on my shirt. A colleague took me to the side, let me know and offered to lend me a sweater. I also recall noticing that the Office Manager would tell people when I was pumping so that my co-workers could respect the time, which was helpful.
Most of what I remember are awkward situations and a pull to minimize what I was doing. I certainly never blocked the time off in my schedule as I felt I had to be accessible at all times. When I found myself in situations that didn’t allow me to discreetly seek privacy to pump, I recall quietly leaving without explanation and hoping that I didn’t miss anything. Large, division meetings come to mind, where it felt out of the question to tell the whole group of agency leadership why I was stepping away.
I can still picture the faces of some of the men I worked with that were very uncomfortable with seeing me walk the halls with my see-through milk bottles; they would barely be able to form a sentence and would avoid looking at me or the bottles.
Amberlee’s proudest moment permalink
A proud moment in my journey was when I brought my newborn daughter into the clinic once and sat with a group of coworkers. They all wanted to hold her and oooh and ahhh over her. While we were talking, I breastfed her and no one got uncomfortable, we just continued on with the conversation. It was the best case scenario and a great group of people who sat around me and supported me (including one man).
Amberlee’s advice for new pumping moms permalink
Create a schedule! I highly recommend thinking that through and formally blocking off pumping times. My schedule was often just touching my breasts to see if they were full which didn’t always work out and led to anxiety when I realized I did need to pump. I think blocking that out in my schedule for my coworkers/employees to see would have provided some much needed consistency for all of us.