Hannah Mestel’s Story: Squeezing in pump breaks during business school, pumping under a staircase in a back hallway and an “ask forgiveness rather than permission” approach

— about a 7 minute read

Faces of Pumping and working Hannah Mestel

Welcome to the latest edition of “The Faces of Pumping & Working” where we learn about the triumphs and challenges of the increasing number of women working to provide breast milk for their own child(ren) while contributing their unique skills to the paid workforce. Many women experience a lack of support across three key areas when integrating breastfeeding into their paid work.

  1. Access to private & secure space
  2. Clear written policy
  3. A culture of support

Learn about Hannah’s experience “making it work” in various circumstances as she drove forward to achieve both her professional and breastfeeding goals while also taking action to create change for the women coming after her.

Hannah’s Circumstances permalink

A few weeks before my first daughter was born, I found out I had been admitted to Harvard Business School. I took a leave of absence from my role as a Product Manager at a tech company in Silicon Valley to go back to school. So rather than returning to my company at the end of my maternity leave, I headed to HBS on an education leave, with my 4-month-old baby in tow! Moving from California to Boston with a baby was an adventure on its own...a story for another time.

When my second daughter was born, I had returned to the tech company and was working as an HR business partner for the product management team.  This time, I took an extended maternity leave, and my daughter was 9 months old when I returned to work.

Hannah’s Goal permalink

I knew I wanted to nurse my daughters regardless of whether I was with them 100% of the time, so pumping was a big part of my strategy from the beginning. Other than wanting to keep my supply up and to avoid plugged ducts, I didn’t have a clear goal for how long I’d nurse or pump with my first baby. I do know that I didn’t have an upper limit, like 6 months or 12 months.

I ended up pumping until around each of my daughters’ 2nd birthdays. They both went on to nurse when I was with them for several years after I stopped pumping, and it was a very positive tool in my parenting toolkit. Getting to sit down with them and snuggle and nurse was a great way to reconnect after coming home each day.

Hannah’s Access to Space permalink

When my first daughter was a baby, I was in a classroom with 90 other students for three 90 minute sessions each day. The break between the morning sessions was only 15 minutes long, and the lactation room was almost 10 minutes from my classroom. That was...interesting...to say the least. The lactation room in the classroom building was an unlabeled room next to a storage closet. I had a key to access it. I was delighted to find a hospital grade pump in the room, even though I had been told there wouldn’t be any supplies. A fridge also appeared in the first week I was using the room - it was a wonderful surprise and made me feel like someone was looking out for me.

When my second daughter was born, I worked in an open plan office space. We had lactation rooms on two floors in my five-story office building. The lactation rooms were well appointed with pumps and fridges and were clearly labeled as Mother’s Rooms. Those rooms were restricted to employees with badges that were activated for Mother’s Room access. I was really lucky that there weren’t too many other moms pumping when I came back to work, as I was able to book my pumping time pretty easily -- we had to book the lactation rooms like any other shared resource or conference room, and sometimes the bookings could get competitive and stressful!

During the summer when I interned at another company for 12 weeks, I pumped in an unlabeled room that was under a staircase in a back hallway. It also had a key, but there was no fridge or pumping equipment.

I also pumped using a manual hand pump in so many places when traditional space wasn’t available. On airplanes, in cars (as a passenger, not driving!), and on another memorable occasion, in the bathroom of a winery during a team offsite.

Hannah’s Access to Clear, Written Policy permalink

Literally nobody in school or the office communicated expectations around pumping. I didn’t talk to my professors about it, though I did speak to Student Services about needing extra time during exams so I could take pumping breaks. In the office, I preferred an “ask forgiveness rather than permission” approach, so I just booked my pumping breaks as needed, avoiding standing meetings with my team and other stakeholders.

There was not a policy around travel for pumping employees so I made the decision to avoid business travel and traveled with my daughter and my husband when I did have to go out of town. I also opted out of offsites a few times because it was too challenging to secure pumping locations and I wasn’t going to be able to drive myself and pump in the car.

Cultural Norms Play a Role in Hannah’s Experience permalink

In the late winter of my first year in grad school, I was in New York City for an interview for an internship opportunity. The interview was scheduled to last all day. I didn’t want to ask the recruiter or hiring manager for any accommodations for pumping, so I ended up pumping standing up in a bathroom stall in a public restroom off the lobby of some huge corporate building. I stood there pumping for over half an hour because I wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to leak during the interviews!

Hannah’s Advocacy for Change permalink

At business school, I wrote a playbook for nursing student moms and advocated for more lactation rooms on campus -- in my second year at school, a couple of other women had babies and needed to use the scarce lactation resources, and with only one break time, we needed more rooms for pumping!

Back at work after grad school, I taught peer-led classes on returning to work and pumping at work and helped the HR team develop a checklist and tip sheet for pumping moms as well as a Manager’s Guide to Welcoming New Moms Back to Work that specifically addressed pumping, including how important it is to a woman’s health (you can’t just skip pumping sessions because you got busy!).

Hannah’s BEST Tip for New Pumping Moms! permalink

Things change all the time! Babies’ needs around nursing change so much over the first few months of their lives, and they change even more as they move toward toddlerhood. I wish I had been given advice along the lines of “only worry about things a month at a time” -- it felt like this huge challenge, but I only needed to tackle it in chunks of a few weeks before re-evaluating and adjusting. Practically speaking, I also would have loved to have known to have like a million supplies: not having to wash things every day was SO helpful!

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