Hiding motherhood in the workplace - Why PR Powerhouse, Madeline Caldwell, quit pumping before she was ready

— about a 7 minute read

Faces of Pumping and working Madeline Caldwell

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.

Mads Caldwell is a celebrated PR professional, business partner and creator. She is engaged in public advocacy for working mothers with her newest venture @workingmomhour which includes a weekly podcast covering all aspects of the working mom experience. Mads is also part of the generation of mothers who have struggled greatly with integrating breastfeeding with their career. She “made it work” in a job that lacked both clear policy and a proactively supportive culture. Read on to hear more about Mads’ experience.

Madeline’s Circumstances permalink

I am a Public Relations professional and a mom. I have two little girls (currently 5 and 3 years old) and we are currently in the process of adopting a third child. My pumping & working experience that we will discuss was after the birth of my first daughter when I returned after 3 months of leave and had set a goal to continue breastfeeding. Both my work and my role as a mother are extremely important to me and I had hoped, during this time, that I could return to my job as if nothing had changed, at the same capacity, while still providing breast milk for my daughter. Instead I found myself putting the needs of my clients and coworkers before my own needs and the needs of my child when I felt uncomfortable. I was uncertain about how prioritizing pumping would be perceived in my workplace and cultural cues led me to believe I should conceal it. The outcome was a very stressful day to day routine and a collection of roadblocks that led me to stop earlier than I had planned.

Madeline’s Goal permalink

I wanted to breastfeed my first daughter for 6 months. I set that goal because I felt like I already knew that doing it for a year wouldn’t be feasible or desirable for me, but 6 months felt completely doable and I figured I could decide when I got there if I wanted to continue or transition to a new plan. Second time around I didn’t plan to pump due to my daughter’s milk allergy. We are now in the process to adopt a third child and I’m interested in pursuing breast milk donations when the time comes.

Madeline’s Access to Space permalink

I went to work each day at a small office building in Baltimore where there was one space available for pumping. It was a small, windowless room with a loveseat and an outlet. At the time, I remember feeling that it was luxurious and represented a safe space where I could be completely free to do all the activities related to pumping breast milk on a daily basis.

One significant snag to the set-up was that I was not the only pumping mom that needed to use the room. Our schedules were heavy with meetings and without an official method to reserve the room at specific times, availability was unreliable and that caused anxiety when I was trying to make and keep my schedule each day. There also wasn’t room for a proper table to place my laptop, which would have really helped when I wanted to multitask during pumping.

My second pumping space was at a client’s office (an advertising agency) where I worked a couple of times each month. I was glad when they were eager to show me their pumping room with its carefully designed sign on my first visit. Things got less comfortable when I saw that the “special sign” was of a cow and giant udders.

My THIRD pumping space was my car. I frequently pumped in my car while driving to increase the productivity of my workday. Driving and pumping isn’t an easy task but that level of multitasking felt necessary to make these parts of my life work together.

Madeline’s Access to Written Policy permalink

No written policy was provided. We had a “do what you need to do and let’s not talk about it” policy. My sense was that leadership was kind, but pretty uncomfortable with the topic. Neither of us knew what valuable employer support for lactation looked like at that time so we were just winging it.

A “Do what you need to do” Culture permalink

The culture for breastfeeding employees was to discuss these hush hush topics only with other mothers who had been there and understood the experience. The only time pumping was even discussed, officially, was on my first tour of the space when the company owner (who was very kind) proactively showed me the pumping space. I remember feeling thankful that I wouldn’t have to initiate that particular question.

I didn’t feel empowered to block time on my calendar for pumping so I would rush to the room when I had a free 30 minutes here and there. By the time I got through set-up, actually pumping and breakdown (clean up/organizing all “the stuff”), I was diving out of the room to head to my next meeting. It was a game of “beat the clock” to make it to meetings. Alternatively, if I didn’t think it was possible to finish pumping and get to the meeting,  I would choose option B and use the mute button aggressively while taking calls during pumping. I even felt cringey putting my cooler of milk in the community fridge.

This combination of roadblocks ultimately led to me stopping sooner than I had wanted. I was sad about that, and a little resentful. Looking back, I realize that without knowing it, I really tried to hide my pumping - and motherhood - in the workplace as much as possible.

The Day It All Changed permalink

After having my first child, I really convinced myself that I could return to work in my management position and operate as if nothing had changed. And for a while, I did.

I remember the day it all changed. I was about 8 weeks into pretending everything in my life was the same as before, and 5 months and 1 week postpartum. I had left work to get my daughter from daycare and I had set everything up before driving away so I could optimize my time and pump while I commuted.

While in the car, I started receiving media calls. I worked in PR and had pitched an announcement earlier that day. I had misjudged the urgency with which the media would be looking for information so I took the calls while driving.

By the time I got to daycare 20 minutes later, I was holding a notebook on my lap that I had scribbled notes on, my shirt was soaked, I had milk stains all over my leather seats, the pump was hanging from my body and almost no milk had made it into the bottles - in part because it was everywhere else - and in part because I hadn’t been able to sustain a consistent pumping schedule.

I sat there and cried. I wasn’t ready to stop providing breastmilk for my daughter, but I couldn’t keep this going. Something had to give, and the easiest seemed to be removing the responsibility of pumping while working. I felt like a failure as a mother and at my job.

Madeline’s advice for new pumping moms… permalink

In hindsight, there are so many things I would recommend to new pumping moms that I think would have created a better runway for my pumping journey at work.

  • A gradual re-entry into client work giving me more flexibility for pumping time
  • A partial work from home schedule
  • The opportunity for coaching to better understand *how* to best integrate pumping with my specific work responsibilities
  • More clarity from my employer on expectations for breastfeeding employees vs both of us just assuming I would “do it all”

All of these supports could have helped me to more effectively set clear expectations for myself and others. If your employer isn’t proactively offering these supports, use your strong voice and ask for them!

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