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 also contributing their unique skills to the paid workforce. Today’s post is about Kerry Wagner Woodward’s experience integrating breastfeeding and working after the birth of her first of three sons, Colin, while she worked for a small non-profit as a Portfolio Manager. Kerry also shares how she gained confidence through her second and third pumping & working experiences becoming a mentor and fierce supporter of those coming after her.
I, Kerry Wagner Woodward, pumped breastmilk to feed my own baby while serving as the Portfolio Manager for a non-profit focused on creating educational opportunities and improving outcomes in schools across Philadelphia.
Did you set any breastfeeding goals for yourself before returning to work?
After my first pregnancy, I had the privilege of taking a 6 month maternity leave. I was not dedicated to exclusive breastfeeding - we were supplementing with formula. I had no freezer stash to dip into. I simply wanted to maximize the amount of breast milk my baby got while at daycare and then also be able to maintain our bedtime and wake up nursing rituals.
Can you give us an idea of what your physical workspace was like?
My nonprofit organization was small and lean. When I started, I was the 10th employee. We subleased office space and all sat together in one room with low-walled cubicles. Although my manager was a fellow working mother and extremely supportive in every way, I was the first woman to give birth while on staff and our space constraints were very real.
How did you identify a space for pumping? Was the space private & secure?
My pumping space was our Supply Closet/Server Room. It had a deadbolt lock (yay!), a chair, and an outlet to plug in my pump. It lacked temperature control (swinging wildly from super hot to super cold) and a mini-fridge - two things that would have made my pumping journey much more comfortable!
How did your employer communicate expectations around pumping?
During this first pumping & working experience, now 6 years ago, there were no written policies or expectations when I returned to work and began pumping...just the general support of what I was doing and knowledge that supporting my ability to pump was critical in retaining me as an employee.
When I pumped for my 3rd child in 2018, in a different workplace, the clarity around mothers' rights and employers' responsibilities with regard to pumping were much more clear.
Tell us about the most challenging moments that stick in your mind when you think about the experience of finding space to pump during that time.
I am a flexible person and I was working for a really entrepreneurial, flexible organization. I love working on the fly and gathering for exciting, impromptu meetings and brainstorms. My work also necessitated participating in frequent off-site appointments, often traveling to 2-3 places per day. Hello, car pumping! I did not like being tethered to a set pumping schedule and, in fact, my job hardly allowed for it. I found that being stressed out about not adhering to a rigid pumping schedule just set me up for disappointment and frustration.
Most of all, I needed to remember to wear pads in my bra to collect leaking milk when I didn't adhere perfectly to my pumping schedule. You only need to make the mistake of NOT wearing the pads once and you won't make it again. I speak from experience. EEK.
How was the actual experience of integrating breastfeeding with work different from what you anticipated?
Pumping, in general, was harder than I expected. It feels VULNERABLE getting your boobs out and attaching them to a machine that mechanically sucks milk from them. Pumping bras, pumping apparatuses...and doing this in an office environment that I normally associate with being "buttoned up" and "professional"? It was a mental shift for me. It was definitely related to a general new work identity of "working mom" but pumping brought it to a whole new level for me.
What type of support did your employer/colleagues/manager provide that improved your breastfeeding and working experience?
The organization wanted to accommodate me the best they could, one important way they honored that commitment was by providing a generous maternity leave and a flexible return to work plan. From a breastfeeding perspective, that was helpful as it gave me more time to focus on my family before starting the new routine of integrating pumping with working.
My manager also made it clear she wanted to be a collaborator in my journey as a working mom. She wanted to help me troubleshoot any bumps in the road or challenges. She was quick to share personal experiences, which was comforting to me and demonstrated she related to the experiences I was having. I knew she wanted me to be successful both at work and in my role as a new mother (and a breastfeeding mother!).
Did you ever feel that you had to choose between breastfeeding/pumping and work responsibilities?
I remember one particular "high stakes" meeting during my first week or two back. A big external partner was coming in and, due to winter weather, arrived about 1 hour later than expected. I consciously made the decision to adjust my pumping schedule to accommodate the meeting. It meant sacrificing "maximizing" the volume of milk I would pump that day. I oscillated between feeling guilty to not be "prioritizing my baby" but ultimately decided to give myself grace. I wanted to work. I wanted to parent. Time is a bit of a zero-sum game and it wasn't going to be possible to do 100% of both. Ultimately, I made MANY MORE of those types of decisions over the years. Reflecting on it now, I would say that the tensions between scheduling pumping and working are simply a preview of ALL of the times a working parent is forced to prioritize one role over the other at any given moment in time.
Did you feel comfortable being 100% open and honest with coworkers about your breastfeeding/pumping needs?
During my first time pumping, no I absolutely did not. I felt embarrassed and didn't want any of my male coworkers to even begin to picture me, half-naked, pumping milk out of my breasts in the supply closet. A man who visited our office once was discretely told I was pumping and he loudly exclaimed, "THAT'S DISGUSTING. Too much information! Why would you tell me that?" This experience furthered my sense of shame and embarrassment. I was always strategically and discretely carrying milk and my pump; I felt like it was on a "need to know" basis.
By baby #3, I wore my Bad Ass Mother Pumping journey on my sleeve. I was a leader of my organization and felt compelled to normalize pumping for one and all. I strode confidently to the refrigerator with my pumped milk and I supported the creation of a real, comfortable lactation room for the women coming after me.
What do you wish someone would have taught you about integrating breastfeeding & working before you started?
I was lucky to have my first baby at around the same time as two of my closest girlfriends. We all returned to work concurrently, too. We shared all of our brain power developing our pumping plans. It was invaluable to have trusted peers for brainstorming and troubleshooting.
Did you end up hitting the goal you had set for yourself prior to returning to work? If not, what was the biggest roadblock to reaching the goal?
Yes, I met my goal.
What was your proudest pumping & working moment?
My proudest moment was setting the pumping mothers that came behind me up for success. First of all, I advocated for the pumping space to be in a comfortable, temperature-controlled room (still a former supply closet, but we made it work!!). I felt so proud to call these new mothers to tell them I had their backs, texting them with pictures of a cozy, secure, and well-equipped lactation lounge. It became a passion project for me: my organization painted the space a soothing green color I chose and I contributed an area rug, comfy (but wipeable!) chair, a little table, and a minifridge from home! I wanted these pumping moms to feel safe, appreciated, and supported. I even left bouquets of flowers and little cards on their first day of work.
I think COMMUNITY is the most important part of pumping at work - even though it's a slog and an individual responsibility, it's so important to feel part of a tribe of Bad Ass Mother Pumpers. That's why I think Proud Ounces is such a key development in the next wave of empowering women to be great employees AND breastfeeding moms.
Is there a tip you would want to pass on to a new mom just starting her pumping & working journey?
GRACE. Cut yourself slack. It's not going to be perfect. It is likely going to be all sorts of messy. You will absolutely cry over spilled milk...it's all part of the journey. Be kind to yourself. Take care of yourself. Healthy Mama, Healthy Baby - no matter how many ounces of milk you pump on any given day.