Lactation Space Anyone?

Category: Family, parenting

Three months after my second child was born, I was scheduled to be at an academic conference. Unlike most conferences I attend, this one did not require me to travel out of state. However, it did require that I leave my baby for upwards of eight hours, during which time I would have few opportunities or space for pumping.

As I organized my things the night before the conference, I inventoried everything I would need. I had my work bag and laptop and a second bag with my breast pump, electric cords, and tubing; a hands-free pumping bra, empty bottles to pump into, ice packs and a mini-cooler bag to keep the milk cold. I looked like an overzealous holiday shopper, not someone going across town to a professional meeting.

The first thing I did once at the conference was look at the map of the hotel layout to try to find the room that the organization had designated for lactation. When I could not find this space, I found a hotel employee and asked if they could help me. I explained that I was there attending the conference and that my program stated there would be a lactation room, but I could not find it. Confused, the young man looked at me and repeated…. “Lactation space… hmmm.” I watched his bewildered face as he apologized for not being able to help. I kept looking.

I learned that the lactation space offered by this organization would not be available until the following day. On the first of the conference for me, there was no private space available. After sitting in a board room with my colleagues for several hours, we were given a 15-minute break. I would have to take advantage of this time and pump in the women’s restroom. I found an outlet by the sink, plugged my breast pump in, took off my top, put on my handsfree bra and started the process. In came my colleagues one after the other, making small talk about the city and the weather while I leaked milk into 4-ounce bottles. How old is your baby one colleague asked? Three months I stated and smiled. We both went on about our business. By no means would this have been my preferred method to mingle with my colleagues, but I am very grateful for their willingness to go about business as usual. Twenty minutes later, I turned off the pump, secured the milk in the cooler, took off the hands-free pumping bra, put my shirt back on, washed my hands and ran back into the meeting. I pumped again on the ride home later that night. Pumping while driving is an interesting albeit more private adventure. I was exhausted, thirsty (you gotta hydrate when you breastfeed), and most of all I missed my baby.

Over the fourteen months that I spent nursing my second child, I found myself in some awkward situations. I once had a student worker try to unlock my office door while I was in it pumping. The student thought I was not in that day and wanted to drop off a package that had arrived for me. Apparently, the student didn’t hear me say, “I’m busy” as they tried to enter, because in they came and there I was, boobs out and attached to 4-ounce bottles. I pumped in an airport bathroom once during a layover. At least in that bathroom, the other people were strangers to me. That time, I almost missed my connecting flight. As I boarded the plane with my cooler in hand, a flight attendant came by to inform me that I would have to place my package in the overhead bin, rather than at my feet. I looked at the flight attendant and said, “I’m not putting my milk up there.” “But you can’t” … they started. “No,” I said as I hugged the cooler irrationally, “what if it spills?” We compromised and put the cooler in the front of the plane somewhere that the flight attendant assured me would be safe. Once while flying a TSA agent needed to manually check the contents of my carry-on because the scanner kept showing an “unusual mechanical device” in it. I stood with an agent behind a semi-private screen. “Do you have a pace maker in there, ma’am?” they asked. “No. It’s a breast pump,” I replied as they pulled out my breast shields and examined everything. “That looks like it hurts,” the TSA agent said.

Despite these awkward encounters, throughout those fourteen months, I was intensely aware of the fact that my situation is exponentially better than that of most parents of newborns in the United States. I have a supportive partner, I am financially stable, and I have a career that affords me much flexibility to devote the time and energy needed to exclusively breast feed. My experiences represent a best-case scenario in this country.

I know this personally because 17 years ago I breast fed my first child. I was 19 and didn’t have a job or a college degree or a stable place to live. I relied on WIC and public assistance. I didn’t have a breast pump nor the financial resources to purchase one never mind all of the added accessories needed to make the process more efficient. I couldn’t leave the baby for very long because he wouldn’t drink formula and I couldn’t express milk. I nursed him for 6 months before giving up. I never saw a lactation consultant, never went to a support group meeting. I don’t even have a single memory of ever breast feeding him in public. More importantly, I don’t have any recollection of a medical professional ever encouraging me to keep going. Not one. Don’t get me wrong, I received lots of information about why “breast is best.” It helps bond, it’s natural, it’s cheaper (this one is a misnomer). I even attended a breastfeeding class that the hospital offered while I was still pregnant. But I don’t remember any medical professional supporting me after the baby was born.

When my now 17-year-old was born, he was placed in the NICU. Despite the fact that he was thriving, I was never allowed to bring him to my room. When he was born, I was only allowed to hold him for a moment before he was taken from me and brought to that NICU. No one even mentioned the golden hour. “I want to see my baby,” I told the nurse. She stared down at me and said, “Nobody is going to hurt your baby,” and walked away. When I was able to walk, I went to the NICU and asked if I could breastfeed him. A nurse said yes and handed me a chair. I tried to get him to latch while nurses moved all around me caring for other newborns. No one said anything or offered to help me.

I was dispatched from the hospital 24 hours before him. I was told that he had to stay in the NICU because he wasn’t feeding properly. But that didn’t make any sense…I was supposed to be breastfeeding and no one ever observed me. How did they know that he wasn’t “feeding properly?” No one asked me if I wanted to pump for him while we were separated. No one asked me if I was ok with them giving him formula, but I assume that’s what they did. When my son was finally released from the hospital, I was told that a nurse would be visiting my home. I was not asked if I wanted this service. I was told. I was given no reason for why this nurse would be checking on me. This certainly is not standard practice and, again, my child was not ill. He received no medical intervention in the NICU, I received no special instructions for his care, and he was on no medication. The visiting nurse came twice and offered the only validation I received regarding my efforts to breastfeed. The nurse weighed him on a portable scale and smiled. He was gaining weight.

Today I am Sociology professor of family, race and ethnicity. I know the  statistics all too well. Middle-income parents who are thirty and over are far more likely to breast feed their children than are younger and poorer parents. My experiences mothering two newborns at very different times in my life means I experienced first hand the intricate factors that go into creating this disparity. I didn’t have the resources to invest in the many gadgets designed to make breastfeeding easier. Seventeen years ago, medical insurance companies were not required to issue breast pumps to new parents (we have Obamacare to thank for that change). But this inequality is about more than financial resources. As a poor, brown, single-parent, I was not treated like a mother. I was not respected as the person who knew what was right for my child. Medical professionals treated me like some one who needed vetting before I could parent. No one encouraged me to breastfeed because no one wanted to facilitate my parenting until I had been vetting. That’s not about a lack of financial resources. That…is racism.

I’ve spent many years thinking about what the red flag in my file might have said. Was it an actual red flag on the file, or were people just reading my young, brown body in a particular way? … I will never know but something about me signaled to every medial professional I encountered that I was not competent. If my experience is at all indicative of what poor women of color experience in childbirth, then we as a society need to take more ownership for the inequalities that exist between poor children of color and their white middle-class counterparts. My two children couldn’t be raised under more different circumstances. My daughter will have far more opportunities than I was ever able to offer my son. I may be raising them both but their drastically different starts in life will continue to influence them into adulthood. Neither of my children will be spared the effects of racism, but moving up the socioeconomic ladder has already made things easier for my second. The more health practitioners become obsessed with the benefits of breast feeding for babies, the more attention they devote to class inequality and its impact on parents’ breastfeeding choices. But until we start owning the impact that racism has on the medical care people of color receive, I doubt we will get very far.