If you had any doubts that breastfeeding in America is a luxury, this story should clear them up for you.
When a new mother returns to Starbucks’ corporate headquarters in Seattle after maternity leave, she learns what is behind the doors mysteriously marked “Lactation Room.”
Whenever she likes, she can slip away from her desk and behind those doors, sit in a plush recliner and behind curtains, and leaf through InStyle magazine as she holds a company-supplied pump to her chest, depositing her breast milk in bottles to be toted home later.
But if the mothers who staff the chain’s counters want to do the same, they must barricade themselves in small restrooms intended for customers, counting the minutes left in their breaks.
And Starbucks is generally very well-regarded for its employee benefits. Certainly, the fact that the stores are a lot smaller and serve a lot fewer employees than corporate headquarters has something to do with this. However, it’s not the whole story.
New mothers are told that “breast is best,” and that message is reinforced with guilt. (On the flip side, nursing mothers are also given the message that nursing in public is shameful and they should not “whip out” their breasts in public. They’re also told by idiots like Shmuley Boteach that breastfeeding gets in the way of their relationships with their husbands, because God forbid a breast be used for something other than a man’s pleasure. But I digress.)
Nursing can also be a full-time occupation in itself, meaning that those nursing mothers who have to return to work find themselves facing a dilemma — do they wean the baby off breastmilk and substitute formula — practically a crime in the books of some pro-lactation organizations — or do they try to pump at work so that they can provide breast milk to their babies even when they’re away?
Not surprisingly, while it’s generally not easy for any working mother to balance work and lactation, it’s a whole lot easier for those in more high-powered jobs than it is for factory workers or shop clerks.
But as pressure to breast-feed increases, a two-class system is emerging for working mothers. For those with autonomy in their jobs — generally, well-paid professionals — breast-feeding, and the pumping it requires, is a matter of choice. It is usually an inconvenience, and it may be an embarrassing comedy of manners, involving leaky bottles tucked into briefcases and brown paper bags in the office refrigerator. But for lower-income mothers — including many who work in restaurants, factories, call centers and the military — pumping at work is close to impossible, causing many women to decline to breast-feed at all, and others to quit after a short time.
It is a particularly literal case of how well-being tends to beget further well-being, and disadvantage tends to create disadvantage — passed down in a mother’s milk, or lack thereof.
Here’s one mother’s story:
“I feel like I had to choose between feeding my baby the best food and earning a living,” said Jennifer Munoz, a former cashier at Resorts Atlantic City Casino who said she faced obstacles that included irregular breaks and a refrigerator behind a locked door. She said she often dumped her milk into the toilet, knowing that if she did not pump every few hours, her milk supply would soon dwindle.
The casino denies discouraging Ms. Munoz from pumping. “We have policies and procedures in place to accommodate the needs of all of our employees,” Brian Cahill, a Resorts spokesman, said.
As I’m sure most of you who work for pay know, just because a company has policies and procedures in place to accommodate the needs of employees does not mean that those employees will be accommodated. For example, when I worked at the Evil Empire, I was by policy entitled to 20 days’ vacation a year. Officially. I worked there two years and used 7 days. Every time I tried to take time off, I was ridiculed by the senior associates (including one who left every night at 6 and took two-week vacations) for being a slacker, received calls from the office to ask stupid questions that could wait until I got back, and forced to reschedule multiple times for non-emergency work situations that “came up.” And this was as a supposedly high-powered lawyer. At least I had a lock on my office door, for when I needed to cry in private.
But, no, nobody “officially” discouraged me from taking time off. Just as I’m sure nobody at the casino “officially” discourages Ms. Munoz from pumping.
Compare Ms. Munoz’s situation with that of women with more autonomous jobs in corporate America:
In corporate America, lactation support can be a highly touted benefit, consisting of free or subsidized breast pumps, access to lactation consultants, and special rooms with telephones and Internet connections for employees who want to work as they pump, and CD players and reading material for those who do not. According to the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, a third of large corporations have lactation rooms.
Even without these perks, professional women can usually afford a few months of maternity leave during which to breast-feed. When they return, they can generally find an office for the two or three 20-minute sessions per workday typically necessary. Even bathrooms — the pumping spots of last resort — are more inviting at an accounting firm than in a fast-food restaurant.
Wealthier women can spend their way out of work-versus-pumping dilemmas, overnighting milk home from business trips and buying $300 pumps that extract milk quickly, along with gizmos that allow them, in what seems like a parody of maternal multitasking, to pump while driving to and from work.
In contrast, said Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on breast-feeding, her patients cannot afford a basic $50 breast pump — an investment, she said, that “could prevent a lifetime of diseases.” The academy urges women to breast-feed exclusively for six months and to continue until the child turns 1.
Not surprisingly, despite successful efforts by public health authorities to encourage breastfeeding among new mothers, many stop doing it when the reality of balancing work and breastfeeding hits them.
Because of this and similar efforts, 73 percent of mothers now breast-feed their newborns, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But after six months, the number falls to 53 percent of college graduates, and 29 percent of mothers whose formal education ended with high school. In a study of Oklahoma mothers who declined to breast-feed, nearly a third named work as the primary reason. Others, like Ms. Moore of Starbucks, find the early days of breast-feeding frustrating, and their impending return to work means they have little incentive to continue.