With World Breastfeeding Week celebrated across more than 120 countries at the beginning of August every year, Holly Meadows investigates why so many young moms quit breast pumping early on.
There has been a movement for the acceptance of breastfeeding moms around the world, why then are working mothers still quitting pumping at work?
In July 2018, model Mara Martin was famously photographed walking the runway breastfeeding her baby, who wore a nappie and noise-cancelling headphones.
In an Instagram post after the show, she said: ‘I’m so grateful to be able to share this message and hopefully normalise breastfeeding and also show others that women CAN DO IT ALL!’
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These two pictures might be my favorite ones of last weekend! There is more than one message that we all can take from these. One being, I hope to normalize breastfeeding because it’s a natural thing women can do for their babies. I think women should be able to feed their babies how they want, when they want and where they want. End of discussion! Another message I hope comes out of this is that women need to be confident in themselves no matter what. There is no one shape, size, age, or ethnicity that defines beauty. We are all beautiful! Look at the final 16 girls that were chosen. All different. All beautiful. Thank you @si_swimsuit and @mj_day for celebrating that year after year. Lastly, never give up on your dreams and goals, even when it may seem like there are many barriers in front of you at times. You are stronger than you think! We can do it all! So my #wcw today is every woman out there!!!! WOMEN CRUSH WEDNESDAY! 1st: @quinn_willoughby 2nd: @theimagesniper #girlpower #siswimsearch #normalizebreastfeeding #bodypositivity
Later that year, Rachel McAdams, who had her first child in April 2018 with boyfriend Jamie Linden, was featured on the cover of the fashion magazine Girls. Girls. Girls. wearing Versace and Bulgari diamonds, her jacket open to reveal two breast pumps.
Editor Claire Rothstein posted the photo on Instagram, saying: ‘Between shots, she was expressing/pumping as [she was] still breast-feeding. We had a mutual appreciation disagreement about whose idea it was to take this picture, but I’m sure it was here, which makes me love her even more.’ Rothstein then added, ‘I did not look anywhere near as fabulous as this when feeding/pumping. And that’s okay, too.’
While some trolls remarked on the inappropriateness of breast-feeding in public, the response was overwhelmingly positive, with many applauding positive, with many applauding the women for showcasing the reality of being a working mom.
What these highly stylised visuals don’t show, however, is that there is a stark distinction between the glamour of Rachel and Mara pumping in a staged, high-fashion world, and the lived reality of most working mothers.
When I ask friends who are mothers why they stopped breast-feeding, three key words keep cropping up: ‘office work pumping.’ The 21st century’s obsession with open-plan workspaces poses a real challenge to moms who need to pump milk privately.
This is a struggle endured by millions of new mothers who return to work after maternity leave. The need to express throughout the day is confronted with a society that is often unwilling to accommodate them.
Val Panizzo worked for an international corporation in Singapore, and after the birth of her first child, she returned to work to find a staggering lack of support.
‘My experience was not great,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even have an office at the time so I was forced to use a storeroom which doubled as the IT server office. I had IT staff (men) needing the space while I was trying to find a box or a stack of files to sit on and pump.’
As a result, Val stopped pumping and breast-feeding her baby after just two weeks because the situation was so unbearable. ‘Without a dedicated space, I ended up feeling dread in the lead-up to pump time, which was not healthy,’ she adds.
Like Val, Laurea Parker recalls negative memories. Despite having her own office, her CEO walked in on her even though there was a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door.
‘No one ever respected my right to pump, or cared, in my opinion…I even got eye rolls from colleagues when I said I have to go pump,’ she recalls. Coupled with the subtle shaming and expressions of disapproval from co-workers, Laura said that the office, and especially the kitchen, was never very clean, and so storing her milk and trying to be hygienic was a real challenge.
Access to clean running water is also key, and Laura pointed out that she was forced to rinse her breast pump in shared bathroom sinks. ‘I started supplementing day feeds with formula about a month into being back at work. I couldn’t keep up with pumping the amount I had to while at work; time, space, cleanliness, my workload and the culture just didn’t allow for it.’
Both Val and Laura said they hated pumping. They found it cumbersome to lug a pump to work every day, painful to have milk sucked out of two holes in a bra, and frustrating to be relegated to the broom cupboard, side-eyed and whispered about by unsympathetic colleagues.
As a working mom of two, Annaliese Griffin wrote in Quartz, ‘The idea that women can just cram more tasks into every hour, simultaneously pumping, filing expense reports and dialling into a conference call, has real allure…But the difficulties of being a working parent, particularly when you’re nursing, cannot be solved by consumer choice alone.’ It has to be provided for and encouraged by society and the workplace.
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The reality in SA
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding as the main source of nutrition for babies during their first six months of life. It’s a recommendation backed by scientific research that links breast-fed babies to having higher IQs and being healthier and more resilient to diseases.
UNICEF communication for development specialist Rayana Rassool says, ‘Breastfeeding also contributes to maternal health because it helps reduce the risk of postpartum haemorrhage, type 2 diabetes, and breast, uterine and ovarian cancer. Studies have found an association between early cessation of breastfeeding and postnatal depression in mothers.’
The ‘breast is best’ messaging has led to an estimated 83,5% of babies in the US now being breastfed immediately after birth, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
According to the WHO, however, only 32% of South African women breast-feed, which is a long way away from reaching a key sustainable development goal that by 2025 at least 50% of infants aged zero to six months in every country will be exclusively breastfed.
Research shows that returning to work is a major reason why women stop breastfeeding early on, an unsurprising statistic considering that women make up 45% of the country’s employed labour force (according to StatsSA).
UCT Associate Professor Ameeta Jaga says breastfeeding is a workplace and gender-equality issue. She cites her work with the South African Textile and Workers’ Union, saying that in a factory setting mothers are afraid of raising the issue with their employers for fear of losing their jobs and that in the corporate space mothers are concerned about the implication for career growth and promotion.
‘What will people think if I ask to be excused from a meeting to breast-feed or express milk? Am I less committed? What will my co-workers think?’ It comes down to the fact that workplaces have generally not been built for women and still have not transformed adequately to acknowledge the diverse workforce,’ Jaga said.
What the law says
The Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees During Pregnancy and After the Birth of a Child (which forms part of the BCEA) states employees are entitled to 30 minutes, twice a day, for breast-feeding or expressing milk for the first six months of the child’s life. These breaks are over and above your mandated lunch break.
Working South African mothers are entitled to a minimum of four consecutive months of maternity leave. Many take at least one month of that leave prior to the birth and then return to work when their infants are three months old. Therefore, the only way that working new mothers can breast-feed exclusively for the first six months is if they express breast milk or their workplace.
A common issue working mothers face in South Africa is that companies are not only ill-equipped, but they’re also not aware of the law. Labour lawyer Silke Rathbone advises that you should have a straightforward conversation with your boss before returning to work.
‘Approach the company’s HR manager and inform them of your legal rights, and that you require a clean and private room where you can sit down comfortably and breast-feed or express milk,’ she says. ‘Also state that you require a secure and sanitised storage space for the expressed milk.’
Rathbone adds that companies need to realise the benefits of complying with the law, as employees who feel valued, with their voices and needs to be heard, will most likely increase their productivity.
Fighting the stigma
Sadly, breastfeeding is a controversial subject – women are shamed for not breast-feeding, for breast-feeding too long, and for doing so in public. Mila Kunis told Vanity Fair that ‘People actually looked at us in a shameful [way]. I think it’s unfortunate that people are so hard on women who choose to do it and do it in public.’ Mila said that she and husband Ashton Kutcher get upset about the shaming, especially because ‘it’s so not a sexual act.’
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Public nursing remains taboo in our sex-obsessed society. Local journalist Sixile Makola says that she was told to breast-feed behind a curtain at her local hospital. When she complained to her doctor, she was told that she must understand that the hospital caters for all cultures and that while some cultures consider being naked the norm, in Western culture, it’s not acceptable, hence the need to breast-feed privately so as not to offend others. I would argue that this response promotes one culture over another, and points towards the pervasive sexualisation of women’s bodies.
In her book Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health And The Industrialization Of The American Diet, Amy Bentley argues that distaste for public breast-feeding in the US began with the sexualisation of the breasts in the 19th century, and it was accelerated by the rise in processed baby food.
Women’s bodies began to seem less and less functional and more like objects of desire; meanwhile, baby food was sophisticated and hygienic. Today, breasts have become synonymous with sex, meaning that while advertisements and billboards can expose women’s breasts, new mothers cannot.
Thanks to a growing army of activists – or lactivists – who have staged protests and nursing flash mobs around the world, as well as high-profile celebrities sharing photos on social platforms to #normalisebreastfeeding we are making strides for equality. Even Instagram, which previously flagged breastfeeding photos for violating user guidelines prohibiting nudity, now allows said photos to be published following a backlash in 2015.
Actors, fashion brands and influencers have been doing their part to bring more visibility to pumping and subvert the sexual objectification of breasts while building a sense of solidarity, which we desperately need to translate into the everyday working environment.
For information on World Breastfeeding Week, visit the Unicef website.
This article originally appeared in the August issue of Cosmopolitan South Africa.
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