Breastfeeding at Work with Jessica Shortall

An inspiring conversation during World Breastfeeding Week with Jessica Shortall, the author of the soon-to-be-released book, Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work.

Jessica Shortall is the author of the soon-to-be-released book, Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work (Abrams Books, September 8, 2015). She is also the Managing Director of Texas Competes, a coalition of businesses committed to furthering the business and economic case for LGBT equality in Texas. She was also the first Director of Giving at TOMS Shoes.

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EMC: Jessica, I love how you use humor in your book as you dispense the most comprehensive information I’ve seen about breastfeeding and work.

Jessica: I didn’t know any other way to write it. I talked to hundreds of women from all walks of life and it was always, “laugh or die.” We’re a sorority of women combining breastfeeding and work and it can be isolating. We’re literally locking ourselves in closets and bathrooms. When I speak about this publicly, someone always cries and then I cry because I’m still reliving the experience that leaves women thinking we’re failing at work, not making enough milk and failing our babies. The advice in this book is from women saying “Yes, we’re with you and yes, it’s horrible and no, we’re not going to sugar coat it.” Then we laugh and get practical. I think it’s the first breastfeeding book in history that never says, “Breast is best,” except in the chapter about dealing with bullies.

How did the book come about?

I was the first woman at TOMS to have a baby on the job. My first business trip after I had my son was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. It was to Nepal with Blake, the TOMS founder, when my son was five months old. Leaving him almost killed me. I pumped and froze 300 ounces of milk. Then I circumnavigated the globe for a week, pumping six times a day in moving cars, bathrooms, and next to health clinics. I lost all modesty and was like, “Blake, get out of the car. I’m pumping. “ In preparation, I looked for books about how to do this but I couldn’t find anything really helpful. One said, “Be sure to get your milk through airport security,” but didn’t say, “pack your pump parts in individual bags so TSA agents won’t touch everything.” I needed to know stuff like, if you run out of breast pads, use half a panty liner, or how to talk about my breasts with the person who signs my paycheck. The more I spoke with other women, the more I knew I had to write this book. It’s my Love Letter To Working Moms.

It’s indicative of the national conversation that’s boosting feminism and motherhood.

It’s definitely a feminist book, but also acknowledges if you’re pumping three times per day, you might be eating lunch at your desk. You have to be a badass, show up and solve problems instead of complaining. It’s also feminist because it says, “This is my body. You don’t get to shame me about how I feed my baby.” Literally every worker eliminates body fluids (urine) and nobody begrudges them breaks for that. But women are being folded into pretzels for breast milk. We’re tasked with creating the next generation of workers and everyone says we have to feed them breast milk, plus be amazing at our jobs and come up with all of the structures to make that happen.

Tell us about the issues working mothers are dealing with.

America is one of only three countries in the world that won’t pay maternity leave. Women are returning to work after experiencing physical and emotional rigor and they haven’t recovered. I think we’re placing women in actual danger and we’re not helping businesses either. I had severe postpartum anxiety related to how soon I had to go back after having my first baby, even though TOMS was incredibly supportive about me having a baby and their leave is generous by U.S. standards. A woman returning at 12 weeks isn’t coming back and killing it. She’s getting no sleep, has raging hormones and just had a baby either pushed or cut out of her. Her body is ravaged. Then, everyone watches to see if she’s “back.” She has to prove herself so she doesn’t get fired or sidelined. “No, I’m not tired. Yes, I’m all right. Yes, I can work late. Sure, I’ll go on a business trip.” But she’s not “back.” She’s a wreck. It’s cruel and it’s why so many women quit breastfeeding. Even though it’s the law to support breastfeeding workers (at least some — not all are covered), unless employers go the extra mile, many women don’t actually have the choice to keep breastfeeding. Think about the waitress who’s forced back to work six-weeks postpartum because she’s not getting paid. She’s on her feet all day. If she slows down or takes pump breaks, she loses tables and tips. New mothers are in a more vulnerable financial position than they’ve ever been in. They can’t afford to lose their jobs because there’s a baby to take care of and health insurance needs.

What’s the most important thing you want to do to improve maternal health?

I think this book is my first big contribution. We’re not treating new motherhood like a life-altering event that society is responsible to support because we value children. We treat it like an inconvenience. We ignore that breastfeeding is a public, physical and mental health imperative. I don’t think every woman should have to breastfeed, but she shouldn’t be judged or professionally penalized for doing so. Our workforce is 47% women and rising. We think working motherhood is the exception, but the reality is very different. Women work. That’s what women all over the world do. Either we value women’s contributions — as workers and as the ones responsible for creating the next generation of humans — or we don’t.

Jessica’s book offers women and employers practical advice to make breastfeeding at work possible.

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