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How I returned to work as a senior manager and kept breastfeeding

This is my story about working and breastfeeding. I explore what it was like to return to work after having my first baby and continuing to breastfeed, the way my baby and I wanted and needed to.

I discovered that, particularly in parenthood, nothing ever really goes to plan and, in my industry of urban development, that flexible working and attitudes are deeply important to support all people in being part of teams that shapes our cities.

Image: One of those flexible work situations (Source: Unsplash)

A little backstory

My world changed in September 2018 when I gave birth to my wee daughter. I wasn’t prepared for it, and I don’t think any parent really ever is. I spent the following eight months rocking, singing, walking, reading, cleaning, cooking, drinking a heap of coffee, changing nappies, and breastfeeding – a lot. I returned to work, full time, when my daughter was eight months old and my husband became the primary carer. The plan was to express milk and bottle feed.

There was a slight glitch to this brilliant plan though. My daughter didn’t take a bottle and I felt huge anxiety about being away from her and not being able to breastfeed her, like we were used to.

Why is breastfeeding important?

Let’s take a step back and understand what breastfeeding is. Breastfeeding contributes to the health and wellbeing of mothers and babies, for those who are able to do it. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends babies are breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life and, along with complimentary foods, up to and beyond two years old.

Food and nutrition, including breastmilk, is a well-established, international human right. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) protects women from discrimination because of the responsibilities of motherhood.

So is working and breastfeeding a happy marriage? The norm in Aotearoa seems to be to return to work, armed with a pump to express and store breast milk throughout the day. Some people choose to or feel like they must wean their baby before starting back at work. I had all the things in place to facilitate breastfeeding – a comfy seat, locked room, a dedicated fridge and even mood lighting. And for that I knew I was privileged. But, expressing breastmilk didn’t work for me.

How returning to work and breastfeeding worked for me

I pumped breastmilk at work for a short time and it was a clumsy and sad experience for me. I found out that there are many intricacies to expressing, like that without the baby present there’s a lack of oxytocin to help with the flow of milk. I didn’t care for the admin that came with expressing milk, like labelling the milk and checking the room availability. I didn’t like being in a windowless room multiple times a day. For my daughter, she was anxious about not being able to breastfeed on demand. I wanted to parent in the way I wanted but continue to parent in the way I needed to at this stage of my baby’s life. How could I make it work?

Initially my husband brought our baby into the office multiple times a day to be fed or I worked from home. And yes, this was a mission for all of us. Once my daughter was in daycare, I spent part of the day in the office and visited her at daycare to breastfeed, working the rest of the day from home. I continued this whilst on a long-term secondment to a client office.

I kept up this pattern well into my daughter’s second year. It was hard and challenging and quite a muddle sometimes. With unquestioning support from my colleagues and a flexible culture and attitude I could work and breastfeed, without using pumps or bottles. It meant scheduling meetings or workshops outside of breastfeeding time. It meant keeping my workload to a manageable level, to reduce stress and continue milk supply. It meant having a baby in the office every now and then and people being okay with it.

Let’s keep the conversation going

This story is about supporting the conversation around breastfeeding, parenting and working. It’s about keeping women at the table in the urban development field, no matter their level of experience. It’s about being aware and open to people’s different needs and supporting that.

What is your experience of returning to the workplace after having a baby and breastfeeding?

Whitney Adam is a senior policy advisor at the Ministry of Transport in the urban development and placemaking team. She is keen to support and encourage women in the field of urban development. This article was written in 2019 before the Covid pandemic. It is recognised that working practices, such as working from home and flexible working hours, has evolved since the writing of this article.

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