August 07 2020 – Kathryn Wepfer
This attorney navigated two maternity leaves with different employers, returned to work and won cases for her clients, and then made the tough decision to leave her job to parent full time.
Name: Michelle Rueda-Roberti
Children: 2 Daughters, ages 6 and 3
Occupation: Former attorney, current Full Time Parent
How old are your kids, and did you breastfeed and pump with both of them?
My oldest is six, and my youngest is three. I breastfed both girls.
I stayed home with my oldest for about four months. She was exclusively breastfed for 10 or 11 months. I pumped for her entire first year of life. The day she turned one, I stopped pumping completely. After eight weeks of maternity leave, I went back to work for a month to finish out a fellowship I was doing. That month was great. I was working for an all-women nonprofit and they gave me the flexibility to work from home, so it was very simple and I didn’t really have any issue pumping. It was actually very fun.
The job I took after the fellowship was with another nonprofit providing immigration legal services to underserved populations. When my younger daughter was born I took 6 months of maternity leave and then returned to my same fulltime job. I pumped until she was almost 8 months old.
Tell us more about your work:
Since law school I’ve worked at nonprofits, where I worked with low income populations on immigration issues. I worked on humanitarian immigration matters, helping people who are in need of asylum, working with victims of gender violence or human trafficking, families who have been separated, and children who are in the U.S. on their own. My work helps vulnerable populations, and many of my clients have been women.
It's a demanding job that drains your brain and emotions. These vulnerable populations - most of their stories are pretty horrific - things that I could never ever relate to regardless of any hardship I've had in my life. It doesn't even compare.
How did you approach pumping at work?
Well, I was working at a nonprofit fighting for equal rights for a lot of people. I felt that pumping should be very normal in that type of environment, so I just told them that I needed to pump three times a day, and they said no problem. There was a little room in the bathroom that was separate, so I would go in there and close the door and pump. I carried my pump and supplies every day until I got smart and realized how much easier it would be to get a second pump to keep in my office. Once I got in the habit of pumping it felt very second nature to me, and I started bringing work into the pumping room, and that worked well.
What was your biggest frustration with pumping?
My clothes and bra were a problem. I wore my nursing bra, but that was a pain because I had to take off my shirt and change my bra. Eventually I said screw it and decided to wear my pump bra to work, which isn't exactly the best bra to be wearing all day long, but I was trying to figure out how to be most efficient. It certainly didn’t look good with a lot of shirts, but I stopped caring. I just tried to wear looser shirts so you wouldn’t notice the pumping bra seams and cutouts.
How was the pumping experience different for you the second time around?
With my second daughter my pumping experience was very different. I had taken on more responsibility at work by the time I went on my second maternity leave, and I put a lot more pressure on myself when I returned to work. The added challenge of pumping felt much more stressful the second time around, even though I had the same accommodations and support from my job. I was even able to use someone's office a few times a week, so I could get more work done while pumping, but it all just felt more burdensome the second time – setting up the equipment, taking off my shirt, cleaning everything after I pumped - all of it.
The added challenge of pumping felt much more stressful the second time around, even though I had the same accommodations and support from my job.
The clothes really became a difficult thing for me as well for my second time pumping. I felt uncomfortable wearing all those loose shirts and I was frustrated that I couldn't dress the way I wanted to. I think I was also frustrated that I was losing the weight much slower than I did the first time around, so I felt uncomfortable with my body. It all became a pain. In theory it should have been easier and more efficient, but I was just annoyed with it all. I remember one day I was pumping when I found out that I won a super hard case which I had worked on for a long time, and my reaction wasn’t one of happiness. Instead I just felt like “I hate this.”
I tried dropping to two longer pump sessions a day to save time, but then my supply started dropping. Around the same time I had to get a medical treatment and take a medication that goes into the bloodstream, so I pumped and dumped while I took the medication, which turned out to last for about 6 weeks. It was really hard on my daughter, because she kept trying to breastfeed, but I couldn’t. When the treatment was done, I decided I couldn’t keep pumping. I was very stressed with work and said no more, for my own sanity. That was around eight months. Once I decided to stop, somehow it all clicked and my daughter was fine. She never tried to breastfeed again. Once I stopped breastfeeding, I gave all my pumping things away immediately. I just wanted to get rid of it all.
That’s interesting that your experiences were so different with each child:
The second time around was just so stressful. It was a lot of self-imposed pressure on my end to be supermom - super lawyer and super wife/mom with two kids. I think that’s what ultimately led me to be so stressed and to eventually quit my job. And the constant logistical challenges of fitting pumping sessions into your day, of always having the pumping equipment, of being dressed properly.
Honestly for the first three years after my first daughter was born I felt like I dressed like a typical mom and I couldn't wear the kind of clothes I generally like to wear. My regular clothes didn’t work for pumping, and what I saw out there for pumping I didn’t like, so it was just one more thing that was dissatisfying on top of the stress of having a baby and being a working mom.
It was a lot of self-imposed pressure on my end to be supermom - super lawyer and super wife/mom with two kids. I think that’s what ultimately led me to be so stressed and to eventually quit my job.
Was there anything in particular from your wardrobe that you missed, or was it more the general aesthetic that you missed?
It was a bit of both. I missed the overall style of my clothes and being able to feel like a professional with some sense of style. Dresses were the thing I hated wearing and yet missed the most because they just didn't work for pumping. I love wearing dresses, but none of my dresses accommodated pumping, and I couldn’t find any nursing dresses that I liked.
Is there anything that you needed to have in place in order to have a good transition back to work?
I think one of the things that helped me keep my sanity was that as I was getting ready to return to work I started reading my work emails on my phone and paying a little bit more attention to what was going on at the office and in the field of immigration law in the news.
I wish I had better mental preparation to return to work with both girls. I don't know exactly what that would have involved - maybe doing some yoga or doing some work at home, or maybe having some alone time to myself to gather my thoughts. I felt like my life was very chaotic at that stage – mostly in my head – and so I think having some mental space to really understand what I was about to get into would have been helpful, especially the second time around, when I just assumed things would go the same as they had when I went back to work the first time.
With my second daughter I thought “I've done this before, it’s going to be okay. Let me go back to work. I’ll pump. I’ll come home, be with the kids, cook dinner, tidy up the house. It will be just like it was the first time.” Then I realized that it wasn't at all the same. I felt overwhelmed at work and overwhelmed at home. I don't think I had mentally prepared myself for how it could be different and assessed how our lives would change by having a second child.
Did you consider returning part time?
Part of me wishes I had transitioned back to my job more slowly the second time around. I had the opportunity to return at 80% time, but I knew it was unlikely that I’d actually work fewer hours, and I’d get paid less, so I decided to go back full time right away. I think in an ideal world I would have transitioned over a one-month period by starting two days a week for a week, then three days a week, then four days a week, and then back to five days a week. That’s not possible in every workplace, but I think that would have made the transition easier, especially with the pumping. I also wish I had just asked, since my job was very supportive of working moms, so I think we could’ve found a good way for me to come back. It just takes time to figure out all the logistics and get your brain working that way again, especially in those first few months when you’re so sleep deprived. The exhaustion affects your work and affects you mentally.
I think in an ideal world I would have transitioned over a one-month period by starting two days a week for a week, then three days a week, then four days a week, and then back to five days a week.
Any can't-live-without pump supplies, or time saving tips around pumping at work?
I think the bra was huge. I ruined a lot of bras, but I was hard on them because I didn't want to waste my time. I recommend either a better bra to make it easier to start pumping, or clothes that are easier to partially take off, because taking off your shirt entirely takes more time. Taking off that shirt and hanging it up and then putting it back on was just one more added thing I had to do, and I didn’t want to waste any precious time. What I started doing was pulling my shirt up and letting it hang around my neck like a necklace down my back, which was annoying, but it was generally the best method for what I wore most days. What I really wanted was something that made me feel like myself and a little bit stylish and professional, but that could easily be maneuvered for pumping, either by pulling down or partially pushing to the side. And I didn’t want to wear a typical gathered nursing shirt every day of my life.
If I had to do it again I’d probably try a cordless pump so I didn’t have to take time out to pump. I have a friend who used one and she would wear it in the cab on the way to work. I think it would have made me more efficient.
What I really wanted was something that made me feel like myself and a little bit stylish and professional, but that could easily be maneuvered for pumping, either by pulling down or partially pushing to the side.
What was your partner’s role in your transition and pumping experience?
My husband’s job is really demanding and after our second, he began travelling a lot, typically with little notice, so that was a challenge for our family, and it was no different when I was transitioning back to work. Because of the unpredictability of his schedule, I didn’t want to rely on him for those daily family tasks as much as he probably wanted me to, and I think it was more stressful for him to be honest. He wanted to help me a lot more and I didn’t always ask for the help.
He was really supportive when I was struggling with pumping at work and the decreased supply due to the medication I was taking, and he helped me accept the fact that it was better for me to just stop breastfeeding. He helped me see that it wasn’t a failure and that our younger daughter would be just fine if we switched to formula. His support for my decisions made a huge difference.
I also got a lot of help at home from our nanny, who was great, and from family, so we were able to get all the household and family stuff done.
When did you decide to leave your job?
I quit my job when our youngest was nine months old. I did some of my best work after I returned from maternity leave the second time, but I didn’t feel like I was doing a good job at work or at home. When I had gone back to work the first time, the work was also mentally draining, but it was so rewarding for me. It felt better than being at home, I think because I didn’t know what I was doing with my first. I knew how to do my job, but I didn’t have any experience with a baby. It was just different once I had two kids.
I feel like being at home with the girls is so much more rewarding for me now, even though it's a very hard job. Sometimes it feels like there are more bad days than good days, but I feel like what I'm doing is so much better.
Do you miss working?
I go back and forth. I started volunteering with my old job last summer and ran into a former client of mine whose case was heartbreaking. I had worked very hard on her case, and it took a really long time to reach a resolution, but we got the outcome she needed. When she saw me she screamed and was so excited, telling me “I think about you every day and I pray for you, because you gave me my life back.” We both cried as she told me about her children and her job and how she’s finally free from her abusive husband.
The work is hard, but it’s also very uplifting for me in so many ways. I volunteer there once a week now and I love it. I don't like to say that at work I'm using my brain, because it implies that I don’t need to use my brain to raise my kids and I think that’s an unfair perception of stay at home moms. When I work, I like to think that I'm doing something completely different that is just as challenging as being at home fulltime. I don't think being a lawyer is more challenging than being a mom to my kids. My volunteer work is a good challenge that complements the challenge of being a mom, and that fits into my life right now.
I don't think being a lawyer is more challenging than being a mom to my kids.
Do you think you’ll eventually return to fulltime work outside the home?
Well, I'm very fortunate that I can decide if and when I return to fulltime work.
I think about returning all the time and on principle I want to have a job. I hate the fact that my husband is financially responsible for all of us, even though it's not like if I have a job I would contribute much financially to our family because it's not a high paying job. I made a conscious choice to work for nonprofits and earn less than at other jobs I could have had, which is something that not a lot of people have the privilege to do. Similarly, I’m fortunate that I don't have to go back to work. To be honest it might cost a little more to have me go back to work with the added childcare cost. It would also be more stressful for the whole family in some ways, because our life has gotten a lot smoother since I’ve been at home full time.
Seeing that client last summer was such an eye-opening experience for me. It really showed me that I genuinely did something that was amazing. I loved my work, but I also love being with my kids right now. Almost every day I think about whether I want to go back to my job, or basically work for my family for the rest of my life. We’ll see how I feel in three years when both girls are in school full time, though I do suspect that if I don't go back to work sooner, then I will probably just not return to work. I lost my mom so early in life. I was in my 20s. I think that plays a factor in how I want to spend my life, and I feel like I want to get as much time with my kids as I can.
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