Expectations, Empathy, and Support from Working Mom Friends and Mentors
June 17 2022 – Kathryn Wepfer
Name: Lauren Bassi
Occupation: Educational Consultant
Children: Daughter – 5, Son – 2
Tell us a bit about your job:
Right now, I am designing a fellowship for aspiring school leaders. The goal of the program is to support educators who want to truly transform schools, reimagining the experience in service of equity of outcome and experience for all students. It is fun to be designing and thinking about how to do things differently.
Previously, I was a professor and administrator at a graduate school of education. I taught graduate students and I also ran a program with over 1000 apprentice teachers across the country as they learned the craft of teaching. My emphasis was on recruiting, developing, and supporting a diverse pipeline for this next generation of teachers.
What do you love about your work and how does it fuel you?
I think at my essence I am a teacher. It’s what is the most essential part of me. I love both teaching and learning with communities of folks, and in in particular, I love supporting folks in their journey to be the human that they want to be. I not only get to teach, but I get to teach how to teach - and lead. I get to talk about one of my favorite things, and I get to help a new generation of educators come into a profession that is often really hard in the beginning, and has relatively short tenures given the challenges. I help them learn the craft and think about the kind of educators that they want to be, so it is a nice fit of all the things I love.
When you were early in your career, did you know you wanted to have children? Is that something you factored into your career plans?
It was one of those things I always knew I wanted. Whenever I got into a new relationship, I would make it clear that I love children and I want to have a family and that my family is this essential part of who I am. I had a lot of health problems in my adolescence and in my 20s, including a massive ovarian tumor, so I actually thought I would probably not be able to have kids naturally. In the end, we got really lucky and I was able to get pregnant and carry children without a problem.
Did it ever seem like it would be impossible to have kids and fulfill your career objectives, or did you have the sense that the combination was something you could make happen?
I work in education, a profession dominated by women, so I’ve had a lot of mentors who had children before me. This means I saw a lot of women doing it, though I didn't see a lot of women doing it in a way that looked appealing. It just looked really hard. It seemed like they were working all of the time and they were exhausted - and they didn’t really seem like themselves. What I saw in front of me was that it was really hard to be good at your job, and to put in the hours that you're used to, and have kids and the complete life that you imagined. I went into parenthood with a lot of trepidation about how it would all work out for me.
What I saw in front of me was that it was really hard to be good at your job, and to put in the hours that you're used to, and have kids and the complete life that you imagined. I went into parenthood with a lot of trepidation about how it would all work out for me.
Was breastfeeding something that was important to you as a new parent?
I always planned to breastfeed my kids. There was lore in my family that my mom was unable to breastfeed my older sister, but was able to breastfeed me, and how important she thought it was for our bonding. She talked about it so much that it felt like a very important thing. I had kids later in life than she did, and so I saw lots of examples of nursing in front of me. I never expected I would end up being as crazy about it as I ended up being with the first kid. I expected that I wouldn’t obsess over it, but that is not what happened.
What was that initial breastfeeding experience like for you and your daughter?
I spiked a fever as I was in the pushing stage of labor, and there's a protocol that’s initiated when that happens - both the mom and the baby go on antibiotics. My daughter was fine and healthy, and we were able to bond for a while, but eventually they took her away to give her the antibiotics, and she didn't come back for a really long time. I think that meant we got off to a bit of a rough start.
I was very insecure about not knowing what I was doing, and I had a decent amount of trouble getting her to latch. I had trouble figuring out the different nursing holds. It also felt so strange and uncomfortable to me - the first time you don't know what it's going to feel like and I did not like it at all. And then my milk did not come in for a really long time - it took almost a full week. For the first couple of days of weigh-ins, the baby was losing weight and losing weight, and they finally said we needed to supplement until she and I figured out feeding. I took this as the most crushing defeat. I was sobbing. I could not believe it. In retrospect, I see that I was postpartum and my hormones were plummeting and it was just a moment that I was having - but I felt it as a great personal failure.
We had a lactation consultant come in on day four who showed me a lot of good tricks and taught me how to stimulate my milk supply. She advised me that if I was committed to breastfeeding, I should start pumping after every feed to increase my supply, so starting at day four I was pumping six or seven times a day. I would breastfeed and then I would get on the pump for 20 minutes. In retrospect, I see I was so obsessed with the idea of breastfeeding that I forgot about many other things that were very important, like my own sanity.
In retrospect, I see that I was postpartum and my hormones were plummeting and it was just a moment that I was having - but I felt it as a great personal failure.
Did you ever reach a point that felt really good with breastfeeding your daughter?
She and I eventually figured it out. We went in to see the lactation folks many times, and she ended up being pretty good with feeding – not great, but not terrible. And my milk supply eventually was okay - it turns out that if you pump six or seven times a day after you feed, your milk will increase. After doing that for two or three months, I had enough milk to go to work feeling like supply was not a problem.
How long did you take leave from work, and what was that process like returning to your job?
I had three months. It was interesting because I worked in a variety of places for my job - in an office, at home, and at schools across Chicago as I visited teachers in their classrooms. The first day back I went to the office and forgot half of the pumping parts. I tried to go to a Target next door to see if they had any parts and of course they didn’t, so I got through three hours of work and then had to go home.
The place where we shared office space was with another nonprofit, and I assumed they had other pumping mothers before me, so I walked in and asked about the pumping situation, mindful of the fact that we're a nonprofit sharing a space, and it's hard to be particularly picky. They said I could use the bathroom. I did for a couple days and it was so gross - and awkward! People would be waiting while I pumped because it was a single bathroom. It smelled, and I was just miserable. I talked to a friend who reminded me that it’s not legal to make someone use the bathroom to pump and that a workplace must offer a place to pump that’s not a bathroom. I went back to my boss and the building managers and ended up being giving access to a lovely room.
The other challenge of pumping was when I traveled to schools to meet with teachers. Most school buildings don’t have pumping spaces, so I would pump in bathrooms, my car, closets full of books or supplies, often next to the one other nursing mom in the building. I would pump in so many odd spots – just trying to make it work.
Other than pumping, how was your experience returning to work?
My daughter was born two weeks before the 2016 election, which was a rough time for me overall. My milk wasn't really coming in and I felt like I was failing. I struggled to care for my daughter. My husband is a baby whisperer, and I am not. He could soothe her so easily and I just didn’t get how. I struggled for the first six weeks of maternity leave. When my husband want back to work after his two week leave, I begged him not to go to work and would be upset if he was five minutes late coming home.
In retrospect, between the election and postpartum, I think I was just depressed and I didn’t have the tools to know what to do. By the end of the second month, I was in love with my daughter. At that point, we had more interaction and I was really getting something out of it. I had established a routine and I really did not want to go back to work when the time came. I had a pre-return check-in with my boss and I told her “I really don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can leave the baby. I don't even know if I can think anymore in the way that I used to think.” Her kids were older and she assured me I would be able to think, I’d get used to it, and it would all be okay. It was good to have someone recognize my feelings and provide some reassurance that I would come back to myself at some point.
I went back working 4 days a week for a while. I think it wasn’t until maybe six months into working that I really felt like I came back to myself. It took a while to feel like I was okay leaving my kid, and like I was the functional and talented person I knew myself to be, mostly because I was so tired.
Her kids were older and she assured me I would be able to think, I’d get used to it, and it would all be okay. It was good to have someone recognize my feelings and provide some reassurance that I would come back to myself at some point.
Do you recall anything in particular that precipitated your transition back to mental and emotional normalcy, or do you think you just needed time to get used to it?
I think it was a confluence of many things. It was summer at that point, and summer is a fun time to be a professor, because you have a new crop of teachers coming in. They're incredibly excited about the profession. They have not hit exhaustion, and so it's a fun, professional time that makes you feel alive. Also, I had done the pumping after every single feed sequence for seven months, and my husband actually had an intervention around that seven-month mark, telling me that all the pumping was too much, and that it was making me crazy and him crazy. He said I had a hard start - but overcame it! It was time to see that we weren’t struggling anymore and I had to cut back on the pumping and obsessing over supply. That was really helpful to hear. Once I let go of some of the pumping, I started sleeping more, and sleep is so important to everything in life, and in particular to feeling like your brain functions and you are stimulated and can engage in the ways that you want to.
I had done the pumping after every single feed sequence for seven months, and my husband actually had an intervention around that seven-month mark, telling me that all the pumping was too much, and that it was making me crazy and him crazy. He said I had a hard start - but overcame it! It was time to see that we weren’t struggling anymore and I had to cut back on the pumping and obsessing over supply.
And how long did you breastfeed and pump in total?
We made it a year, maybe a couple of weeks over a year. It was sort of silly because she was giving me all these cues that she was done feeding on me. Only when she was really tired would she nurse well. She bit me, she would turn her face away from me – she sort of weaned herself, but there was something in me that said I must make it to the 1-year mark. I think in the last month, I was almost exclusively pumping, just to hit my goal.
How was breastfeeding and pumping with your son?
He and I had a totally different breastfeeding relationship. He had a good latch from the beginning and we just seemed to hit it off. My milk came in much faster and more easily. I remember a lactation consultant came into our room while we were at the hospital and she remarked “you two just look so happy together,” and it was true. During my maternity leave I could actually appreciate the moment that I was in. My daughter was off at daycare, so it was just me and my son and we would nurse, and then we would nap together, over and over, and it was lovely. And so markedly different than my first leave.
When I went back to work, the nature of my job had changed a bit, I was working entirely from home. I could pump or go upstairs and nurse him, so I did less pumping. He and I just had a better rhythm, and feeding wasn't a focal point or an obsession the way it was the first time. That’s not to say it was easy. I remember telling friends that I had no intention of obsessing about nursing this time around and then texting them in the middle of the night in tears. My husband wasn’t taking feeds - mostly because I wouldn’t let him - and I was exhausted. I didn’t need to pump with my son the way I had with my daughter because I didn’t have a production problem - but I could also feel a palpable dread about returning to pumping life once I went back to work. But in general, I look back on my leave with him as a very happy time for the two of us.
How long did you breastfeed and pump with your son?
My son turned six months at the beginning of the pandemic. At that point I had a three-year-old and a six-month-old, and they both needed us in very different ways. When everything shut down, my husband and I made a schedule where one of us would work from six in the morning until noon while the other person did the childcare, and then we would switch from noon until six in the evening, before jointly limping our way until bedtime. When I had only six hours to work, stopping to do the pumping and then wash all the pump parts started to feel impossible. The pandemic was also a moment of deep anxiety for me. Between less time for pumping, my son not being able to nurse around my daughter because he couldn’t focus, and my general anxiety - my supply decreased. Quickly. I was with my son more than ever, but the world had shifted and suddenly I had a lot of trouble producing. I’d pump and only an ounce or two would come out.
Luckily, I have a friend who I've known since high school, who has two kiddos around the same age as mine - she was finishing up pumping with her second and was just over producing. She was donating excess milk because she had too much for her freezer space. With my first kid, I probably would have felt bad accepting milk from her because I would have felt it meant that I wasn’t able to do it for my kid, but with my second, I was more than happy receive her milk. She would leave boxes of milk on my doorstep, and that helped us make it to about nine or ten months while he and I would do light morning and evening nursing.
When everything shut down, my husband and I made a schedule where one of us would work from six in the morning until noon while the other person did the childcare, and then we would switch from noon until six in the evening, before jointly limping our way until bedtime. When I had only six hours to work, stopping to do the pumping and then wash all the pump parts started to feel impossible.
Did you return to work around three months again?
Yes, and the second time around, it did not feel like going back to work was impossible. I certainly missed our naps and our nursing, but I didn't have that feeling of “I can't do this, I can't perform, or I'm not even able to sit anymore, how will I keep thinking” the way I felt the first time.
What were your go-to pumping supplies?
The first lactation consultant recommended renting a hospital grade pump if I was going to be serious about pumping often and boosting my supply. It was ridiculously heavy, and it could never go anywhere, but when I would pump at work using my travel pump, I could definitely feel the difference in capability, so I was wild about that.
I also had a couple of nursing plus pumping bras and tanks, which were really great because I felt like as long as I was wearing one, and I was always prepared whether I wanted to nurse or pump or do both in a single day. I think finding a pumping bra that brings you joy and doesn't look ridiculous, but also lets you live your life handsfree while you're pumping is clutch.
What support systems were essential for getting you through the postpartum period?
In some ways, being one of the last people in your friend group to have babies is a lovely thing because you have access to people who know all these things you don't know yet. When you have a question, there's a lot of people who can weigh in and share their experience. I was really lucky that I had this army of text message friends where when something came up, they would tell me what to do and send me support.
I also had a wonderful boss who was great about putting things into perspective and sharing her stories with vulnerability. I remember being with her someplace where we were desperately trying to find me a place to pump. I was sitting on the ground in a book closet in a school, pumping next to another teacher who was pumping so much more milk than I was, which was sort of my eternal fear that everyone else was doing this better than I was. I felt so discouraged when I first came out of that pumping closet, and my boss said to me, “You’re doing this amazing thing for your daughter. Anytime it no longer feels like the right thing for you and your family, that's okay.” It was so nice to feel like my experience was seen by my friends that I built over the years, and also by these badass women I worked for who had been there before.
It was so nice to feel like my experience was seen by my friends that I built over the years, and also by these badass women I worked for who had been there before.
What would be your education industry-specific advice to folks who want to integrate pumping into their daily work lives in an industry where there’s a lot of structural challenges to navigate?
What I say to people in teaching is that you're not crazy, it is a very hard job for pumping. It was hard when I often had to leave the house before my daughter was awake, so I couldn't do my morning feed. It's often hard to get the space that you need and the supplies that you need, and even when those things are in place, depending on the school you work in, there can be varying levels of understanding and acceptance.
I remember doing some pump sessions at a school where I had breast milk in the fridge that I had pumped. One of the folks who worked at the school was cleaning the fridge and found my milk in there and said it was a bodily fluid and a hazard and threw out three bags of milk, just for total lack of understanding.
I do think that in teaching, and really anywhere, being upfront about your needs before you come back is critical so you're not in the position of not knowing how it's going to work. If I could advise anything, it would be to be very clear about the things you need and to name them specifically. If you need a space to pump, let that be known, along with the details of what exactly you need in the space, like a place to wash your pumping equipment or store your milk. It can feel like an awkward space to be in, but when you do it in preparation for coming back, it’s going to put you at ease, and they're going to feel like they are supporting you, which people want to do, they just often don't know how to do it.
It can feel like an awkward space to be in, but when you do it in preparation for coming back, it’s going to put you at ease, and they're going to feel like they are supporting you, which people want to do, they just often don't know how to do it.
What are your hopes for integrating your work life and your family life going forward, now that you’re out of the postpartum stage?
In the same way that I knew I always wanted to be a mom, I also always knew I wanted to work. And not only is it not practically an option for me to not work, I feel like it is a huge part of who I am and what I contribute. And so, my hope for me and for everybody, particularly after these two years of pandemic, is that it just gets a little bit easier. I don't need it to be a lot easier. It feels important that I show my daughter the kind of woman she can be - a fulfilling job, control of her own destiny, meaningful friendships and a support ecosystem, a real sense of self and a room of one's own. And all of that is hard to do and balance. It just is. But it is my hope that it's a little bit easier for me and for everybody to integrate these parts of our lives.
I hope that having a schedule that ends at five or three or whatever time it is for you – that it’s not seen as you not doing your best or not pulling your weight, but that it’s more about a mentality of “I’m damn good at what I do and I will do it in the hours that work for me and for my family.” I want everyone to have that gift of feeling the professional confidence to make the schedule what they need it to be.
That’s what I'm hoping my new role gives me - more flexibility to spend time with my kids when it makes sense. If we want to go to the zoo for a half day or what have you, I want to be able to do that. I also very much want to work in places that see all parents and give them that flexibility, and as a manager, I want to give that gift to other people. I think there's a lot that we could do to make it easier for people who want to both work and be great parents, and I hope that in my industry in particular we can find a way to do this, otherwise we're going to keep losing educators. It's my ultimate goal to be the kind of professional and educator who is going to help people do that.