This pumping mom shares how supported she felt working for a Canadian-headquartered company, and how her PhD in space optimization helped her become a travel-pumping ninja.
Name: Dr. Eleanor Kirtley
Children: Son, age 3
Occupation: Senior Program Manager at Green Marine
What was the timeline of your pumping experience?
My son was born in mid-October of 2016, and I went back to work after a three-month maternity leave just shortly after the new year. I pumped at work for a total of 10 months, which got us to about the 13-month mark.
What were your pumping conditions at work?
I pumped in an office where I had a little phone booth room available to me. It had a mini refrigerator, a small desk, outlets - pretty much everything I needed. It was maybe 12 feet away from my own desk. It was just about as convenient as it could have been. It was a shared space and toward the end of my pumping another woman started using the room as well. I should say that I work remotely for my company, so while I was renting another firm’s office space and had other people around, I didn't have my actual coworkers with me. I was pretty autonomous in setting my own schedule, and there was nobody there at the office asking me what I was doing in the pumping room.
What do you do for work and why is it important to you?
I manage an environmental certification program for the maritime industry, called Green Marine. I'm their senior program manager and based in Seattle, WA from where I support our membership across the US and Canada in implementing the certification program. I also manage an assortment of our work groups and committees to develop the certification criteria. It’s important to me because I love the environment, I love boats, and I love getting to work with people who are similarly passionate. I travel for work about once a month if not more, at least for a couple of nights, so a big part of my pumping at work experience was that I was also pumping on travel.
Was it different working through the maternity leave + return to work + pumping experiences for a boss and with co-workers who are Canadian? Did you find the company to be more supportive of those experiences?
Oh my gosh, absolutely. In Canada, moms get a whole year to stay home, and dads often take significant time off too. My company’s full-time day is just seven hours rather than eight, so there is much more of a value placed on work life balance. The fact that I came back after three months - a lot of people commented to me “I don't know how you do it.” I felt so grateful that I got three months and that my boss was completely supportive of my request for that time off. I always felt quite supported by my company in terms of my need for flexibility and my request to come back to work on a part time basis for the first month. Definitely, go Canada!
I always felt quite supported by my company in terms of my need for flexibility and my request to come back to work on a part time basis for the first month. Definitely, go Canada!
How did you prepare for the transition back to work and how did that go?
Ooh, the word overwhelming comes to mind. I remember feeling very fully utilized 24/7 on maternity leave with keeping a baby alive and feeling unsure how I would possibly continue to do that and do a full time job. I think we prepared for the transition by trying to line up a really great childcare team, which consisted of a nanny and some backup providers. I did end up finding that in going back to work, I really liked being able to mentally step away from my baby and have my own thoughts again for the first time in months, but my body was not ready to return to regular life at that point. It was definitely a lot, and I had to manage my own expectations of myself to understand that I potentially wasn't going to be as productive as I'd been in the past, at least in the beginning.
I did end up finding that in going back to work, I really liked being able to mentally step away from my baby and have my own thoughts again for first time in months, but my body was not ready to return to regular life at that point. It was definitely a lot, and I had to manage my own expectations of myself to understand that I potentially wasn't going to be as productive as I'd been in the past, at least in the beginning.
Can you talk more about your body not being ready to return to regular life?
I had always planned on nursing, but I didn't fully comprehend how much of a commitment it would be. For example, when we were trying to line up backup childcare, we explored getting an occasional night nanny to be able to catch up on sleep, but then I realized that it wouldn’t work because you still have to do night feedings if you’re nursing. As long as I was nursing, I was beholden to that supply and demand balance. And then I remember right after birth, they have you set up your postpartum appointment with your OB at six weeks, as if six weeks was this mark to end your postpartum period. And, that's a crock. It's not just like you graduated after six weeks. My kid is now three years old, and I would say it was maybe when he was around two years old that I finally felt like the physical effects of childbirth had abated.
It sounds like you had a supportive work environment, which is great! What was it like integrating pumping into your daily work life with those conditions?
I got to the point where for most of my pumping time I had an event for myself in my Outlook calendar at 10am and 2pm. After initially forgetting to pump at regular intervals, I was able to get into a pattern where I just knew to block off the time in advance, and I didn't schedule anything during those times. I would bring my laptop with me into the pumping closet so that I could keep working during that time, and I was able use the time reasonably productively. If I remember correctly, it was a solid half hour to bring all my stuff in there, get undressed and all connected, pump, and then undo the process. I would lug my little bag of milk bottles back and forth every day. I also had the benefit of having two pumps, so I didn't have to carry a pump back and forth.
When I traveled, I did look into like the milk stork service, but that wasn't something my company was going to pay for and it seemed pretty pricey. I ended up just managing with ice packs and a little cooler, and just so much logistical ninja-ing to make it work.
Let’s go deep into the ninja-ing for work. You seem to have really figured out everything you needed to do to make travel pumping work seamlessly. What were your secrets?
Oh yes, for sure. I made spreadsheets to plan out my approximate times of day to pump, accounting for time zones and for meetings that I was expected to attend, and to figure out how I’d have to likely modify my schedule to fit these two demands together. And then I estimated volume per pump, because you had to bring enough bottle storage capacity for all of that milk, and then I had identified the location of the refrigerators at each location where I needed to go, whether it was the bar at the hotel, or maybe I was staying at a friend's house.
There was one trip where I was headed to the east coast and TSA confiscated all my ice packs. I had my cooler, my ice packs, and my pump, but I didn't have any milk yet because I was just leaving home. The TSA folks said I couldn’t take them because they were considered a liquid, and I argued that the liquid was fully encapsulated in a hard plastic shell, but they said I had to throw it out. I got to the gate and immediately used Amazon Prime to order the same exact ice packs to be sent to where I was going, because I knew those ice packs would fit perfectly in my cooler. It was so frustrating.
I made spreadsheets to plan out my approximate times of day to pump, accounting for time zones and for meetings that I was expected to attend, and to figure out how I’d have to likely modify my schedule to fit these two demands together.
You seem to have analyzed every part of the process.
Yeah, the funny background here that I literally have a PhD in space optimization, and I applied that skill set to how to manage the packing, how to manage the logistics, and how to make it all work. In general, I found that society doesn't really understand the pumping mother and what she needs. The more that I could just be like, “Dude, this is what I need,” and make a specific, unashamed request, like to the bartender at the Hilton, I could get what I needed.
That is pretty amazing. For people who don't have a PhD in space optimization and who may not be so spreadsheet-inclined, what are your top tips for pumping while on travel?
Okay, those little plastic membranes for the pump valves - if you don't have those, the pump won’t work. They're cheap enough to have extras, so make sure you have backup membranes. I always had a sharpie marker with me to write the date on the little baggies, and the baggies are cheap, so just go ahead and get a bunch of baggies. Also, I had my pump in a backpack, which worked well for me to carry through airports. The airlines don't count a pump bag as a carry on, so it doesn't have to be your only carry-on, but again, if anybody ever questioned me about the extra bag, I'd be like, “IT’S FOR MY BREAST MILK!” really, really loudly, and they’d be like, “okay lady, just go.” I guess I’d say just plan ahead. I think when you make your needs well known and that it’s because you have this adorable, beautiful baby that you’re trying to accommodate, most people are fine with everything you need to do.
Any tips or favorite gear for pumping back at the office?
This is going to be the opposite answer to your question. My mother-in-law gave me this book that was about the fourth trimester and going back to work, and it had all these tips to make pumping easier. And I was like, yep, doing that. Yep, yep. Got it. Yep, doing that. And then I was like, NOPE, still not easy.
I will say one silver lining that came out of it. Generally, once you’ve bought into the nursing and pumping process, it doesn't take a willpower of steel to keep doing it. You just know you have to do it. I found more mental space, more mental comfort in that clarity, and a little silver lining that came out of it is the ability to step away from what I was doing. If I was at a conference or in a day-long meeting - I mean, who actually wants to be sitting in a meeting for 10 hours straight during the day? So it was actually good to be able to leave and find my way to that janitor's closet that was so kindly arranged for me, and take a break and pump and catch up on my email or touch base with the family. It forced those nice little breaks.
What about getting support from other people during that time whether it's from a nanny, friends, family, or your partner?
Oh definitely the friends. It was always good to be able to check in with other friends and other moms, and to just recognize that everybody has their ups and downs. There was the token mom who I knew where nothing fazed her, and she would bring her baby out tailgating for a football game. And then there was another mom, on the other end of this spectrum, who had a rough birth and she didn’t leave the house for three months, and it was just a very, very different experience. I came to really appreciate that no matter where we are, we're all just trying to do our best.
In terms of my partner, I think he was pretty open about, like, “I have no idea what you're going through. It looks tough, please let me know what I can do.” He's a problem solver guy. If he could have, he would have found a way to engineer a perfect solution for me. But that wasn’t an option, so he played a supporting role. And having our nanny made a big difference. Community was definitely important.
I came to really appreciate that no matter where we are, we're all just trying to do our best.
Is there anything that you did in those early stages of being a working mom to take care of yourself that you found to be really helpful for staying sane?
I think what has always been at the core of my health, and what contributes to both my physical and mental health, is running. You throw on your shoes and it's always there for you. I can put my kid in the running stroller and keep him fed with snacks, and that has been a 3-for win because I get to work out, I'm with my kid, and I'm outside getting a little bit of nature. I've given up going to a yoga class, but I have an app on my phone for that. I think I mostly just try to be kind to myself and adjust my expectations for myself and for others.
I think I mostly just try to be kind to myself and adjust my expectations for myself and for others.
How does your work make you a better mom?
I'm definitely a better parent because I have this sanity and fulfillment from my job. I had a week last summer where I was a stay at home parent for a week, and it was very affirming of the idea that I love my child more than anything, but what is best for my child and best for me is not for me to be home full-time with him. I think my work gives me balance and purpose, and I feel good knowing that meanwhile my child is well cared for by professional caretakers. And then when I am with my son, I can be more fully present, not having already exhausted my capacity for creativity and patience in caring for my now preschooler.