July 12 2021 – Kathryn Wepfer
Early feeding challenges led this mom to feel inadequate, but when she adopted a “fed is best” mentality both she and her baby started to thrive. This balanced perspective enabled her to pump on the road for four months for her second child, exceeding her own expectations.
Name: Ose Parlee
Occupation: Senior Manager – Global Innovation, Deloitte Consulting
Children: Daughter – 5, Son - 3
Tell us your basic journey of returning to work and pumping with each of your kids:
With both my kids I was very fortunate to have 6 months of maternity leave. My daughter was premature, and the entire milk production experience, including pumping, was rough. I nursed her while also supplementing for six months. By the time I returned to work I was already finished with nursing and pumping. I had tried to pump to build up a supply for when I would return to work, but my milk never fully came in, and it just wasn’t enough. I never expected it would be so hard. You think it's so natural that you just had a baby, and the feeding part will just happen too, but that’s not always the case.
With my son, I exclusively breastfed and nursed him for 10 months. I started pumping a bit before I returned to work so I could build up a supply, and then when I returned to work, I went back to a job where I was traveling each week. I would fly out every Monday and return on Thursday for my first four months back at work. It got harder and harder to keep up that schedule while also trying to perform my best at work, and so by 10 months I stopped. I was at a point where I had enough supply for another two months, which would get him over the year mark if he had one bottle of breast milk a day, and the rest was supplemented. As long as he had some breast milk for the day, I felt good.
I never expected it would be so hard. You think it's so natural that you just had a baby, and the feeding part will just happen too, but that’s not always the case.
What do you do for work and why is it fulfilling for you?
I’ve worked in consulting for the last 8 years with the same firm. I started my career as an engineer, and then got an MBA and went into consulting. I love the field because I’m a forever learner. Each project is different, and the work provides a wealth of learning opportunities. Both engineering and consulting are about solving problems, and I love the impact I can make on a client by finding solutions to their problems.
Since I had my son, I’ve transitioned to a virtual role where I work on the firm’s global innovation strategy. As much as I loved my prior role, I knew that I wanted to get off the road so I could spend more time with my kids.
What was it like pumping on the road and while you were at client sites? How did you make it work?
That four months of travel was all for one client, so I repeated the same process each week. I got a hotel that was across the street from the client’s office so I could easily slip away and pump. Then after about three weeks, I built up a relationship with one of the female executives and she gave me access to their wellness room where I could pump onsite.
I would do five pumping sessions a day. The first was in the early morning before heading to the client site, then an early lunchtime pump, a mid-afternoon break pump, an evening pumping session while I wrapped up work for the day, and finally a middle of the night session.
How did you manage the milk while you were away?
I froze the milk bags in the hotel’s kitchen freezer. The hotel wasn’t able to provide a freezer in my room, but they were happy to keep my cooler of milk in their main kitchen freezer. Every night they would bring out my cooler bag and I would add my stash from that day.
My company pays for a breastmilk shipping service and I signed up for it, but I never used it. I ended up just traveling with it myself. It was a little bit of a hassle going through TSA because they always had to manually check the milk, but I budgeted the extra time. There was just something about it being liquid gold, and I came to really love the feeling of coming home to my son with my stash in hand.
Were your colleagues supportive of your pumping breaks?
They were. At that time, all of my colleagues were men. I told them about my pumping plans before I started on the project, and then I blocked out time on my calendar. I also told the female executive who was my main point of contact at the client site, and she was very supportive as well.
Were the folks at your hotel supportive?
They were. I started by bonding over motherhood with a female employee at the hotel, and explained how important it was for me to be able to produce a bit of milk to take back for my son. I explained how critical it was for the milk to be frozen so I could travel with it safely through TSA at the end of the week, and how much they could help me with the process. When they couldn’t accommodate my request for a freezer in my room, they made arrangements to store my closed cooler of milk in their freezer. I tried to make it as easy for them as possible so it wasn’t a hassle and I could get what I needed from the arrangement.
What was it like returning to work on the road after being with your children for six months?
It actually wasn’t that hard for me. The interesting thing is that after I had my daughter, I transitioned to a virtual role for the year between the births of my kids, which allowed me to still be intellectually challenged while being with my daughter. That meant for my first transition back to work I returned to a work-from-home situation, which was a bit of an adjustment for me. I missed the work I had been doing on the road, but I also loved the opportunity to do something a bit different. While working virtually, I got to commercialize an artificial intelligent platform and lead the global operations, standing up a delivery center in Bangalore that I managed. It was different, but equally challenging, and led me to my current role.
When I returned to traveling after my son’s birth, I enjoyed my work, but after a few months on the road I started to feel like the arrangement wasn’t fair to my son, so I started looking for another virtual role, which is how I got to my current job. I had to sacrifice by taking this most recent virtual role and slowing down my career trajectory, but I wouldn’t ever take back my decision. The moments spent tucking my kids in every night are priceless.
Do you see a way to return to the career growth you want without having to return to a role with significant travel?
Yes. Despite the change, I am still growing intellectually with the work I’m doing, which is commercializing and scaling innovative products across geographies and businesses. I’m working with a broader portfolio of technologies across more projects, functions, businesses, industries, and geographies, so the breadth of knowledge that I am exposed to has exponentially increased. I think that the skills I’m building now will ultimately help me get to where I want to be in the future.
What support systems have you relied on as a working mom with young children?
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of family and childcare support.
When I returned to work after my daughter’s birth and I was working in a virtual role, our apartment building was connected to my office building, which also had a daycare on the main floor. We were living in Michigan at the time and that arrangement was great because I could drop off my daughter at daycare, go back to my home office, or even pop into the firm’s office all without going outside in the snow during the winter. I could stop by the daycare and check in on my daughter during the day if I wanted. Some of the daycare staff would occasionally babysit on the weekends so my husband and I could have date night. That was great.
After my son was born, my husband’s parents moved from the east coast and got an apartment in our building. It was such a blessing because I was on the road, so the kids could get dropped off with their grandparents, who would watch them or do the daycare runs. They were with us for two years and it was such a big help.
At that point we moved to Texas, and now my parents typically stay with us for six months out of the year, and then they return to Nigeria for six months. Right now with the pandemic they’re stuck here for the time being, which is another blessing given the challenges of Covid.
That support sounds amazing. How else has your day-to-day been affected by the pandemic?
Over the past two years in Texas we've had an au pair that lives with us, although with Covid we lost that source of childcare, so my parents are helping since they’re here for an extended period. They’re older and I can’t just drop the kids off with them for the whole day, so we’re trying our best to make childcare coverage work. My parents-in-law are planning to move from Boston to join us here in Texas, and that would just be the icing on the cake!
My folks usually watch the kids in the mornings, which are the busiest times for me with conference calls and work meetings. I’m also starting my workday earlier so I can get an early break to make dinner, and then resume later in the evening after the kids are in bed. My husband has very irregular shifts at the hospital, so he watches the kids during daytime hours when he’s not working. We're just doing our best to coordinate schedules and make it all work right now.
I’d say outside of these unusual Covid circumstances, we have great help between the au pair and my parents, and my sister drives up regularly to hang out with us and to help with the kids. We’ve been very fortunate.
Has it been easier to manage childcare now that your daughter is old enough to attend school?
My daughter’s school is across the street from our house and it literally takes us two minutes to drop her off in her classroom. My husband and I hate commuting and we’ve always tried to find living situations that will minimize our commutes. We’re currently five minutes away from the hospital where my husband works, I work from home, my daughter’s school is across the street, and my son’s daycare is two blocks away.
I really wanted my son to have some opportunity to socialize with other kids, and so he goes to daycare for three half days a week. This also allows our au pair to work some evenings, which means my husband and I can have a regular date night.
It sounds like you’ve been able to arrange a really solid support system for your family.
It’s all about mental health. We’ve been really focused on where we want to spend our time, so we ask for help from our family and try to outsource things as much as possible.
Were there any pumping supplies or gear that you found to be particularly helpful?
With my daughter I bought one pump and just assumed all pumps were the same. With my son, I did a lot more research and bought two other pumps, one for at home and a smaller one to take on the road with me. I found these other pumps to work a lot better for me. I also invested in extra pump parts the second time around so I would never be stranded without a part I needed.
The other thing I remember is that I had a lot of maternity clothes, but I didn’t really have anything for nursing and pumping afterward. Once I started working, that's when the issue arose. I needed to spend as little time as possible with the logistics and get straight to the pumping, and I just didn’t have the clothes to support that process. I remember talking to my husband about it and realizing I wasn’t wearing anything but button-downs. I wished I had some other options that were business formal and yet pump-friendly.
Bottom line is it’s hard to squeeze in a pumping session in under 30 minutes, so for me, I just planned out all the people I had to talk to or make friends with in order to get everything to work for me and pumping. Stakeholder engagement, I guess!
The other thing I remember is that I had a lot of maternity clothes, but I didn’t really have anything for nursing and pumping afterward. Once I started working, that's when the issue arose. I needed to spend as little time as possible with the logistics and get straight to the pumping, and I just didn’t have the clothes to support that process.
How did you get your healthy perspective about feeding and breastfeeding versus formula?
I struggled and I felt inadequate with my firstborn - so inadequate. I remember my milk didn't come in and I pumped and I pumped and I pumped. I had to exclusively pump the first few weeks while she was in the NICU, and she had to have supplementary formula, there was just no way around that. I remember when my colostrum came in the night of her birth after hours of continuous pumping. There were two drops and I asked my husband to rush the drops to our daughter in the NICU at the other end of the hospital. Years later, he finally admitted that those two drops dried out in the syringe on the way to the NICU, but he couldn’t tell me at the time because he knew how excited I had been and how disappointed I would have been if he had told me.
It was such a disheartening experience, but I was determined. There were nights of me just crying while she was crying, and then my husband would gently suggest we give her some formula. At that point, I was all about giving her my antibodies through the breastmilk, and, being a type A perfectionist, it was really hard to let go and adopt a mindset that would serve me better. It’s not that I had a healthy perspective from the beginning. For me, seeing her thrive with supplemental formula while giving her the bit of breastmilk I was able to produce – maybe one or two meals worth – that changed my perspective. She had been under weight and started to lose weight, and then with supplements she started to gain weight and thrive, and that was a relief. I wanted to do what was best for my child, so I had to just shut out the noise and remember that everyone has their own journey. Don't let anyone judge you, and don't care about what other people think. You're the best advocate for your child, and “fed is best” – that was what I ended up changing for myself.
For me, seeing her thrive with supplemental formula while giving her the bit of breastmilk I was able to produce – maybe one or two meals worth – that changed my perspective. She had been under weight and started to lose weight, and then with supplements she started to gain weight and thrive, and that was a relief. I wanted to do what was best for my child, so I had to just shut out the noise and remember that everyone has their own journey.
Was that group of women already a part of your life or did you form a bond over that shared experience of early motherhood?
I had an amazing support group of women from business school who were all mothers and who were all going through a similar experience at the time. We had conversations around the “fed is best” mentality and would cheer each other on. I’ve always said it takes a village, and it does take a village to get you the mental strength you need in that situation.
I also joined some other mom groups and support groups that promoted “fed is best.” I think you can find any support group you're looking for on Facebook to help emphasize whatever your mantra is, and you can find a group for your experience. If not, you can always start one! At the time, it was almost necessary to see that other people were going through the same struggles as me, and to hear other people tell you that you're doing your best and encourage you to keep going – that was priceless.
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