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Will Being an Engaged Mother Limit Your Career Trajectory?

November 01 2021 – Kathryn Wepfer

Nina Sawyer Wagner Headshot - working pumping mom interview

Nina Sawyer Wagner Headshot - working pumping mom interview

This mom shares her challenges prioritizing her time between work and family, and some sobering realizations about how being an engaged parent at home may limit the career trajectory for so many women.

Name: Nina Sawyer Wagner

Occupation: Chief of Staff, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities

Children: Son – age 3

Can you give us a sense for how long of a maternity leave you had, and how long you breastfed and pumped?

My son was a much awaited, much beloved baby, so I did my best to take as much time off from work as possible.  In my workplace it's customary to take three months, and I was able to squeeze in five and a half months of maternity leave. I had an expectation, probably from a pediatrician, that I should aspire to breastfeed for a full year, and I actually ended up breastfeeding a lot longer than that. I pumped until about a year, which was enough for me.

What drove your decision to breastfeed for an extended period?

It was all a bit accidental.  I had intended to stop breastfeeding, and when I stopped pumping around the year mark, we stopped giving my son breastmilk during the day. It was the nighttime that led me to continue breastfeeding for another year and a half because I had gotten into the habit of using nursing      to help get my son to sleep at night. No judgments for myself or others around how to get a child to sleep, and the easiest way to get my son to sleep as a baby and even as a two-year-old was to let him nurse, and then he’d fall right asleep. 

What was your job while you were pumping at work?

I've been working at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.  I work on defense policy issues and have done that for about 12 years.

From other women I’ve interviewed, it sounds like the Pentagon is a very supportive place to be a lactating mom.  Did you find that to be the case?

Yes, in terms of facilities.  It follows the legal requirements for large organizations, which require a certain number of locations to enable women to breastfeed.  I think the Pentagon has something like 10 pumping facilities throughout the building, connected to women's restrooms, and they provide hospital-grade pumps in those rooms.

The main thing that was wonderful about it was how the time I spent in the pump room everyday became a source of community, when I could connect with other pumping moms and get tips from them and share our experiences.

The main thing that was wonderful about it was how the time I spent in the pump room everyday became a source of community, when I could connect with other pumping moms and get tips from them and share our experiences.

Aside from the facilities, were you generally supported and able to integrate pumping into your daily work schedule?

I think there’s a passive support for it.  It's not a common condition, since there aren’t that many women working in the Pentagon, particularly breastfeeding women, so it does take some normalizing, and I was very aware of that at different points.  When I first returned to work, I felt like my work self was totally cracked open and I couldn't be the work self I was before I had a baby, so I had to try to figure out what my new work self was going to be.  That’s where the other women in the pumping room were so helpful because they helped me to recognize that I needed to team more, and I needed to be more vocal about boundaries and express my need to pump rather than sitting in a meeting for three hours in pain. They helped me process my new feelings during that stage and create a new perspective on how I would approach work.  It also gave me more courage when I eventually told my next two or three layers of bosses that I had to excuse myself to go pump.  It wasn’t working for me to just discreetly sneak away two times a day, so at some point I had to vocalize it.

When I first returned to work, I felt like my work self was totally cracked open and I couldn't be the work self I was before I had a baby, so I had to try to figure out what my new work self was going to be. 

Were there any other tips and tricks that you got from your pumping room community?

I think it was most helpful to chat with the women about how they were managing the pumping relative to their work – how to fit in the times away from work and then also leave on time to get home to their babies.  The reality is if you're coming in for an eight or nine hour a day and you're pumping for an hour and a half of that, then you can't work in quite the same way that you did prior to the baby, and you have to deal with those challenges. Those women were very helpful coaching me on how to articulate boundaries and other needs that I wouldn't have figured out as quickly without their guidance.

As you described, that process of reconciling your new identity as a mother with your previous identity as a professional can be so challenging.  How did you ultimately navigate integrating those parts of yourself?

It really shook me. There was nothing like it that affected me so much until I had a baby. I tried for years to not work so much, and I had been deliberate about trying to schedule time away from work, but there was nothing that shook me out of the daily pattern of prioritizing work over other areas of life until I had a baby, because it was so clear that if I overworked - and that happened when I first went back and was figuring things out - I would come home and my baby would be crying and really upset and it was an immediate signal that I messed up, so I would recalibrate.

I felt like breastfeeding was a huge feedback signal as well. I think many women feel hormonal and a desire to be with their baby, and similarly it was really hard for me to be away from my baby for the first couple months back at work.  I would try to pump fewer times to save time, but then I had to leave work at a certain time or my breasts would be very full with milk, so that was a big indicator telling me I needed to get out of there to feed my baby.  It was all very primal.

When I got closer to the 1-year mark, the feeling was less visceral, but required sort of a psychological reckoning. And even now, when my son is three, I’m still working on it.  I feel overworked sometimes and then I realize that it's having a negative effect on my son, so then I make adjustments.  It's a constant effort to work on that work-life integration.

Even now, when my son is three, I’m still working on it.  I feel overworked sometimes and then I realize that it's having a negative effect on my son, so then I make adjustments.  It's a constant effort to work on that work-life integration.

Your clearly enjoy the work that you do, and of course you adore your child, but do you ever feel resentful for having to make sacrifices in either area of your life?

They are so clearly qualitatively different - one is a child, a human being that expands your sense of self and your family and it's very immediate. The other is your job, and I realize they did fine without me for five months. If I disappear tomorrow, I hope they would miss me a little bit, but they'd be okay.  They're a large organization with a strong team ethos and the Department of Defense has a very strong mission focus, so things would be fine.

At the same time, I've devoted my education and my professional career to learning how to be good at my job, so it was hard to let go of the part of me that was meticulous about doing my job well as I defined it before I had a baby. And now, it's not resentment, it's more like there's a thing that I care about in my career that I contribute to this abstract sense of our country and creating security for my fellow citizens, and then there's this amazing, wonderful center of my life now in my child. It's not resentment of one or the other, it's more like a tension that you're not doing all the things that you want to do in your life at the same level of quality that you would like to do, and so you make compromises on the career side or the family side in order to fit them both. Overall, it's a joy to have a career that allows me to use my abilities to contribute in a bigger way to others, and then it's a joy to have my son, so it doesn’t have negative emotion around it, it just has tension around it.

It's not resentment of one or the other, it's more like a tension that you're not doing all the things that you want to do in your life at the same level of quality that you would like to do, and so you make compromises on the career side or the family side in order to fit them both.

When you think about the future of your career and your career goals, do you find that you've shifted your goals and/or how you advocate for yourself in the workplace now that you’re a working mom?

I think I'm more intensely aware after the baby of how structural challenges may limit what I will do in my career if I also prioritize my son. I'm aware that it's not just one or two jobs when my son is young when I can't work long hours and I can't travel at the drop of a hat - it could be multiple jobs or opportunities that I feel I can't take because I also need to be available to my son, and so I understand why societally the trajectory is that women hit a ceiling and very few women make it to the most senior ranks of any profession, and I realize now that so many women probably wrestle with these same choices. There's a long stretch when a child is young when they really need you - and I'm aware that it may shift as a child grows older - but I also know that I love him intensely and that I will always try to prioritize his needs, so I don't know what that looks like when he's 5-10 years older. I honestly don't know how it will play out, but I feel I don't have a lot of extra capacity right now. I know I've been deliberate about growing work skills, and I know I want to contribute in a professional way, but I don't know how that will look relative to my family.

I'm aware that it's not just one or two jobs when my son is young when I can't work long hours and I can't travel at the drop of a hat - it could be multiple jobs or opportunities that I feel I can't take because I also need to be available to my son, and so I understand why societally the trajectory is that women hit a ceiling and very few women make it to the most senior ranks of any profession, and I realize now that so many women probably wrestle with these same choices. 

Tell us about your partnership at home.  What’s the dynamic with your partner as new parents, and has your partner’s work life and career outlook been affected by becoming a parent?

One downside of breastfeeding in terms of maintaining a parenting partnership is that it meant I was the primary feeder for the entire first year. All of the feeding effort was on me, and that could be hard, particularly at nighttime. I think it sets up a difficult dynamic for the partner, because they want to be helpful and are trying to figure out how to do that, and yet it's so clear that the mama is the person from the baby’s perspective. 

I felt very physically connected to my child for months and months and even now, but especially when he was first born. I felt really attuned to him.  He had come out of my body and when he had needs and cried, I almost wanted to cry and I wanted to meet his needs, so it was very obvious to me that I needed to feed him. I know that was a very intense stage, and it probably became healthier in our co-parenting partnership after my son was a year old because then responsibilities could be better shared.  For instance, my husband is a great cook, and he tends to be the primary cook in our house, so once my son could eat solids, he could benefit from that. I feel like we started out with me being the primary parent, largely because of the feeding factor, and since then we’ve been navigating how to share the parenting responsibilities.

As you consider the future, what your hopes and dreams are for your son and your family?

I should mention my origin family - my parents - and how wonderful it is to see them as grandparents. I would love to have more shared life with them. They live in Alabama, so right now with the pandemic it’s especially hard to get together, but in the future, I would really like to have more shared family time for my son.

I would also like to feel that I'm able to continue contributing and growing professionally, taking on more responsibility while somehow prioritizing my family at the center of it all. I'm lucky that my mother worked, so I have a model in my head of somebody who was a professional and a mom. I remember as a child, some of the small sacrifices along the way when she wasn't able to attend an event or when she was late picking me up, but overall, I appreciate that she was an incredibly engaged parent and professional, and she gave me a sense of how to do that. Now I'm trying to do that as well so that ultimately my son will also see that he has a mother who loves him absolutely and is also successful in the world.  I want him to have that kind of role model.

 

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