I am one month into being back at work, and the wee one has turned 4 months old. Given the amount of times friends and colleagues have asked me about my return to work, accompanied by a concerned look, it’s pretty clear that the general understanding of when you go back “early” is that it's not easy and it’s out of the ordinary. A quick definition of “early” is required here: there is a difference between early (in relation to the generally accepted duration of maternity leave) and too soon. I went back when I was ready. The challenge has been breastfeeding around my work.
My workplace is ok: I have the option to work flexibly and there is a feeding / expressing room on campus should I need it. I’ve not needed it yet, because I have a private office space and I have a husband on shared parental leave bringing the wee one in to be fed during my breaks and at lunchtime when I am on campus. My daughter, one week after I returned to work, decided she didn’t want to take a bottle of expressed milk after all, which at the most dramatic point involved me having to leg it out of my office, into the passenger seat of the car as Mr B pulled in on the main road outside and shortly after whacking a boob out in a layby a few streets away whilst downing an M&S meal deal.
It was dramatic, it was quite funny and it’s an anecdote to pass on to friends and the wee one when she is older, but there is a serious other side to this beyond the legislative compliance of my employer and my own practical organisation around feeding my wee one. It is that however well planned your return and how accommodating your workplace is, babies are unpredictable.
My anecdote to friends, when they ask about what returning to work has been like, ends with this: the woman in the lay-by, wearing breastfeeding friendly work clothes, trying not to get mayo and breast milk all over herself and checking through emails on her phone isn’t the image we get in the breastfeeding literature. It certainly isn’t the image we get in the mainstream media, where the breastfeeding mother is generally found dressed in white, lying on a bed bedecked with white bedding. Search online for an image of a “breastfeeding group” and you’ll get a mass of photos of women knocking about in casual clothes, looking off duty. Google “breastfeeding working mum” and you get pages of half-comedic shots of mums holding babies over their laptops, usually in bed, wearing a business suit and heels whilst resting on those white sheets. None of it is realistic for the working mum, whose main considerations include no going over-time unexpectedly at work, because your boobs just can’t take it and never being more than two paces from a packet of baby wipes.
Further in my favour is that I have a good milk supply and I’ve not encountered any challenges directly related to the process of breastfeeding itself. What if I had struggled with my milk supply or any other of the predictable and unpredictable challenges breast feeding can pose? Where could I have gone for help? Well, for in-person support, the answer is nowhere, because as I have discovered, community breastfeeding support isn't set up for women who go back to work “early.” NHS and other services for breastfeeding new mothers work from the assumption that we are all off for an extended period and can wander along during the day for a chat. Sure, my employer would give me time off if I needed it but how many other women would be comfortable asking for time off? And then the question is, who would they meet as a peer supporter? A full-time working mum, a true peer, just like them?
I breastfed my older child until he was two. I’ve been asked to become a breastfeeding peer mentor, but how does a working full-time mum find time to be the mentor women like me desperately need? Training is during the daytime for a number of weeks and while the commitment for a peer mentor varies, some ask for two-three hours a week, at set times, in the local community. Breastfeeding mums like me who are back at work can’t do this. For working breastfeeding women, it’s helplines and online chat-only to solve breastfeeding challenges, despite research demonstrating how face-to-face support is hugely beneficial to breastfeeding mothers.
How to solve this issue? I would suggest breastfeeding cafes / group support in the evenings and weekends, training working mums like me for breastfeeding peer support in the evenings and at weekends and some funding to develop breastfeeding support groups in the workplace.