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How to Support New & Expectant Moms in the Workplace 

click to enlarge A new Mamava pod at UVM - SALLY MCCOY
  • Sally McCoy
  • A new Mamava pod at UVM

My partner, Stephanie, and I welcomed our second daughter, Penelope, in October 2018. At that point, we had been parents for more than two years and had acclimated to the world of sleep deprivation, diaper changes and never-ending piles of laundry. The addition of another child to our family was certainly a transition, but we felt fairly equipped to manage most of the stressors inside our home.

Outside of the home, though, the stressors were a bit more challenging to manage for Stephanie. One of the biggest ones was the experience of being a new mother in the workplace.

Prior to Penelope's birth, Stephanie had learned that her office at the University of Vermont would be moving to a building on campus without a private space for pumping breast milk, something she would need to do two to three times a day for approximately one year.

"I attempted to advocate for myself, but as time went on, it became clear to me that a designated space wasn't likely to happen," Stephanie told me recently. "Instead, I made my own adjustments, using private offices when available or walking to a lactation room in a separate building. I even used a semiprivate space in an empty cubicle when I needed to. I made it work. This lack of support made me feel so discouraged and undervalued. It's hard enough for a parent to breastfeed and work at the same time. Why create these extra barriers to make it even harder?"

This experience wasn't new for Stephanie. When she was pregnant with our first child, Coraline, we carpooled to work each day because she didn't have a parking spot at her building. Had I not been able to drop her off at the front entrance toward the end of her pregnancy, she would have had to walk nearly half a mile from her car to the office and back every day. Throw in a midday obstetrician appointment, and that's nearly two miles of walking.

Stephanie certainly isn't alone. A 2014 report from the National Partnership for Women & Families is filled with statistics that illustrate just how concerning the lack of support is for new and expectant mothers in the workplace.

click to enlarge Stephanie Albaugh - STEPHANIE ALBAUGH
  • Stephanie Albaugh
  • Stephanie Albaugh

One eye-opening stat: "71 percent of women surveyed reported needing more frequent breaks at work when they became pregnant, but more than four in 10 of these women never asked their employers to accommodate them." Another one: "38 percent of those who were employed at the time of the survey reported that their employers failed to provide a private space other than a bathroom for them to express milk, and 39 percent reported that their employers failed to offer reasonable breaks for expressing milk."

The negative impact of this discrimination can be far-reaching. According to a 2020 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, a survey of 252 pregnant working women showed that "pregnancy discrimination was linked to increased levels of postpartum depressive symptoms for mothers and lower birth weights, lower gestational ages and increased numbers of doctor visits for babies."

The level of support new and expecting mothers receive in the workplace is a community health issue that impacts all of us. For many folks who are not expectant or new mothers themselves, it can be easy to ignore the challenges associated with juggling a job and being new to parenthood. But that awareness is critical. So is ensuring that your coworkers and employees feel supported.

In the near future, many folks will be returning to their workplaces for the first time in more than a year due to COVID-19. It's a great opportunity to advocate for more inclusive, supportive job environments. Here are some ways you can be an ally to new mothers in your workplace:

  • Connect. Coworkers can be a huge part of your life. Make sure you're spending time to authentically connect with one another, check in and offer support.
  • Inspect your workplace. Walk around. Where would a new mother pump? Where would a pregnant woman park her car? Are there supportive policies in writing? Be proactive and address issues before they arise.
  • Advocate for community meetings. Setting aside intentional work time for employees to build community, promote wellness, and share honest thoughts and feelings is a big step toward ensuring that people feel comfortable discussing issues important to them.
  • Talk to your boss. Could your workplace do a better job of supporting new mothers? Bring this issue up to your boss in one of your next meetings. You don't need to be a pregnant woman to speak up. In fact, we should all be doing it.
  • Join workplace groups and committees. Does your workplace already have a committee that addresses issues such as pregnancy discrimination? Get involved! Bring your curiosity and desire to deepen your understanding, and get ready to be a part of the solution.
  • Call out discrimination. When you do see new and expectant mothers being treated unfairly, speak up. Let folks know they aren't alone in addressing these issues.

After five months of pumping breast milk in makeshift locations or taking 45 minutes to trek to another building to pump, Stephanie hit her breaking point and spoke up again. She realized this challenge wasn't just about her, but about every mother who was attempting to work a job while also addressing the needs of their babies. She went beyond her department. She reached out to colleagues she knew, the UVM Women & Gender Equity Center, and her staff council representative. Those connections quickly led her to the Nursing Parent Committee, a new UVM group advocating for lactation support on campus (that later became known as the UVM Parent Advocacy Group).

After seven months of advocating through that committee, change was made: UVM purchased two Mamava pods, private mobile spaces for breastfeeding and pumping. The first opened in January 2020. And though Stephanie no longer needed it herself, she was thrilled to have been part of the change.

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