“Not a problem” – breastfeeding in academic workplaces

I’m emerging from a period of relative digital dormancy and there’s a lot to talk about (a new job, family, location, and research). I want to start with a post about things that have gone right lately – in particular, the support I’ve received in academic settings as a breastfeeding mom. In 2013 Miriam Posner wrote about the needs of breastfeeding and/or breastmilk producing moms at academic events and I followed up by providing a template of a “Dear Colleague” letter for use in communicating those needs. Both Miriam and I had recently had children at that point and we’d both run into the difficulties that many women face when trying to balance work and this particular set of needs (I’m also a big advocate for a tumblr called “Feeding the Baby” that was motivated by the desire to build support for all people feeding infants, regardless of the methods).

When I was invited to interview at Arizona State University (the new job), our second daughter was less than a month old and I was immediately concerned about travel and the rigors of a day long campus visit. In accepting the invitation to interview I was very upfront with ASU administration about my needs: I would travel with the baby, I needed someone to care for her during the day of the visit, and I needed to be able to breastfeed her – both on a schedule and on demand if necessary.

While I’m generally very comfortable being clear about needs, this wasn’t particularly easy. My partner and I spent time talking about how to handle the situation – was I really able to interview at this time? Could he instead take both the toddler and an infant alone, as I would do when he interviewed the week before? Was asking for accommodation going to sink my prospects? If I were to ask, what was reasonable?

I was in an incredibly privileged position – I had a wonderful tenure-track job at Scripps College and I had been invited to interview at ASU. I was in a position to say “if they can’t handle breastfeeding, then I don’t know that I want to work there.” A great many people are not in such circumstances. At the same time, I was very excited about the opportunities and I was eager not to have it all fall apart. I chose to travel with baby and steeled myself for any potential consequences.

When I asked for help with childcare and nursing needs the response was a good, if somewhat frustrating one: “I’ve never dealt with that before, but we’ll see what can be done.” The commitment by the administration to support me as a new mom was good and it came without hesitation. I was relieved. At the same time, there are a host of problems with the sense that this was a novel problem – it is symptomatic of a national and academic culture that acts as if motherhood is an aberration in the workforce and that limits the possibilities for women who want to work and have families. It would have been even better to offer a more affirmative “we will do what it takes” instead of “we’ll see what we can do,” which I feared was going to be nothing.

Nevertheless, this got done right this time. I was reimbursed for childcare (I did have to find that on my own) and I had a private room in the English department in which to breastfeed my daughter. My schedule included time to nurse and I was able to give the woman who cared for our daughter my room location and schedule ahead of time. This meant that when the baby needed to eat halfway through my formal interview, she was able to bring her to me. I nursed right there while talking with five or six colleagues about my research and teaching. It spoke volumes that no one batted an eye. I was supported by my future department and institution in ways that made it possible for me to successfully interview during an incredibly challenging moment in my life.

I’m happy to say that this has been a consistent experience since my arrival at ASU. During new employee sessions the Human Resources staff went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and offered access to an established “private room” and a private office when that room was occupied. Every time I’ve asked for accommodation during an event like our fall retreat, receptions, and information sessions people have immediately responded with access to private rooms that have locked doors, power outlets, and a place to sit – when necessary, refrigeration has also been provided.

It’s been really wonderful and I applaud ASU. What remains frustrating is that this shouldn’t be something worth marking – such support should ALWAYS be in place. Miriam and I wrote last year because my experience is not particularly common. I’ve had to personally intervene in other settings to ensure that women can store breastmilk at day-long events (no, breastmilk is not a biohazard) or to point out to colleagues that women shouldn’t be penalized by missing out on large blocks of events (or, heaven forbid career opportunities) because they need to provide for a child.

The response to the requests of a breastfeeding or breastmilk producing mother should always be the one I got from Patrick Tonk when I asked for similar help while giving a talk at the University of Michigan’s Data, Social Justice, and Humanities event: “not a problem.”

One final note – I’ve largely spoken in terms of “the ASU administration” because the consistency of the response to my needs demonstrates an institutional commitment to supporting women. At the same time, I am acutely aware that “the administration” that I engaged with was made up of individuals dedicated to supporting women – so thanks to George Justice, Matthew Garcia, Mark Lussier, Karen Silva, the HR staff on the Tempe campus, and many of the staff in the Dean of Faculty’s office for your support.

Update: See Carolyn Druker’s piece on the topic too!

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