I don’t wanna brag, but I know how to balance a $200 Medela tote bag on top of my feet while sitting on a toilet. Watch out, America’s Got Talent!
When I gave birth to my daughter Maya in 2011, I barely had time to learn infant CPR—much less my rights as a mother in the workplace. She was born nine weeks early due to a preeclampsia diagnosis that I received just hours before her delivery, and I needed to save my maternity leave until when she was discharged from the hospital.
I felt overwhelming guilt during my first few days as a mother in the NICU—for being forced to bring her into the world too soon, for not being able to take her home with me for another month and for having to return to work.
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There are nearly 25 million working moms in the workforce, and 40% of those working mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners for their family. And sadly, nearly 1 in 5 pregnant and new moms will experience some form of maternal mental health disorder. Maternal mental health matters, and it affects our workplaces. That's why I spoke at #momcongress2019 yesterday, and support all the mothers holding a congressional briefing right now on behalf of @momcongress for maternal health, maternal MENTAL health and paid family leave! #MomCongress2019 #ItsTimeToSupportMoms #UseYourMomVoice
But during my first week back in the office, I immediately knew something was different. It was business as usual for my colleagues, and they were happy to have their manager back—but I couldn’t focus on my work for fear of breastmilk leaking through my bra, C-section stitches popping when I sat on a stool or falling asleep at my desk from sheer exhaustion.
I didn’t talk about my anxieties with my team. I felt like I needed to show I was the same productive employee as I was before becoming a mother. I felt compelled to prove I didn’t need flexible hours, open communication about my personal life with my manager or adequate nursing accommodations.
My conviction had transcended stubbornness and turned to shame. Throughout the day, I’d shuffle to the bathroom with my giant black tote, lock the door, strap on my hands-free nursing bra and relieve the girls—praying no one heard the loud suction sound from the machine.
That’s how I learned to balance a Medela breast pump on my feet.
I periodically camped out in that community bathroom for weeks until I realized it didn’t matter how little I communicated about my maternal experience, or how stealth I thought I was in breast pumping. I was still “the mother” in the office. No one cared about my accomplishments, like leading the market to deliver profits above plan or securing a government contract. They just saw a mother. Perhaps even worse, I think they simply saw a woman rocking an imaginary baby all day long, as if my entire existence was attached to my daughter.
Instead of seeing a therapist, I typed some of my feelings and experiences into Google. That’s when I realized I wasn’t alone. I read conversations between other moms—in myriad industries, from across the country—who felt the same way or had similar experiences. I learned that most working mothers are perceived to be less productive in the office and work fewer hours than their colleagues who don’t have children.
Google was how I found about about the Fair Labor Standards Act. Within days, my company was forced to rent adjacent office space so I could pump comfortably and hygienically—because I passed along what I had learned to my manager.
In the years since (and with a second child in tow), I’ve become a writer, speaker and consultant encouraging brands to market to and hire millennial moms and created the country’s first free Mommy and Me professional development event, Mompreneur and Me.
That night on Google was the start of my journey as an advocate for working moms. I ultimately built up the courage to own my new role as “Office Mother”—if that was all I was going to be seen as, I decided, I would make sure I was seen as the strongest, toughest and most intelligent mother(f***er) those fools had ever seen. Pun intended.
It’s unfortunate that I didn’t educate myself on the experiences and rights of working mothers until I became one. It’s unfortunate that it took me a while to get here. But I’m not going back.