The PUMP Act Is Here. Now, We Normalize

Pat Shelly, director of The Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington, conducts a breastfeeding class for new mothers, including Corinne Graff. The newly-passed PUMP Act expands workplace protections for employees with a need to express breast milk, (Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images)

Last week, President Biden signed off on a $1.7 trillion omnibus package. There is (understandable!) buzz about the inclusion of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. Less discussion has surrounded another piece of legislation included: the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act, or PUMP Act, which ensures that employees who are nursing mothers receive time and privacy to pump—a long-awaited victory for all breastfeeding, chest-feeding and exclusively pumping parents working outside of the home.

The PUMP Act also brings mixed feelings for some lactating parents like myself, trying to navigate a post-Roe reproductive landscape.

Part of the malaise comes from knowing how employers probe for legal loopholes.

A 2010 law written by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) required that employers provide space and time for hourly employees to pump and store breast milk and included an anti-retaliation protection. But this triumph for hourly workers was short-lived, once employers realized the protections needn’t extend to salaried employees.

In 2019, Congress passed the Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act, which required public buildings to provide a clean, private lactation space with “a chair, a working surface and an electrical outlet.” But what is considered clean and private leaves too much room for interpretation.

Frustrations ran at their highest in June 2022, when the Senate first failed to pass the PUMP Act, in the midst of a raging formula shortage.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the recently overturned Roe v. Wade, it’s time we look around and ask: Why is there so much resistance to women pumping in the workplace?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other global healthcare players say breastfeeding (albeit an individual choice to be respected) helps to ensure the well-being of babies and mothers. Breastfed babies gain protection from a myriad of illnesses, ranging from ear infections to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). For mothers, the risk of certain cancers declines, along with rates of postpartum depression. If 90 percent of American infants were breastfed for at least six months, the American economy would stand to save $13 billion dollars. There’s a reason birth workers refer to breast milk as “liquid gold.”

And yet, much of American society remains opposed to breastfeeding, especially in the workplace—a trend that took hold when breastfeeding rates declined with the Boomer generation.

A mother breast feeds her newborn baby while working on computers at home. (Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

As a working mom who has breastfed three children, I feel the sting of every microaggressive comment. “You’re not breastfeeding on Zoom, are you?” “You have to go pump again?” “Your door is always closed.” Or my personal favorite: “How much longer are you going to do this for?”

I can manage pump burn, nipple damage, mastitis and the cognitive labor of timing sessions much better when people keep their comments to themselves. But I struggle most with the sexualization of women’s breasts, which makes even educated adults squirm at the very mention of breastfeeding. (This is likely why we refer to breastfeeding as “nursing;” it’s less embodied, more maternal and abstract—yet another way we try to make others feel more comfortable.)

As a working mom who has breastfed three children, I feel the sting of every microaggressive comment. ‘You’re not breastfeeding on Zoom, are you?’ ‘You have to go pump again?’ ‘Your door is always closed.’ Or my personal favorite: ‘How much longer are you going to do this for?’

As an academic, I am grateful to work with many open-minded, progressive people. Just last month I participated in a training on diverse hiring practices, where the dean of my college instructed us to ask potential hires if they will need pumping accommodations while interviewing. If my chin hadn’t already been resting on my fingers, it would have hit the ground.

I recall interviewing for academic positions in 2018. My manual hand pump broke on the first of only two 15-minute breaks built into my 11-hour schedule for the visit. As I drove home that night, I winced through shooting pains as I sat in traffic, sobbed over my steering wheel. I worried my chest might rupture from oversupply or that I would lose my supply entirely.

Every now and again, I come back to the memory of walking through the door to my home that night, throwing off my suit jacket, and witnessing my husband’s reaction to my unnaturally engorged breasts. We both felt a little defeated at that moment, knowing that I probably should have asked for the accommodations I needed‚ but acknowledging the paralyzing fear of losing this job opportunity. Fortunately, I was able to breastfeed my first-born child for eight more months—and I got the job, which I hold to this day.

I’d like to believe the 9 million women of childbearing age in America will feel more empowered than I did to ask their employers (or potential employers) for the lactation accommodations they need. But I am wise enough to know this will be rare, unless we keep working for change.

We need to rethink cultures of support for pumping parents, particularly in industries dominated by women, like healthcare and education.

I think of my friend Kat, a math teacher who managed to exclusively pump for an entire school year by running off to her car during her only off period and on her lunch break. She still refers to those times as her “lonely lunches.”

I also think of my friend Jen, who provided legal counsel for the federal government in 2014, but had no access to a lactation space beyond the stereotypical bathroom stall.

Legislation moves us forward, but we can’t stop there. We have to build support networks and affinity spaces to care for lactating parents. It shouldn’t take a formula shortage to protect what our bodies are meant to do naturally. Breastfeeding, as the WHO suggests, is a learned behavior; we all learn most successfully when we have the appropriate social support.

I work at Texas Woman’s University, which bears its mother-friendly worksite designation as a badge of honor. I have found support in several affinity groups for academic mothers at and outside of my worksite. And every time I close the door to pump, I proudly hang a sign on my door knob that reads: “Nursing mom at work.”

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Jackie Hoermann-Elliott, PhD, is an assistant professor of English and director of first-year writing at Texas Woman’s University. Her research interests focus on embodied learning and support for well-being in academia and the workplace. She is a mother to three children, 5 years and younger, as well as a stepmom to one tween girl who is going to take over the world.