pumping in US Airways lounge, CC licenced, by Flickr user CafemamaThere’s a fabulous article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker about the history of breastfeeding and of breast pumps. Did you know that Linneus had first categorised humans as Quadrupedia: four-footed beasts, until his wife was breastfeeding their baby a few years later, and he thought that the term mammalia, or animal that breastfeeds their young, would be a better term? That after wetnurses being common among the wealthy and even the middle classes, breastfeeding became de rigeur in the eighteenth century, but then again became a lower class activity in the early twentieth century?

The latter part of the article stops being a history of breastfeeding and makes an interesting argument that we’re currently focusing so strongly on the technology of the breastpump that we’re privileging the right to pump at work above parental leave. in Salon Kate Harding argues that this is a judgemental mothers-should-stay-home argument, but I disagree. Parental leave in the US is appalling. Parents aren’t entitled to paid leave at all, though most are entitled to take twelve weeks unpaid leave and get their job back when they return, and of course, some employers give twelve weeks paid leave. Fathers, as far as I know, have no right to parental leave at all, unless their employer is particularly generous.

That basically means that a mother has the choice between sending her child to daycare at 12 weeks (they actually have infant daycare facilities for extremely young babies in the US) or quitting her job altogether. Pretty lousy set of options, eh?

I pump at work these days. But I was able to stay home (at 80% pay) with my baby for eight months, and we still have five months left for her daddy to stay home with her. It’s nice that our baby can drink my bottled breastmilk, but far more importantly, she gets to spend her days with someone who loves her insanely, she gets to continue building a strong relationship with her daddy (and I get home at 3pm and get lots of time with her too!).

The point of Jill Lepore’s article isn’t that it’s bad to use a pump, it’s that it’s horrific that the right to pump at work is apparently becoming more important as a fight for parents’ and babies’ rights than the right to parental leave – for mothers AND fathers. Even if you don’t agree that parental leave should be paid (I believe that’s an important investment in our children and thus for our society) the right to get your job back after a year or two years on parental leave should be fundamental – otherwise mothers have to choose between a very limiting set of options: have a career or stay at home for years. I’m all for the right to pump at work. But if US parents are putting their efforts into pushing through legislation requiring employers to provide pumping rooms at work instead of working for good parental leave, well, that’s a pretty messed up set of priorities.

(The photo is by Cafemama at Flickr, and shows her pumping in the restroom at a US Airways lounge)

6 thoughts on “we need parental leave AND breast pumps

  1. Arne Olav Nygard

    Jill, how is breastfeeding (or -pumping) in public considered in the U.S?

  2. M-H

    Interesting that the fight for choice is (again) being diverted to something relatively easy (places to pump) rather than taking it to where it belongs – the right of families to make choices that suit them, not that are dictated by some ideological framework. The provision of adequate maternity leave is the only thing that makes the choice a real one.

  3. Laura

    I’d have to agree with you. I went back to work after my first after 6 weeks, tried pumping at work, just did not work out. For the second, I was in grad school and since I gave birth at the beginning of the summer, I essentially got 12 weeks. Neither of those leaves were paid and we were not exactly rolling in dough, so mostly I went back to work out of financial necessity.

    I would really, really like to see family leave pushed for in the U.S. and not just in cases of newborns. Because honestly, almost everyone is going to have something happen that they need to deal with away from work for an extended period. Parents will get sick. Older kids might get sick or go through some other issue (drug abuse, psychological problems, etc.) where parents might want some extended time away. As it is now, the choice is work full time continuously or don’t. And that’s not a good choice for most people at some point.

    I’m currently working part-time, working towards building a business that allows me more flexibility than my full-time job did–and I had excellent leave benefits there. I wanted to be home at 3:00 when my kids got home, wanted to be able to take the days they had off from school, just wanted to be more present in their lives than I was when I got home at 6:00, exhausted. No amount of flex-time was going to make that work the way I wanted it to, but quite frankly, I think there should have been a way to do that and give me a decent salary and opportunities for career development. I find it very frustrating that we’ve supposedly reached a point where we really don’t *need* to work 4 million hours a week and yet, full-time work is still defined by the 40-hour work week.

  4. […] I’ve written about feeling under siege as a mother, and reading Jill Walker’s post about the lack of choices regarding career vs. motherhood in the U.S. made me feel… both better and worse about it. […]

  5. kata

    Thanks for writing this: parental leave in the U.S. is indeed appalling, because really, there isn’t any. I always think there are three big things wrong with the U.S.: lack of universal healthcare, lack of parental leave/support for parenting, and lack of the metric system. (Okay – that last one is not QUITE as serious as the other two.)

    Funny thing: I moved to the U.S. (from Hungary) because I wanted to have more choices about my life. Now that I am a mother in the U.S. I actually have fewer choices!

    One of the things in the way of changing this state of affairs has to do with the largest and most influential parts of the American feminist movement being focused on taking the emphasis away from the way certain experiences, like pregnancy and motherhood, are unique to the female body (I’m grossly simplifying, of course, but that’s the gist). Rightly so: women should not be defined by that alone: too many continue to argue that women don’t belong in the workplace because they’re defined by the work of their bodies (motherhood) rather than the work of their mind (like men are, supposedly).

    Problem is that the feminist line of reasoning countering such claims makes experiences that really are mostly uniquely feminine (like motherhood) necessarily disappear from the public eye: to prove that women are able to do the work that men do just as well as men do it, without being influenced by their bodies. Motherhood therefore does not belong in the public sphere in the same way as one’s work/career does. And it’s hard to fight for something that cannot even be properly discussed because the language with which one could discuss it is so tainted by the rhetoric of those that really do seek to take work/career away from women.

    So we stick to things that are fairly clinical, like the health benefits of breastmilk, and the way it can be pumped, and hey presto, there’s suddenly very little difference between the working man and the working woman… It’s just that the working woman sometimes has to slip away to a hidden, private location to extract some breastmilk.

  6. Bill Cole

    Just a couple technical clarifications about US parental leave: The Family and Medical Leave Act provides for up to 12 weeks of leave that can be taken by either parent at any time up to a year after birth. My wife and I made use of this to justify my taking five weeks off to accompany her and our then 9-month old child while she taught in a summer program in Paris (for various reasons, she had not taken any maternity leave after the birth).

    Also, the FMLA stipulates that the employee first use up all of his/her existing paid leave (i.e., accrued vacation and sick days) first and that whatever remainder of the leave (up to 12 weeks) be unpaid. That’s good in the sense that at least some of the leave can be paid, but bad in that one was entitled to those days anyway and one comes back to work with *no* sick or vacation time to use for issues that might come up then. There is also some room made in the law for employees and employers to come to an agreement for reduced work in lieu of leave. I’ve seen some faculty at our university to use this to get a full semester of reduced teaching load instead of stopping work completely (or resuming after not working at all) in the middle of a semester.

    All of which is to say that while, yes, the parental leave in the US is paltry, parents do have some flexibility with what is provided and can (with the help of cooperative employers) find some creative solutions.

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