This past weekend I finally got my way around the Foreign Service Journal. As most of us already know, the Journal, including the AFSA News section, is published monthly, with each issue covering foreign affairs from an insider’s perspective. Well, this last edition was entirely focused on Foreign Service Work-Life Balance.
One article in particular, from Elizabeth Power, really caught my attention and triggered me to write down some personal thoughts and comments regarding the issues related to get back to work after having a baby, having to balance the need to keeping a healthy baby home, away from his nursing mother, breast pumping techniques and challenges, work flexibility and the social perception of a breastfeeding mother in the expatriate/foreign service scenario.
Regarding the scope of this particular post, I believe it’s unnecessary to list out the countless benefits of breastfeeding, for both mom and baby, as well as for employees’ improved evaluations of their work-life balance. Many women have made sacrifices to continue breastfeeding after they return to work. We do this despite the inconvenience of hooking ourselves up to a milking machine three times a day, because the health benefits for our babies and ourselves abound. For the past six years, I’ve been a nursing, breast pumping, bottle-feeding mom. Any technique that would seem possible, realistic, and why not say, loving, I’d adopt!
At first, with some guilt, especially when you’re having your first baby, not so sure about how you’re supposed to manage a new baby, riding the Metro to work, surviving the extended hours away from the baby… With my first child, I knew very little about alternative feeding techniques. Traditional breastfeeding seemed to be my only route, and my obligation as a new mom, especially considering I come from a Latino family, where women are brought up to become loving caretakers… Visits to the lactation consultant helped immensely, but did not diminish my (uncalled for) guilt. My husband and I asked for help. Friends, family. We had both sets of baby’s grandparents living with us for the initial 9 months. I needed to get back to work and perform accordingly, while husband kept his regular working hours. In the best of circumstances, expressing milk at work can bring lactating women a new kind of camaraderie with their colleagues, not to mention management support as they carve out break times, find private accommodations and use sinks to clean equipment. But pumping can also be inconvenient, awkward and downright impossible at worst, depending on the job and the workplace.
Life was challenging, but we managed. The experience made me learn how to use and benefit from an electric breast pump, how to store and transport breast milk. Unfortunately, I’d started to learn a little too late in the process, and by the end of the third month, my firstborn was fully dependent on baby formula. But we learnt, with our actions, our attempts, our mistakes. We learnt.
The lessons learnt proved to be extremely helpful when baby #2 came along. As soon as I found out about the pregnancy, began visiting the La Leche League websites, acquiring information, reviews, opinions from other parents… Before we welcomed our baby girl, I’d already gotten a modern electric breast pump, with replacement parts, storage bags, and a “back up/safety” shipment (thanks to the Pouch!) of the pediatricians’ most-recommended baby formula (one never knows, right?). We, as second-time parents, seemed to be good to go.
And things were way easier that time. Breastfeeding was a breeze, and kept both mom and baby as happy as they could be. The practice made the perfection. When it was time to bring our 28-day old baby girl from South Africa back to Mozambique, her mom comfortably used the electric pump in the car, during the 2-plus car drive, stopping to rest, feed and cross the border. Batteries were key, and they make for an extraordinary accessory for breast-pumping moms! Always have them handy – no electricity? no problem!
Once I had to return full-time to work – an USAID contractor – my boss, who by coincidence happened to be a mother, and somebody who understands the challenges a new mom has, was very sympathetic to the cause, and allowed me to use one of her offices, as well as the office’s kitchenette fridge for storage. Probably, the most difficult part was dealing with the skeptic looks I got from my local co-workers, not used to that practice. That flexibility allowed me to attend meetings with PEPFAR partners, and to travel to the provinces, always carrying my pumping gear, bottles and cooler! The balance between work and life had been achieved!
Now we’re on baby #3. Still nursing and still pumping. I’m not a full-time worker anymore, but expressing milk enables me to get back into the “workforce“, as a part-timer. I spend more time with my baby, and I know we both benefit from that. I also have support: the patience and help from my dear husband, who watches the kids while I “disappear“; I’ve got help from a wonderful nanny, who learnt first-hand how to manipulate the milk and prepare the bottles; and I’ve got help from my 2 toddlers, who have seen their mom pumping-and-feeding in recent years. They understand the importance and are respectful to the process: “Shhhh, be quiet. Mommy needs to feed to the baby…“
Once more, we seem to be achieving the balance between work and family life…
Have you ever melted pump or bottle parts when boiling them? (be honest!)
Try this: When boiling items such as pump or bottle parts, put a couple of glass marbles into the pot and stay within earshot. If the water level gets low and the pot is about to boil dry, the marbles will start bouncing and clattering in the pan and alert you in time.