The Shriver Report – Talking to Your Boss About Your Breasts

Special Edition

Talking to Your Boss About Your Breasts



© Adrin Shamsudin –

When was the last time you talked to your boss about your breasts?

Breastfeeding and working is no longer an exception for new mothers. It is no longer a valiant few women, secretly locked in closets with breast pumps: it’s the new reality of an America where women are all at once breadwinners and, for the first few months to few years of a baby’s life, milk-makers.

American workplaces need to catch up with this reality. They need elements both hard (rules, policies, and infrastructure) and soft (culture, rigorously protected by HR and executives) to ensure that every working mother has the tools at her disposal to make this situation work.

Today, even in companies with lactation-friendly policies, many women are at the mercy of their particular manager or HR team. Support can make all the difference to a successful, productive return to work that empowers a woman to continue to feed her baby breast milk. Cultural and physical hurdles often mean a premature end to breastfeeding – which has implications on not just the baby’s health, but on the mother’s attitudes toward her employer.

Welcome to the reality of modern working motherhood. But while we wait, advocate, and push for the world to catch up, working women need solutions now, even if they don’t quite get us to the holy grail of universal support for working and breastfeeding. Like it or not, your boss is going to be either your greatest ally or your biggest hurdle in your quest to breastfeed after you return to work, so it’s time to figure out how to talk to him or her about this.

If you have a best-friends-forever relationship with your boss, you can bypass the awkwardness and go straight into planning. For the rest of us, while the anticipation of the conversation is often the worst part, it is worth planning for.

Here’s a five-step plan for you and your newly gigantic bosom:

1. Talk to your boss first.

Don’t make it look like you’re trying to go over his/her head. Save HR for confirming what you agree with your boss, and working out any problems.

2. Diagnose your boss.

      • Does s/he have children? How old? In other words, how much empathy will this person have?
      • Has s/he ever had someone who was pumping reporting to him/her? Go talk to that person.
      • Is your boss a man? If he finds the subject even more awkward than you do, maybe you won’t ever have to bring it up again.
      • Is s/he obsessed with productivity and face time? Your plan will have to anticipate his/her concerns.

3. Plan for your plan.

The ideal pumping plan has the following characteristics:

      •  It is brought up as early as possible (preferably before baby).
      •  It educates. Don’t assume anyone knows about pumping breast milk. Did you, before now?
      •  It solves problems. Even if your solutions are not perfect, people appreciate you doing your homework.
      •  Your solutions are realistic. “We need a chair in there” is doable. “Turn the only conference into a full-time lactation room”? Not so much.
      • If you will need extra time, it is honest about that. If your job has two 15-minute breaks a day, you will probably need more time. Don’t try to hide this – call it out.
      •  It recognizes what you don’t know. If you’re a first-time mom, you will not know exactly how long each pumping session will take. Say that.
      • It has zero attitude of entitlement. The attitude should be cooperation, not ‘you owe me this’.

4. Write your plan, including:

      • Where: The space you propose to use
      • When: How often and for how long you anticipate using that space
      • What: If the room needs a lock on it, go to the office manager first and note that you have already found a solution.
      •  Productivity: Offer to bring your phone or laptop in with you, get someone to cover you, or put in time at home.

5. Have the talk.

Now it’s time to rip off the band-aid.  Have your plan ready, and be frank: “I’m uncomfortable bringing this up, but we have to have this conversation. When I come back from leave I plan to continue breastfeeding my baby, and I will need to pump milk during the work day. I have drafted a plan that I think will work, and I want to share it with you for your input.”

Be prepared for a range of responses. Whatever happens, do not lose your cool.

If it goes terribly, step away and regroup before trying again. Saying “thank you for your support” is fine, but do not apologize for what you need. You are not being done a favor.

(Before you meet, dig up stats on the business case for breastfeeding and understand your federal and state laws. DO NOT use these in your first conversation, unless you are asked. Try to win this battle on your own.)

 6. Check back in once you’re underway.

Keep your boss happy about your pumping arrangement by providing a brief update a few weeks into your new reality. If anything has changed, say what you’re doing to adjust: “I’ve realized it takes longer than 15 minutes each time – it seems to be taking me 25 minutes. I’m adjusting for this in the following ways: __________.”

Throughout this process, the message you want to send is that when the time comes, you will be ready to be a productive member of the team.

Breastfeeding your baby is fleeting, in the grand scheme of things, so keep your eye on the big picture: continuing to provide for your family and having a fulfilling work life means you have to stay in the game. So even if you mean not a word of it, find a way to communicate your excitement at the prospect of getting out of your bathrobe and leaving your perfect, tiny baby to schlep back to work.

This attitude will serve you, and it also adds one more proof point to the argument that women can successfully work and breastfeed, and that employers have a responsibility to support that.



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Jessica Shortall is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Jessica Shortall is a 35-year-old working mother, with a career dedicated to the intersection of business and doing good. She started out her adult life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan (more vodka drinking than you would expect from a Muslim country), and hasn't stopped searching for ways to change the world since, across the non-profit and for-profit landscape.
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