Working While Nursing

The glamorous JMM Lactation Room

The glamorous JMM Lactation Room

Here was my view for a good chunk of the Joint Mathematics Meetings, where I was holed up for the third time that day in theĀ  lactation room. My then-two-month-old baby was an hour away at home, so if I wanted to keep nursing, I had to pump. Every three hours. All day.

My sincerest thanks to the organizers, because I have never been so appreciative of a conference amenity. Not even the free coffee on the exhibition floor comes close.

Matilde Lalin wrote a nice writeup on Terry Tao’s blog of the options for a nursing mother at a conference. You can bring your kid along, or you can pump. Luckily I live close by, and my husband and in-laws can provide child care, so I didn’t have to try to drag a fussy infant around the giant Petri dish of a conference. And the organizers provided this pretty great little room. There’s a water cooler, and a bathroom, and outlets…and a skybox-style view of the employment center.

But it was hard to be stuck to a rigorous break schedule. I pump roughly every three hours. Pushing that is at best uncomfortable, and at worst can drop my milk supply or cause health complications. Start to finish it takes somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes for me. So that means missing part of a session, or missing breaks. Matilde points out that missing the sessions is sometimes preferable, since if you try to pump right at the start of lunch, by the time you’re done everyone’s gone, and you’ll miss out on important opportunities to meet people and talk math.

Matilde gives some suggestions for things conference organizers could consider providing to make attending easier for parents, like funding for childcare, nursing rooms, and frequent breaks. And moreover she says

I also find it important that these resources be listed publicly in the institute/conference website. This serves a double purpose: first, it helps those in need of the resources to access them easily, and second, it contributes to make these accommodations normal, setting a good model for future events, and inspiring organizers of future events.

I’m so thankful for the decades of parents who’ve navigated and normalized these issues already, but there’s a ways to go.


Now I’m pumping at work too. In a way it’s nice – I’ve got an excuse to paper over the window in my office door and shut myself away a few times a day. Mostly it’s a hassle that I still can’t seem to remember to build into my day. I keep forgetting a part or my cooler at home, or forgetting to schedule breaks in between meetings and classes. And I’m lucky enough to have an office to myself, with a sink nearby. If I were in a shared office and had to go to the official lactation room across campus, I’d be having a much rougher semester.

Of course, these problems could all be solved for me. Formula exists. And it’s great! We use it! But I wanted to nurse if I could make it work. And I am, though it makes my workday more complicated. But conference organizers, school administrators, hiring committees, departments, and faculty need to be aware of these extra challenges for their nursing colleagues and students when designing schedules and assigning responsibilities.

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2 Responses to Working While Nursing

  1. Emily O. says:

    Keep up the good work, math mama! And thanks for your post, which helps to normalize nursing. You’re not the only one who needed to hide away to feed/pump. It’s important to support those who choose to nurse/pump, especially since it takes so much time. My daughter is 7 months old, and I wasn’t prepared for how much energy it would take to feed her. Pumping every three hours, while necessary, is such a pain! It’s gotten easier as she’s gotten older, so you may find that next time you travel, you can stretch pump sessions to 4 hours during the day and even longer at night. It may be hard to believe now, but it gets better!

    • smalec says:

      Thanks for the encouragement! It’s already getting a lot easier, but it is amazing how exhausting nursing is. I was not prepared for the drowsiness that accompanies that oxytocin dump when I nurse or pump. Helpful for bonding, sure, but less useful at 10am in my office!

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