Breastfeeding Memoirs: Returning to Work in the Navy

In honor of World Breastfeeding Week 2015, we are sharing inspirational stories from breastfeeding/working ---moms.  Today’s story was written by Cinda Brown.

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I’m an active duty Navy officer and mother of two girls. My journey to becoming a working, breastfeeding mother started almost 4 years ago with the birth of my first daughter. Breastfeeding was challenging in more ways than I could have imagined. I thought that it would just be easy and natural, not knowing that those two little words can mean so many different things.

My baby had a high palate combined with tongue and lip tie. I had no idea what this was. All I knew is that my nipple was damaged and cut from her very first latch and that it hurt each time there after. Soon I was scabbed and crying each time she latched. So much pain. I didn’t know where to get help and the nurses at the hospital told me it would get better with time. When my daughter was about 5 weeks old I finally met a nurse who promptly referred me to a pediatrician who was also an IBCLC. Her issues were diagnosed and we were then set up for a revision. I learned so much from this IBCLC. He taught my husband what to look for and we both were sent home with more knowledge that helped us on our road to success. My husband knew what looked wrong and was there to help me reposition. He supported me through all of the pain and sleepless nights. He did diaper changes and baths and allowed me to keep working on breastfeeding, instead of asking to bottle feed so he could bond. He found other ways to really bond with our baby girl while ensuring that our breastfeeding relationship would be preserved. Partners play such an important role and I can’t say this enough!

Once my daughter and I finally started to get the hang of breastfeeding, it was time for me to go back to work. I struggled with a very intense oversupply and was worried about how I was going to manage it when I was back at work. It had been difficult enough to manage it when I just had to take care of my baby at home, but now I was looking at adding in daycare, going back to work full time, and still trying to keep up with everything else that needed to be done at home. While many people I’ve encountered have told me how lucky I am to have oversupply, I also know that it’s very difficult to manage. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to pump, collect, freeze, and store the milk not to mention the washing of all of the pump parts. Adding this extra needed time into an already compressed day was overwhelming to think of, much less try to put into action.

We were very lucky to find a daycare teacher who was experienced with bottle-feeding breastfed babies. That was hurdle #1. She was an amazing communicator, which helped the process so much more. The day came to go back to work and I still remember it like it was yesterday because the experience is forever imprinted in my memory. Leaving my baby girl with someone new for the first time to go back to work was just devastating to me. And her. For me I felt like it absolutely went against my innate knowing to separate us. But yet I had no choice and my leave was over so it was time to go back. In that moment I would have given anything to stay home with her. Having a caring provider and making the most of the time that I did have with my baby while at home helped to ease the separation but it definitely took time before that ache started to subside. I really had no idea about the obstacles I was about to encounter and had no one to guide me along the way.

Day one back at work, I found myself in a land of cubicles, with no place to pump breastmilk. Over the next several months I improvised wherever I could to find a place to  pump when I needed to. I pumped in bathrooms, in my car in the parking lot, in my car on the way to and from meetings, basically anywhere I could find that would provide some sense of privacy and still allow me to complete work requirements. It was far from ideal and was super stressful, and mastitis and clogged ducts became more usual than unusual. I had to wake up super early before work so that I could pump since I would be so engorged. Wash parts. Try not to forget parts, bottles, or storage bags. Or the plug for the pump! So many things to remember!

My job had been so busy and intense before I had my baby and I knew that it was going to be no different when I returned. The biggest challenge was trying to coordinate pumping between meetings that for the most part I didn’t have a lot of control over scheduling. Many times meetings would come up at the last minute, or would be rescheduled right in the middle of when I’d need to pump. I had to figure out a way to talk to my supervisors about my need to pump, the importance of keeping a regular schedule, and at the same time keep my head held high.

In the military culture, it can be intimidating to ask your supervisor for permission to do things outside of the norm or what’s expected. I wanted to be able to show that I was able to handle it all: be a successful officer and a successful mother. But the reality is that each demands 100% or more of a person, and there’s only so much effort and time that can be allotted to each. Some compromises had to be made, and it was up to me to advocate for myself and my baby. I’m not going to say that the conversations were the most comfortable that I’ve ever had or the most easy, or that they were well received. They certainly were not. But I thought of all of the other more junior women going through the same journey and realized that if I couldn’t advocate and speak up for myself, then there’s no way that my example would set other women up for success.

I asked for what I needed and over time it became more normal for everyone I worked with. I did find out something very interesting in that most of the people I worked with were male, and that their wives/partners were full time stay at home parents. None of them were mothers who had breastfed and many of their wives had not breastfed. Education and communication with my male leadership helped them to realize the importance of breastfeeding and how it could in fact make the workplace better for everyone since breastfed babies tend to get sick less often. Mothers are able to get back into fitness standards more quickly since breastfeeding can help mothers lose weight. These are only a couple of examples amongst many. I know that the Navy is keenly interested in retaining females in order to have females rise in the ranks of leadership. Advocating for breastfeeding is one step in the right direction to retain mothers in the military. Mothers who are shamed or made to feel that they can’t fit in are not likely to want to stay as a part of an organization that can’t accept them for doing something that’s good for both their baby and themselves.

After several months of making do, a fellow military breastfeeding mother and I set out on a journey to have our commands come into compliance with current Navy breastfeeding instructions and guidance. This meant that our command was required to provide a room that wasn’t a bathroom space, with privacy, a locking door, a refrigerator/freezer, outlets, and furniture. It also allowed for time to pump milk that would accommodate what the mother would need to maintain her supply. It was a long process, but with diligence and help from many people, by the time I left my command there were 5 mother’s rooms set up for breastfeeding mothers to pump milk and an instruction that provided guidance so that mothers were protected in their ability to pump breastmilk.  Each room had a multi-user pump and pump kits donated by the San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition. The command won the SDCBC Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace Award in 2014, which was such an amazing accomplishment given where it had started from. A monthly breastfeeding support group led by Sarah Lin, IBCLC, started in 2013 and continues to this day. She selflessly stepped up to donate her time to help countless mothers who have so benefitted from her expertise when there was a definite need.

I’m now a mother of two and I honestly thought that going back to work for the 2nd time with an infant would be easier since I had done it before, but it’s been just as challenging. I’m at a new command, so I have new people to interact with. Dynamics are different and the juggling act of timing pumping around work requirements is still as alive today, if not more than it was when I went back to work with my first daughter. Mastitis and clogged ducts continue to make their presence known, which was disappointing since I thought that I had them figured out. Goes to show that just because it worked last time doesn’t mean that it will work this time. Each baby is so very different, as is each pregnancy and postpartum period. I’ve been known to excuse myself from meetings with very senior personnel so I can go pump, which hasn’t been easy. I know that I need to take care of myself so that I’ll be at work tomorrow. Sacrificing today isn’t worth getting sick tomorrow and I keep telling myself that. Because there’s a part of me that still struggles to have a voice and speak up for what I need.

I pumped for 2 years for my first daughter. She will be 4 this fall and breastfeeds right along with my infant. I’m pumping for my infant at work and will continue to do so until it’s the right time to stop. I never thought that I’d make it this far in our breastfeeding journey, but now I can’t imagine it being any other way. There have been so many that I can attribute our success to in our San Diego community. The amazing support of IBCLCs and mothers has carried me when I needed to be lifted up too many times to count. I hope that through my efforts I can help other military mothers achieve the success that they envision for breastfeeding their children, whether it be for days or years.