Working & Nursing: When Research Gets Personal

I started my faculty position at Tulane University in 2012 with a newly minted PhD and a newborn baby. She was 8 weeks old on my start date. I had no formal maternity leave when she was born--just the “luck” of being in between finishing my degree program and starting a new job. Most of my leave was spent packing the house (with my spouse) and preparing for a cross-country move.

That August, I remember sitting in an all-day faculty orientation with my breast-pump at my feet—cleverly disguised as a tote bag.. Every two hours, feeling heavy with milk, I had to leave, walk over to a nearby building for the closest campus lactation room, and express milk for 15-20 minutes. Then I returned to the orientation and tried to catch up on what I missed. That whole first year of my new faculty position, I carried my bag and my pump to the office, pumped between classes, and wore nursing pads under my clothes in case I “sprung a leak”. I was fortunate that I had my own office, with a locking door, and a department chair who understood that I couldn’t teach back-to-back classes without a pump break. Three years later, I did it all again after the birth of my second child.   

Clearly I’m not the only working mom to do this. US breastfeeding rates have seen a resurgence since the mid-late 1990s, and the slogan “breast is best” now seems ubiquitous. At the same time, we have also seen a dramatic transformation in mothers’ participation in the paid labor force, especially those with young children under the age of 3. Data from the US Department of Labor show us that in 1975, about one-third of women with children under 3 were in the paid labor force. Four decades later, this has nearly doubled to 61% of moms with children under three.


 
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Source Citation: Women’s Bureau. 2016. Facts over time: Labor force participation rate of mothers by age of youngest child, March 1975-2015. U.S. Department of Labor.


 
 

Source Citation: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. 2016. Breastfeeding report card: Progressing toward national breastfeeding goals, United States, 2016.


This puts working moms at the crux of a serious contemporary problem: How do you meet infant health recommendations for breastfeeding and still fulfill your job or career commitments? This major question is what drives my Working & Nursing Study—A study that started out as a small evaluation of breastfeeding support on campus in spring 2013 and has grown to now include interviews with more than 90 women across Southeastern Louisiana. My goal is to better understand the challenges and successes that working, breastfeeding women face. How can we better support breastfeeding at work? How does maternity leave affect women’s breastfeeding success? How can workplaces alter their policies to create a more supportive environment? Are there types of jobs or groups of women that fare better (or worse) in terms of combining breastfeeding and work?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA 2010) set certain provisions in place to promote breastfeeding support, but this only covers non-exempt workers, leaving whole occupational classes of women without formal protection under federal law. Given the lack of broader policies on this issue, workplaces are at the frontlines of making decisions that can be directly helpful or harmful to their employees. I’m hoping that my research can help provide guidance here for best practices on breastfeeding support at work.

I’m currently acting as an independent consultant for the Diapers-to-Desk Community Program. I use findings from my Working & Nursing study to provide information about workplace breastfeeding support for women returning to work after maternity leave. I’m always looking for more study volunteers—if you have a recent breastfeeding-at-work experience you’d like to share, please contact me about a possible interview: kjohns25@tulane.edu.


Dr. Katie Johnson