New moms prove creative in handling both their jobs and nursing their babies

May 07, 1991|By Cox News Service

It was a delicate dilemma. How could Yvonne Cantu tell her supervisor -- on a walkie-talkie overheard by 15 security officers and managers -- that she was pumping milk from her breasts?

"I just tell him I'm at the dairy," says Ms. Cantu, a secretary of security services who often is summoned by her boss on a two-way radio.

"He knows what that is, and there are no questions."

Welcome to the complicated world of today's working woman, in which more and more health-conscious new mothers are trying to do it all -- go back to work and be the milk-source for their babies.

"It's much healthier for her," says Ms. Cantu, who feeds her 4-month-old daughter naturally during non-office hours but pumps at work for later daytime feedings. "And it's a way of keeping close to her."

The phenomenon, which sometimes results in interesting questions of logistics and etiquette, has even become fodder for sitcom scripts. Witness one episode of CBS's "Designing Women," where Charlene decided to store her breast milk in the company refrigerator. It was mistaken for coffee creamer by an unsuspecting Suzanne.

The "Designing Women" episode "is sort of a reflection that it's becoming more commonplace in our society," says Linda Zeccola, a lactation consultant. To avoid Charlene's problem, Ms. Zeccola "always tells women to put their milk in a sack or box."

Ms. Zeccola and her partner Barbara Wilson Clay, who operate Austin (Texas) Lactation Associates, are among a growing number of counselors who help women master the art of nursing -- a practice that wasn't as popular years ago when today's mothers were hungry infants.

Many of today's moms must turn to professionals in the field because their mothers used formula in the 1950s and '60s when it was considered better for infants.

With so many mothers in the work force, combining employment and nursing is one of the big lactation issues these days. Ms. Zeccola teaches a special class for employed mothers, as do many hospitals and other lactation consultants.

Lactation consultants note that breast-feeding is more popular among educated women who are knowledgeable about the nutritional benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children should be breast-fed exclusively for four to six months. But on a national basis, breast-feeding rates have been declining in recent years.

"Mostly, I see more educated, higher socioeconomic levels who do at least start breast-feeding," says consultant Marsha Leake. "But the rate of breast-feeding after six weeks really drops. For some, the support is not there and they may run into obstacles."

Mixing office and breast-feeding isn't always easy. Much depends on the support of the father, colleagues and employers. In rare instances, mothers bring their babies to work and breast-feed in person.

Beverly Vaugh, an actuarial technician, says her bosses wanted her in the office before her baby was old enough for a day-care center -- so she often breast-fed at a desk while working on her computer.

"I would wear a nursing blouse or a T-shirt that you pull up from the bottom," says Ms. Vaugh. "That way nothing was exposed. And our office has cubbyholes, and one of my co-workers who has the one farthest in the back traded with me."

But most working moms have fewer options -- they either sneak home or to the day-care center during breaks, or they bring a pump to work and "express" their milk into bottles, feeding it to the baby later.

Pumping keeps up a mother's milk supply and it relieves the body's natural buildup of breast milk.

But doing it all can be a difficult juggling act. Not every employer is willing to be flexible enough to make it convenient.

Elementary school teacher Liz Wysocki, who pumps in her classroom during lunch, was told that it was a violation of school policy to tape a paper curtain over the window in her classroom door. Nothing, a male administrator told her, was supposed to obscure the glass.

"The first thing that came out of his mouth was, 'Do it in the restroom,' " remembers Ms. Wysocki.

The administrator, quickly informed about the problems of pumping in a bathroom with no chairs or plugs for an electric pump, later helped Ms. Wysocki make a removable curtain for the window.

Despite the fact breast-feeding is a natural act, many people -- at least in this culture -- think of it as weird, embarrassing or distasteful.

"It's a real sensitive issue," says Motorola engineer Shelly Van Dyke.

"A lot of people are embarrassed by it. I don't make it a secret, but at the same time, I don't broadcast from my office that I'm a nursing mom."

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