talking to your boss

Look: nobody wants to do this. Talking to your boss, male or female, about anything to do with your body, let alone your breasts, is awkward at best. And unless you know otherwise, you should start by assuming that this person knows nothing about breastfeeding or pumping milk in the workplace.

Before we get to talking to your boss, lets set some ground rules for The Boss/Breasts Talk:

  1. Familiarize yourself with company policy and your legal rights (or lack thereof) ahead of time. DO NOT march in there, waving a copy of the law around. Keep this in your back pocket for use only if things go really sour, or if they ask. You want to keep this conversation friendly and positive if at all possible.
  2. Write up a draft pumping plan. Tackle this project like you would any assignment you want to impress your boss with. You wouldn’t bring him or her a half-done strategic plan with a bunch of question marks for him/her to answer, would you? No – you are an awesome employee. You’d do your research, talking to other mothers in the office to see what did and didn’t work for them. You would map out the whole thing, to the best of your knowledge, and propose solutions wherever you saw a roadblock. So if your workplace doesn’t have a lactation room, maybe you learn from another mother that she used a disused storage closet. Great, except she mentioned that she sometimes got walked in on. So you go and talk to the office manager to find out the cost and hassle of installing a lock, and getting your hands on a chair to put in there. Going to your boss with as many problems solved as possible will make you look like a pro..
  3. Rip off the Band-Aid. Do not dance around the topic. It only makes things worse, trust me. Try this: “This conversation is going to be awkward, but we have to get it done. When I come back from having my baby, I’m still going to be breastfeeding and I will be pumping milk on the job.” If you try to use code words or hem and haw a lot, it’s just going to get more and more uncomfortable for both of you.
  4. Don’t apologize. It’s great to say “thank you” for a supportive work environment, but do not set the tone by apologizing for what you need to do. Nobody around you apologizes for using the restroom, or for needing disability-accessible facilities. This is one short vignette in your life as an employee, and you shouldn’t be sorry for it.
  5. Don’t get upset. Not every one of these conversations goes well. Don’t get upset in the moment. Thank your boss for his/her time, and step away to consider your next steps. Maybe that’s coming back with an adjusted plan, maybe it’s visiting HR, or maybe it’s figuring out how to go rogue without your boss’s permission.

So, when talking to your boss what should that pumping plan include?

  1. Where: The space you want to use, and how to make that space viable. If it is shared space, make sure you address that.
  2. When: How often and for how long you will use that space. Most working mothers need to pump every 2-3 hours, for 20-30 minutes at a time. Don’t forget a bit of padding for getting in there, and for cleanup afterwards.
  3. What: What other physical resources you need to make this work, based on input from your allies. Fridge and sink access are key. Access to an electrical outlet is helpful, but not do-or-die if your pump has a battery pack.
  4. Productivity: Include points on how you will remain productive: bringing your phone or laptop with you, getting someone to cover for you, or putting in extra time at home.

MORE ON THIS: Breastfeeding, Work, and the Law

Once you have a plan agreed with your boss and/or Human Resources, confirm it by email to get it in writing. Ask them to reply with any notes so you are all on the same page. Open and close with statements about your intention to have a productive and engaged return to work. While you are on leave, it’s also a good idea to send a reminder going over the plan, because you have probably not been top of mind for them while you’ve been off having your baby:

  • Remind them of your back-to-work date.
  • Restate your basic needs as written up in your plan.
  • Include anyone you need help from to remind them what’s been agreed, and ask them to confirm that it’s done.

Finally, after a few weeks back on the job, check in with your boss. If everything is more or less going to plan, just say that, and say thanks for the support. If anything has changed that s/he needs to know about (for example, if pumping is taking you twenty-five minutes instead of fifteen), say so, and tell him/her about the adjustments you are putting in place to make it work. This helps your boss feel that you are on top of the situation. Plus, if s/he has noticed that you are gone longer than you originally discussed, s/he won’t think that you’re hiding that fact, taking advantage of the situation, or abusing the time allotted. These things help you look like a pro in the eyes of your boss, and in the long arc of your career, that’s never a bad thing.

Jessica Shortall is the author of Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work (Abrams, 2015). She is also a vocal advocate for paid parental leave. You can find her on facebook, twitter, and Instagram.