First, it was the American University professor who breastfed her sick child in front of the class she was teaching because she didn't have back up childcare. And now, it's a California teacher who says her school supervisors denied her time to pump, telling her instead to "train her breasts not to make milk at work," according to a recently filed lawsuit.
Is there something about breastfeeding and being a teacher that we should know about?
Yes, says Michelle Johnson, mom of twin toddler girls and a middle school teacher in Massachusetts—and it's this: the two may be much more difficult to mix than most people think.
"Some teachers don't get a break from students at all during the day, and in certain schools, calling in for a substitute if your own child is sick is next to impossible. I know many teacher moms who get massive guilt trips from their principals for taking time off," she says—adding that the two news stories are just a taste of what teachers face. "Unfortunately, I think this goes on more than we realize."
Johnson learned firsthand the struggle of balancing breastfeeding and a full-time teaching schedule when she went back to work after her twins were born. "I love my job, but pumping breastmilk was basically impossible. I had second period off, so this gave me plenty of time to pump," she explains. "However, I shared my classroom with another teacher who taught that period, so my room was out. The teacher's lounge was always packed, and our teacher's multi-stall bathroom only had one rickety looking electrical outlet. I would have been forced to stand right next to the door in order to pump."
When Johnson said something to her principal, she was given the option of using the classrooms of fellow teachers on break that period. But even that didn't feel like much a solution. "It's their room and I get that we are all busy during the day with grading and setting up activities. I just felt too uncomfortable to impose."
Johnson eventually gave up on her original intent to pump, settling instead for dropping her twins off at daycare with formula, and breastfeeding as much as possible during the evenings and on weekends. She admits it didn't cross her mind at the time to look deeply into her legal rights as a nursing mom.
What would she have found out had she checked?
According to an amendment in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S. Code 207), signed into law by President Obama in 2010, employers are required to "provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth each time such employee has need to express milk." Employers are not required to compensate employees for pump breaks, but are required to provide a place—other than a bathroom—for the employee to express breast milk.
The law does come with one major loophole, namely, an employer with fewer than 50 employees is exempt from these rules if accommodating the breastfeeding mom imposes "undue hardship."
"I don't know what would have happened if I had kept pushing to get some private space," Johnson muses. "I guess technically I was provided a place to pump that wasn't a bathroom, but I didn't think it was suitable. Does that count? I was so stressed out at the time, I really had no idea what to say."
However, another working mom, Teresa Silvano of Clifton Park, New York, did manage to successfully combine breastfeeding and a school schedule. The mom of two now strongly believes that for any mom to keep up pumping, she should be prepared to get creative, no matter what her profession.
A teacher's aid when her first baby was born, she was at a disadvantage. "I had no classroom, so I explored every nook and cranny of the school, looking for a clean, private spot with an outlet. I stumbled on an old practice room in the music wing that was being used for storage. I asked the music teacher if she minded if I neatened the place up and brought in a chair. She welcomed the help getting rid of some things, and even gave me my own key. I pumped during lunch and it was soundproof bliss for an entire year."
So what about that "train your breasts" comment the teacher in California allegedly received?
Johnson says that if it weren't so offensive, it might actually be funny.
"If only I could have read a manual to my breasts about not leaking and becoming engorged while I was in the middle of fourth period. I would have been named teacher and mom of the year!"