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Mothers On the Go: Breastfeeding and Pumping in Airports Across America

Every podcast episode makes me think. Preparing beforehand, reflecting afterwards, or both — every topic, every guest, every show is on my mind for some time. But this show, “Mothers On the Go: Breastfeeding and Pumping in Airports Across America,” is on my mind even now, hours after taping. I am still reeling from talking with Jeremy Blackman and his wife Nina about how airports lack a reasonable accommodation for a woman who needs to pump milk for her baby. I’m impressed by the vision of Gene Richardson, Director of Avitation at the Burlington International Airport, and Sascha Mayer, owner of the Mamava, who spearheaded efforts to build a modular Lactation Station within that facility. Several times during the show, Mr. Richardson said the decision to create such a room was a “no-brainer.” I think he probably underestimates his insightfulness, but there is a no-brainer in this story — airport personnel thinking that the “restroom” or “bathroom” is an appropriate place for a mother to express her milk.

The purpose of the place

Let’s think about it. It may sound innocuous and maybe even helpful for the airport staffer to direct a woman who needs to pump her milk to go to the “restroom.” But a restroom is actually not a place for rest.  The restrooms in airports, hotels, and other public places are anything but restful. They would be better termed “hurry-up rooms,” as one generally does what one must do before quickly dashing to catch a flight.

The words “bathroom” and “lavatory” may be used and are similarly unhelpful to the breastfeeding mother. Even in one’s home, where a “bath” may be present, the bathroom is more likely to be used for urination or defecation than for bathing. While the word “lavatory” is drawn from the Latin “to lavare” and means “to wash,” although one does wash one’s hands there, the main purpose is to leave and flush excrement.

Maybe airport personnel would understand the problem if we referred to these rooms for what they are: the” toilet room,” the “pee room,” the “poop room,” the “excrement room.” Grossed out? Disgusted? Does it seem repulsive to use such terms — slang for what really goes on there — for those places?

Such terms are evocative. Powerful, even. I bet you could practically see the room, maybe even smell it, when you read those terms.  Good, I’m glad. Thinking that way is a strong reminder that the room where adults excrete waste from food should not be a room where a woman secretes her baby’s food! That is the true no-brainer here.

A place for the purpose

Some people seem to think that just because the “women’s rest room” is the place for women in the airport (the place that men are not allowed to be) that it is the place that they should feel comfortable feeding their baby or expressing the milk from their breasts.

I’m trying to imagine how comfortable I would feel as a pumping mother: finding an outlet … standing at the counter … leaning over my breast pump … bare-chested … trying not to spill any of the precious milk my baby needs … hoping  the milk and my pump aren’t contaminated by splashing water,  soapy hands, or germs I’d rather not consider … trying to ignore the ‘wheeee-wheooo’ noise of the pump and focus on a good let-down of milk … praying for the bottles to fill quickly … balancing the flanges … trying not to spill milk on myself while another woman is rushing by — in a hurry, with luggage, holding a child’s hand, whatever …

Or how about as a breastfeeding mother: perching on a toilet … holding baby in my arms and trying not to let her come in contact with the surrounding walls or seat … constrained by the dimensions of the bathroom stall and the diaper bag hanging on the hook of the stall door … trying not to think about the germs that we are unable to avoid … wondering how others would feel if their lunch were prepared in the restroom (toilet room) …

It’s a no-brainer that’s not a place for the purpose of pumping. But it’s the reality of many women traveling through U.S. airports every day.

A place with a purpose

It seems to me that we make all sorts of accommodations for people who have needs — and rightly so. Our public buildings are ADA-compliant. Businesses set aside parking spots for the comfort of their pregnant patrons. We have express checkout lanes in the grocery store to accommodate those who are buying just a few things, and there are escorts available for children who are flying without a parent or guardian along. Airports have chapels to meet the needs of flyers who worship, free Wi-fi for those who want to access the Internet, and any number of other accommodations to meet the creature comforts of travelers.

It’s time for all airports to follow the lead of Gene Richardson and Sascha Mayer and offer lactation stations or mother’s rooms for those who need them.

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