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Breastfeeding in the Workplace: How to Have a Conversation With Your Boss

Woman breastfeeding in the workplace.

If you’re a breastfeeding mother who is returning to work in a traditional (and often male-dominated) workplace, you may find yourself dreading the all-important conversation with your boss. You know the conversation I mean, right? The one where you don’t know what words to use. It’s the conversation where you explain your need to feed your baby or express your milk in the workplace.

Years ago, I did a podcast with my friend and retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Jarold (Tom) Johnston CNM, IBCLC. After 27 years of service, Tom offered some advice that would serve you well, whether you are in the military service, or in any other setting.

He reminded us of the mantra of late Marine Major Meghan McClung.

Be bold. Be brief. Be gone.

Be bold.

Don’t be afraid to ask for a private space to feed or express your milk, and for some time off. Don’t worry about being seen as asking for a special favor. Instead, be bold! Being timid or apologetic won’t do you any good. Stop worrying about it, and just ask.

All employees are allowed to take a break, whether it’s to empty their bladder, grab a cup of coffee, or take a drag on a cigarette. What you do on your break time is your business.

True, you may find yourself asking for a break at a particular time, but you are entitled to some personal time. Sure, you may be asking for a private place, but the law entitles you to that.

Be brief.

I’ve been a boss for many years. So many times, employees give me far more information than I need to grant or deny their request. Most times, I need a simple explanation of what they need, why they need it as they have described it, when they need it, and for how long they need it.

When you have that conversation with your boss, keep it simple For example: “Because my mother is having eye surgery that day,” would work if I was your boss. I don’t need to hear the extent and consequences of the mother not having eye surgery, how the daughter is the only one to provide this support, or any other details. You follow me?

Here’s my advice: Focus on how the job will get done, not the personal issue. Briefly explain the impact — if any — on work outcome and how it will affect your teammates. Show that you have thought through how to complete your responsibilities or that you have negotiated with someone else to do so.

If you must explain your reason for asking for time or space, state your rationale as briefly as possible. Most importantly show that you have already done some problem-solving. 

A brief 4-5 sentences for the entire conversation might be plenty. Here’s a brief format:

  • What you want: A different time, a longer time, flex time, or whatever.
  • Why you want it: The best explanation is one that describes how you will be more productive in your responsibilities. (It will minimize your distractions, right?)
  • When you need to start this: Tomorrow? Next month?
  • How long will you need this: For a few days, for a few months, forever?
  • How will this impact operations? This is the most important part. Ideally, you will have done some problem-solving ahead of time so that your personal request will have little or no impact on operations, outcomes, or other colleagues. 

Honestly, though, having a history of being a loyal, conscientious, hardworking employee is the best backdrop for having this conversation.  

Be gone.

As you approach this conversation with your boss, beware of one big thing: “No” is a possible answer.

Do not be surprised if your boss is unaware that by federal law, the employer must give a break for expressing milk or feeding a baby for the first year after birth. Remember, too, that because of the wording of the law, you may find that what the boss considers to be a “reasonable break” doesn’t align with your needs or wants. And, if your child is more than 1 year old, it appears to me that the boss has no legal obligation whatsoever to honor your request.

If you hear “no” be prepared to address those two points as succinctly as you can. Whatever you do, don’t stand around whining.

If the boss says “yes,” move on. Don’t dilly-dally after your boss has given you a positive response. Express your thanks and move on.  Prattling on about the excitement of the “yes,” is counterproductive.

Get back to work. Or get to feeding your baby. But get something done!

And by all means, let your boss get back to work! When you’re gone, both you and your boss are doing something important, rather than just talking about it!

So, tell me in the comments below: On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being very uneasy and 5 being very comfortable), how comfortable are you in initiating this conversation with your boss?

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