When I was in my late 20’s I secured my dream job. I was a few weeks into the job having swapped chairs with an empty one at the desk closest to my mine when the lady who sat at that desk returned from leave. She walked in and hovered behind me, her eyes burnt into the back of my head until I felt the uncomfortable need to swing around, face an unknown foe and deliver a weak chirpy hello. She demanded her chair back quite rudely, I may add. I mumbled some apology about not knowing it was ‘anyone’s’ chair and she took it back to her desk and broke down in tears. I sat in shock and a colleague walked by and said, “it’s her first day back from maternity leave hen, go easy”. Go easy? I just bloody borrowed a chair! Introduction 101 to a mother’s transition back to the workplace.
Fast forward 5 years and I returned to work after 6 months maternity leave waving goodbye to the most wonderfully precious child in, of course, the world! I couldn’t fit into any of the skirts and my trousers were all tight. I had to wear button up or easily accessible tops as I was expressing and I had to share an office with a colleague who also had returned from maternity leave had rough ride breastfeeding and moved to bottles. How bad did I feel everytime I revved up the dulcet “haruum,” “haruum” tones of the breast pump? Bad? Yup.
In the first week I left the front door adjar of our house. It was open all day and when husbie returned home he thought we had been broken into. Clearly an open door works as a reverse psychology tactic on wanna-be burglars in our area. Nothing was taken, but I may have suggested to husbie they had in actual fact broken in, or rather walked in the open door and ransacked the place. Unfortunately it did look like that before we left that morning.
Then I totally forgot I had a workshop scheduled of 40 students and had to have reception ring me 15 minutes after it had started asking WTF was I doing? I had people call last minute meetings or have meetings run over schedule without realising I had scheduled time to express before 1 or 2 boobs may have spontaneously exploded. I was always nervous about that. It’s not like you are going to stop a meeting and say, “excuse me, mr middle aged academic with archaic views of women, I just need to go and drain my boobs?” Ahhhh, no! I come from a family who would rather have a boob explode than risk public embarrassment.
I had male colleagues joking hilariously about the “woops, I mixed up your breast milk with my dairy milk and put it in my coffee” scenario. Secretly I think they were dying to give it a try. I had to remember the pump, icepacks, bag, tubes and charger. There was one time in the first few weeks I forgot the pump and had to make a lunchtime dash to bub to relieve myself.
Despite trying to normalise breastfeeding by making up a poster on the office door which had Madonna in her pointy bra with the words, ‘Rebecca is ‘Expressing Herself, do not disturb,’ people still came into the room and wanted to conduct meetings. I was mortified! Not even on boozy, back room karaoke night do I unbutton my shirt, let alone under the full office fluros.
I would try and multi-task, feeling guilty about the 3 times a day I was expressing. I would try to hold the pump and one handed type but I was forever bumping the bloody thing and having to reattach it or bumping the button which increased the intensity and at some points practically detaching a nipple. Not sure I could of claimed workers compo for that?
I lived on coffee, ate crap, was always tired, got horribly sick for extended months on end with infections and secondary infections and my friends said that’s just how it was for the first year. The shock of having your delicious ‘pure’ baby get their first cold which would see them up 5 times in the night in between croup and teething was horrible.
But more offensive than anything else was to be greeted in the morning by a ‘tired’ gorgeous young colleague who had time to straighten her hair WITH product, and had time to apply primer and make-up who moaned about sleeping through her alarm after 8 hours sleep and still was still feeling tired. I had to stop myself cranking up the breast pump to nipple detach mode and attaching to her beautiful face.
So now I get it. Returning to work for parents is emotional, you can’t narrow it down to 1 emotion, it’s 50 million. It could be the ‘chair’ it could be a colleague with ‘straight’ hair, but emotions are running high. Mum’s are super sensitive to comments, attitudes, emotions, they are hyper aware of their ability, image, getting back to the way things were and proving themselves again.
So share this with people who understand but more importantly, people who don’t. It might just save a life or at the very least prevent a breast pump workplace attack.