Peter Hoey

Essays

The Trouble With Being a Nursing Mom in Dallas

This city doesn’t make it easy on breastfeeding moms who want to work (or fly or watch a football game).

After three months of the newborn grind, returning to work felt like a Carnival cruise. This was the fall of 2013 at J.C. Penney Co.’s Plano headquarters. Upper management was handling the company’s troubles with all the grace of a drunk fraternity pledge, but the chaos up top didn’t bother me much. I liked everyone on my advertising team, and, for a writer, the pay was great. My return celebration lasted approximately 120 minutes. That’s when my breasts turned into pumpkins, and I realized relieving them wouldn’t be easy.

The JCP HQ was the size of a mall—1.8 million square feet, a quarter-mile from one end to the other—but there were only four breast-pumping rooms, two on either side of the building. Walking down three flights and across a corridor took a few minutes. Then there was always a wait. Pumping took another 15 to 20 minutes. One time, the line was four women deep, so I trekked to the other side of the building to find a similar situation. I was away from my desk for 45 minutes. I had to do this every three hours.

One colleague told me I was lucky. When her kindergartner was a baby, she had to pump sitting on a toilet. Another said she just switched to formula because it was too much trouble. I heard of a mom in another department who put a foam-core board against her cubicle doorway and hoped no one tall walked by as the pump whoomp-whomped at her desk.

AT&T Stadium, Jerry Jones’ $1.2 billion dream dome—with its 16 commissioned artworks and the $13 million Sky Mirror—doesn’t have a single dedicated space for breastfeeding women.

But my absences didn’t go unnoticed. Six weeks in, a manager stopped by my desk to say my pump breaks seemed to be a “distraction.” That was it for me. My husband and I charted out our finances, and even though I outearned him, we figured we could scrape by without my income, and I put in my two weeks.

I recounted this experience on D Magazine’s FrontBurner blog awhile back. I had read news that J.C. Penney’s building had been purchased by Dreien Opportunity Partners, headed by Sam Ware, a developer with big dreams. His Campus at Legacy West would include everything from a dentist office to a florist, and he was considering doggy daycare and dry-cleaning delivery services. I suggested that his “work environment for the next generation” might include facilities for nursing moms. An interesting comment popped up on my post: Sam Ware wanted to meet me.

A former colleague forewarned me that Ware was something of a character. He was usually on his laptop, camped out in the building’s central atrium, wearing shorts and Crocs. Perhaps he dressed up for our meeting. I shook his hand and took note of his bare legs and boat shoes. Ware started out by explaining that he had twin girls, now grown, and they had been formula-fed as infants; the needs of breastfeeding moms weren’t on his radar, but he was eager to get my input.

We walked to the nursing rooms to take a look. It appeared the rooms were previously used for landline phone calls, and we could see markings where a wall was knocked out, turning two small call booths into one big, dingy pumping room. I told Ware women didn’t need much space. They’re pumping while seated, not practicing Tae Bo. More rooms was priority No. 1.

What I didn’t explain to Ware that day, because he is a middle-aged man and I have a fair complexion that blushes easily, is the biology of breastfeeding. When suction starts on the breast, nerves signal the release of the milk-producing hormone prolactin, and also oxytocin, a relaxing agent, sometimes called the “love hormone.” Oxytocin is the same hormone that helps the uterus push babies out, and scientists believe it plays a role in intercourse and orgasms. With all three of these things—sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding—a certain sense of security and relaxation provided by oxytocin helps people reach completion. But stress and anxiety reduce oxytocin levels. If there’s another mom tapping her foot outside the door or a manager watching the clock, a woman might pump to no avail. Swollen breasts feel like Satan himself is gathering steam to burst through the skin. He brings serious infections with him.

The point is: federal law requires employers to provide lactating workers with “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion.” The wording is vague. Until recently, D Magazine moms pumped on the floor of a locked supply closet; since plenty of other people had keys, ladies barricaded the door with boxes. Not ideal. A woman is going to pump more efficiently if she’s in a clean, secure, comfortable environment. (California became the first state to help ensure this with expanded breastfeeding laws.)

Fortunately, Ware worked with architects in tune with the needs of new mamas. When I later returned to Legacy West to tour the renovation, I found a milk-expression oasis. A keycard is required to get into one of two nursing quarters. Once inside, there is a row of eight petite pumping booths built with sound-dampening materials. Opposite the booths is a long counter with a sink for rinsing supplies and a refrigerator for storing breast milk.

(The real estate winds haven’t blown Ware’s way. In January, his lender posted a foreclosure on the property. As of late January, he was still looking for new financing.)

HKS Architects’ Gracie Andraos, a design lead on the Legacy West project, says she’s seen a noticeable shift in spaces for breastfeeding women. “I think maybe five years ago we would see a few within a 30,000- or 60,000-square-foot workspace,” she says, “and now we’re seeing them on every floor.” She says HKS is focused on “human-centered design”; it is including more “neuro wellness rooms” that can be accessed when not used by a lactating woman. “We’re also now seeing those wellness rooms or lactation rooms in spaces outside of the office, in stadiums and venues and airports,” Andraos says.

Thank God.

Beyond work, I had three choices as a breastfeeding mom. I could keep my baby with me at all times, leave the house in four-hour increments, or find ad hoc solutions wherever I went—pumping in my car, or in the same place where people poop, or some kind stranger’s office at the library. No wonder less than half of moms make it the full pediatrician-recommended first year. The infrastructure is getting better by degrees.

Back in 2013, I missed a friend’s wedding because I couldn’t figure out how I’d get from my house to a New York hotel without a place to pump. DFW Airport opened its first nursing station a year later. It now has three pump rooms and apparently more on the way. Legislation recently passed requiring a nursing station in each terminal. Still, DFW is the world’s fourth-busiest airport, serving 200,000 passengers each day. With one nursing station per terminal, a mom coming off a long flight better pray she’s the only one on the plane with full boobies.

AT&T Stadium—with its 16 commissioned artworks and the $13 million Sky Mirror—doesn’t have a single dedicated space for breastfeeding women. My friend Ashley, a Cowboys season ticket holder who breastfed three babies, would just duck into a janitor’s closet.

Rangers fans can find relief. Globe Life Field opens this month with a wellness-slash-mother’s room on each level, plus two for their own staffers in the office suites. Both Dallas’ and Irving’s convention centers have found a construction-free solution with mobile nursing pods made by the Vermont-based company Mamava (moms can download the Mamava app to find updated locations).

There was another interesting comment on my original blog post, someone reeling at the cost of adding lactation spaces. I think about it this way: a few decades ago, people began to think that maybe those who got around on wheels might also like to do business at a bank, buy a postage stamp, or visit a museum. It came at great cost to add ramps, widen doorways, restructure bathroom stalls, and install elevators. Pumping when a breastfeeding mom is away from her baby is a necessity, not a privilege. Breastfeeding isn’t going away until the seas swallow us all. Yes, carving out sanitary spaces for women to make their babies’ food is an investment, but as a boomer in boat shoes once told me, “It’s just the right thing to do.”   

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