Illustration for article titled The Shameful Luxury of Lactation Spaces
Photo: Medela

The women’s co-working space The Wing and breast pump manufacturer Medela have teamed up for a mutually beneficial, deeply on-brand partnership called Motherhood on the Move. Medela is stocking The Wing’s Pinterest-y lactation rooms with a host of its products, according to a press release. Those products include a breast pump that can be used by multiple people without risking milk contamination, as well as the requisite individual-use tubes, bottles, membranes, breast shields, and valves, which members can take home and (“and reuse when they visit The Wing”). To this, I say: Congratulations to Wing members, who no longer have to lug around a breast pump—as long as they are OK with being heavily marketed toward by a major corporation while also paying roughly $2,350 a year for a membership.

Admittedly, if I were a Wing member and breastfeeding, I would begrudgingly accept that trade for the sake of convenience, but the news did send me on an unexpected rage spiral about the poor state of lactation spaces, which are often treated as an optional perk (a luxury, even) as opposed to a social necessity. That is true in American workplaces, for which there are significant loopholes in federal requirements for providing pumping spaces for employees. Even when such rooms are provided, they are often enough in the supply closet or some such. In service industries, even finding the time to pump can be “virtually impossible,” as one report put it. (That is to say nothing of the sorry state of parental leave, which influences breastfeeding uptake.)

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In this political context, comfortable and reasonably appointed lactation spaces become a gratuity, a potential recruitment tool, rather than a broadly mandated essential for everyone. (And it’s no surprise that breastfeeding statistics in general reflect racial and class disparities.)

Pumping is also often treated as a fringe occurrence by businesses that serve the public, including hotels, conference centers, restaurants, and airplanes. It’s true of public spaces, too. This could easily be diverted into a discussion of the deleterious effects of the privatization of public spaces, especially when it comes to bathrooms, but just ever so briefly in comparison: You can’t even run into the nearest coffee shop and buy a bottled water to gain access to a pumping room while on the go. For the uninitiated, a Starbucks bathroom won’t do, unless it has a place to sit next to an electrical outlet for the pump—and unless you’re able to relax enough to express milk while other customers impatiently bang on the door for the 20 minutes or so that it takes to pump.

Breastfeeding parents often have to express milk every couple hours to adequately feed the baby, keep up supply, and avoid mastitis, a painful infection. That means that parents working outside of the home have to find a way to pump, whether they are employed in a traditional workplace or paying for a co-working space like the Wing. (And good luck if your work involves travel or client meetings.) This applies outside of work, too—say if you want to simply leave home for more than a few hours without your baby (i.e. to even temporarily flirt with the illusion of personal autonomy). If you want to visit a museum, hang out at a coffee shop, go out to dinner, you name it, the practical considerations of pumping loom. If you even want to go for a freaking hike in the woods, well, then the breast pump is coming with you, it better be battery- or hand-powered, and you gotta be cool with a deer seeing your tits, OK?

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Breastfeeding can be incredible and magical and, yes, all the things they say, but it can also dramatically limit your ability to move around in the word, let alone do your job, due to the fact that we live in a society that at once underscores the all-importance of breastfeeding while treating the need to express milk as a freak event.

There have been some advancements on this front. When I was breastfeeding, I almost cried tears of joy on a business trip upon discovering a Mamava “lactation suite,” a private, portable station for pumping and nursing, at the Oakland airport. Now, a new law requires major airports to provide publicly available lactation rooms by September of this year. (Still a problem: airplanes, where parents on long flights sometimes have to resort to pumping in their seats, sandwiched by total strangers.) Another recent law requires certain federally owned buildings to provide lactation spaces to the general public (although it’s worth noting that a similar push in New York hit a few snags: the New York Post found spaces that were “filthy” and hard to access). This just leaves the problem of, uhhh, everywhere else.

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This brings me back to this project by The Wing and Medela: It is a smart business initiative for both companies and a frustrating reminder of how support around lactation is so often left to companies (which is to say, treated as a business initiative). This line from the press release certainly didn’t help: “With the rise of co-working spaces in the United States, we will support these trailblazing women who are seeking new ways to foster community, collaborate and work,” said Melissa Gonzales, executive vice president of the Americas for Medela LLC. It’s a fine quote, I suppose, but her words descended on me like an enervating fog: “trailblazing,” “new ways to foster community, collaborate and work,” and then the project title itself, “Motherhood on the Move.” It has that familiar whiff of commercial, Lean In-style feminism where women’s individual struggles (and purchases) in the face of systemic challenges are framed as an act of empowerment.

I suppose we can’t all have well-appointed, custom-designed lactation rooms with pastel furniture and Art Deco wallpaper, but we could all have lactation rooms.

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel

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