At quarter past five on a Thursday afternoon, Ivy Todd Sager, 31, is negotiating traffic while trying to pay attention to her two young daughters in the back seat of the family car.
"In a second, sweetheart," she calls to her toddler. "Mommy will be off the phone in a minute." It's also the first chance she's had to call the Style reporter who's been asking about a subject that's intensely important to her.
Sager like 75 percent of mothers in the workplace is challenged each day to meld her personal and professional lives. Experts say she is part of a labor force segment that is increasing at a greater rate than any other group: women with children.
Sager represents another growing subset, too. According to a 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 70 percent of employed mothers have children under 3 and work full time. About one-third of these mothers return to work within three months after having a baby; about two-thirds return within six months. For Sager, it was three months. And one thing that helped her decide to resume her job last month as a department director with Hanover County is that she can pump at work.
To continue breastfeeding her four-month-old daughter albeit in absentia Sager pumps, or "expresses," milk twice a day for up to 20 minutes in her office. She pulls out the plastic contraption of tubes and suction horns, attaches them to her breast and plugs in to an electrical outlet. "I have a private office and my environment is supportive," says Sager, pointing out that her office co-workers all are women.
While it isn't the cuddly experience of actual breastfeeding, she says, pumping is every bit as maternal. "It's about a commitment to breastfeeding, but that's not all," she says. "It's about giving her breast milk."
And for breast milk, insist pediatricians and the surgeon general, there is no substitute. Breast milk is beneficial to infants and mothers, according to health-care experts. It helps build up babies' immune systems and may lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in mothers.
But despite the health benefits they may gain, women who choose to breastfeed at work encounter an array of obstacles. Among them, employers who won't let them take breaks to express milk at regular intervals, or who suggest bathroom stalls as a substitute for a clean, quiet, private room in which they can pump milk. Mothers who pump sometimes must endure their co-workers' squeamishness about breast milk and jokes about what they do in private. And while it's not surprising that American sexual and social mores surface when bared breasts are the topic, breastfeeding advocates say that's not the way it should be.
"This is a bottle-feeding country," says Sonyia Elder, a lactation consultant and program coordinator for Bon Secours Memorial Regional Medical Center. Elder is also a member of the Virginia Breastfeeding Task Force, a public-private consortium that promotes and provides support for increased breastfeeding in the state. "So when a woman breastfeeds in public, that sets the stage," she says.
Increasingly, it is a stage that is attracting attention from lawmakers. Federal legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate supporting a woman's legal right to pump milk in the workplace. Additionally, the legislation could give tax incentives to companies that provide lactation services.
That could be good news for some local companies such as the Martin Agency, Philip Morris, Capital One and Dominion Resources that have created private places for new moms to pump milk.
The companies call them lactation rooms or nursing rooms. To find these rooms in the workplace, though, can be tough. Few offices have them. And those that do don't exactly trumpet that fact. So much so that media-relations offices at the Martin Agency and Dominion Resources weren't aware they existed until they asked around.
"We do have one," says Martin Agency spokesman Dean Jarrett. He describes the room as more than just an unused office or small conference room. It's expressly for the purpose of "expressing" milk, and has a table and a comfortable wing chair. "We have a fair amount of women walking around with those black bags," Jarrett says.
There are five such women walking around Dominion's corporate headquarters downtown. Shania Carpenter, 32, an associate business-systems analyst in the information technology department, is one of them. Three times a day Carpenter carries her gear and heads to the 13th floor where she slips into the former examining room to think of her 8-month-old son, Chance, and to pump milk for him.
In the room there is a clock, a CD player, a sink and a bed. Thanks to Carpenter, there are pictures of babies, too, and Post-It notes displaying the e-mail addresses of Dominion's lactating moms. "Breastfeeding is not always recognized as something desirable [to do] at work," says Carpenter. "I think it should be a requirement that every employer have a place where nursing moms can go to nurse," she says.
She could soon get her wish. Already some states have laws protecting a woman's right to breastfeed Hawaii, Minnesota and Tennessee. And three states California, Connecticut and Illinois are considering similar laws. Could Virginia be next?
Del. Viola Baskerville says, quite possibly, yes.
Baskerville, who says she breastfed her own children, has agreed to look closely at the issue to see how Virginia's families might best be served by some such legislation. She's quick to point out that it's still too early to tell what form it could take. But she's willing, she says, to initiate the inquiries in time for the 2002 General Assembly. "Dialogue has begun," she says.
Regrettably, though, breastfeeding advocates say, rates still are far beneath national health goals. In 1998 the most recent year for which information was available a study by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 64 percent of all mothers breastfed in the first months following childbirth and only 29 percent at the six-month mark. Those figures are significantly lower for minority women. The federal health agency's aim is to boost those numbers for all races to 75 percent and 50 percent by 2010. Health-care experts hope new laws and increased workplace support like lactation rooms will help.
Corporate lactation programs were unheard of a decade ago. Then, returning to work meant the end of breastfeeding. Slowly, some say too slowly, they're beginning to crop up. It's possible your office has a lactation room or support program for nursing mothers, and you just don't know about it. If it doesn't, Memorial Regional's Elder hopes you'll ask for one. "If you're an employer you should care because it'll have financial benefits to you," Elder says, citing higher retention rates and tax credits if some proposed legislation passes.
More than 15 minutes have passed since Ivy Todd Sager began talking about breastfeeding. She breastfed her first child for eight months. With her second, she's sure she'll pump at least a year. Hanover County, she says, is getting more than its money's worth in keeping her. Plus, she says, expressing has helped her multitask. "I pump twice a day and that's my time to return calls and e-mails. I can pump with one hand and type with another," she says with a laugh. "And people don't even think about what the sound is on the other end of the phone. It doesn't sound any different from a