I'm sorry to all the people who I cover at my company benefits plan who didn't get their breast pumps reimbursed.
I'm sorry that it took me this long to realize what an essential piece of equipment that is integral to so many women to feeding their baby, and essential to employers in supporting their employees.
This epiphany came after I gave birth in 2018.
My obstetrician told me about a new study which suggests that it's better to induce at 39 weeks if the pregnancy is normal. Great, I thought. I have time to get a blowout first. What a fool I was.
Voila: a healthy baby, born from my 200lb, 5'9 frame.
The loot bag that I got upon discharge: being extremely puffy after being filled with fluids (that sweet, sweet epidural). Plus, the most extreme tongue tie in a baby that any pediatrician had ever seen.
Why does this matter? More women are being induced to avoid the horror of an emergency C-section after days of labour. More babies are being identified as being tongue-tied. All of these factors contribute to the most stressful situation I've ever faced:
Having a hard time breastfeeding.
Everyone thinks breastfeeding is natural — so is poison ivy. Many mothers don't have success immediately. It can be difficult if your baby needs more than your body supplies, or if it's so painful that it feels like running a cheese grater on your nipples.
Compound this with the stigma of giving formula ("You're going to feed your baby corn syrup?"), and the pressure to ensure your baby gains back the weight they lost at birth, lest you be reported to the government for your baby's failure to thrive.
So, what do women do in the dark of the night, hidden away for hours? They pump.
They drop a few hundred on a breast pump. "Pump!" lactation consultants say. "Low supply? Painful latch? PUMP!"
For me, labour was like frosh week, and pumping like hazing: chugging an inhumane amount of fluids while people egg you on.
"Need to go back to work? PUMP, girl! Don't stop!"
Pumping breast milk with a machine is one of the least sexy, but most enrolled-in extracurricular activities for new mothers. There are underground societies for women who "exclusively pump" — they do not breastfeed their babies directly. Rather, they pump and feed their baby in a bottle. I'm one of them. And for all the reasons listed above, it's happening more often.
However, it's one of the most bizarre things anyone will ever see unless they've experienced it, and therefore, there is a stigma attached to pumping in front of others. While breastfeeding in public is finally normalized, we are nowhere near being accepted for pumping in public. Women spend hours per day pumping, sterilizing, measuring, charting, freezing, thawing, and preparing for the next pump, all while hiding at home or in a dark room at work. I spend four hours per day pumping, or as my husband pointed out, "You've been pumping the equivalent of a full week."
The photo of Rachel McAdams pumping for Girls Girls Girls magazine may have been the first time in pop culture a woman was not only seen pumping, but glamourized for it. (The irony of the cut-up shirt she wore as Regina George in Mean Girls was not lost on me.) Hilary Duff promptly Instagrammed a response. Chrissy Teigen has been seen manually pumping while on the way to a date night with John Legend.
I also have photos of myself pumping while feeding my baby, or driving, while on speakerphone with the office, while shotgunning an avocado because it's the quickest thing I could grab.
How could I return to work, to lead a team of 20, only to have to excuse myself for two hours to pump?
And then, I discovered a wearable, hands-free pump that allowed me to do it discreetly, in my bra without anyone knowing. Here are some places where I've used this new pump:
In a boardroom with seven male CEOs
Getting assessed by a physiotherapist
Driving in my car while on the phone with one of my salesmen
These are places where I could never pump with my old machine.
So what does this have to do with Canadian health insurance?
Pumping can cost a few hundred to thousand dollars for all the gear. Standard Canadian group benefit plans may or may not cover breast pumps. This is a default option that should absolutely be set to 'covered' under 100 per cent of plans. It allows mothers to return to work quicker, thus adding more productivity and costing less in paid leave top-ups. But even if it has nothing to do with working sooner, it allows women to reduce the insurmountable stress, guilt and shame they feel with feeding.
If you're not covered through your benefit plan, here's how you can lobby to have this changed:
Tell both HR and your benefits broker that plans must cover breast pumps in order to support you returning to work.
Contact your insurer to confirm that your plan will cover your pump.
Normalize pumping: if you hear of a woman pumping at work, offer her a chance to meet while she's pumping to remove the stigma.
Let's come together to reject the status quo and push for a better future for new mothers.
Images owned by Yafa Sakkejha. Reproduction or use of photos is forbidden without express prior written consent to firstname.lastname@example.org
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