real talk: preparing for work travel as a nursing mom

breast milk for shipping

The new world of “Working-Traveling-Nursing Moms” and the importance of creating a culture that supports them.

Nine months in to my second round of working motherhood and nursing I am well aware of the many schools of thought on “parent types”: attachment parent, helicopter parent, instinctive parent, management-by-walking-away parent – as my friend Jeff dubs it – (though honestly I’m far too busy and tired – and layered – to try and figure out which of these applies to me).

I’m also intimately acquainted with what it means to be a nursing mom, and a working mom, plus what it takes to nurse while working.

This year, however, I’ve had the privilege of earning a new parenting title. That of: “working, nursing, traveling mom” or WNTM. (Say that three times fast. Or better yet, try doing anything fast while holding this title.)

Earning my WNTM accreditation was far from easy. In fact, this might have been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to become. It was complex and exhausting, daunting and frustrating, also time consuming and a little expensive. Yet, it was so very important to me, and at the end of the day, ultimately empowering.

I genuinely love being a working mother. I feel profound joy and deep fulfillment from the time I spend with my children. I also feel energized and creatively fulfilled by my time spent working. It is never possible for the balance of those two worlds to be equal, but rather than focus on the guilt of trying to level the scale, I focus on the joy of having two communities: amazing little people at home to teach and love and play with, and amazing people at work to learn from and respect and get creative with.

I love contributing to Emma and Max and to society and the greater good. I want my kids to grow up knowing that, and knowing that’s a good thing. Work is not a negative in our house, always a positive. Mama isn’t sadly leaving you to ‘work’ and really bummed about it, mama gets to go do exciting things at work, just as you get to do really fun things at school, and then we all get to come home and talk about it. We all fill our wells and still remain a close family. (Maybe, even a closer one.)

Despite that, however, going away from your new baby – and kids at all – for an extended period for work is really hard. No matter the balance you strike at home, this is a whole new playing field. A literal separation for which you will feel physically – in your breasts if you don’t keep up with the pumping, in your body from all the things you have to carry through the airport; in your head from the stress of juggling it all – and emotionally, in your heart every time you see someone else’s baby or photos of our own.

The logistics alone are complex. I mean complex. The preparation has to start weeks in advance. Things have to give. Meetings need to be re-arranged, your self-consciousness has to go out the window (likely the airplane window as you pump under a cover between businessmen en route), you’ll have to give up some sleep – and some sanity too – and find away to be okay with appearing a little less capable for a brief period of time.

You have to be ready (emotionally) if the milk doesn’t arrive or your baby won’t take the bottle or something goes off track and you are miles away. You’ll have to remember why you’re doing it all and be okay if you can’t or won’t or just aren’t up for it anymore.

While navigating the preparation and necessary levels of training needed to be a WNTM – and the myriad of emotions that come with it, however – I often feel rather alone. I often feel like I am a crazy woman attempting to do something unheard of and I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I’m far from the only one earning this title in the modern day we live in.

The world is shifting and work is becoming more mobile. Definitions of mothers are becoming more blurred. We are no longer working mothers or stay-at-home mothers. We’re part-time working mothers. We’re co-working mothers. We’re work-on-the side mothers. We’re entrepreneurial mothers. And we’re WNTMs.

These changing categories call for many discussions and many shifts in the way the work world in this country treats parenting employees. I could go on about that. (Others have.) But the shift that feels most pressing to me now, after having traveled away from a 5-month-old (and 7-month-old and 9-month-old and…), is we need to support working mothers who also travel and nurse.

Employers need to allow for flexible schedules (so you can book the flights that allow you to be separate from your baby as little time as possible). Human Resource teams need to have training and to be ready to identify the nearest FedEx, recommend the best shipping containers, and point you to the best sites for learning how to pack frozen milk. Shipping charges should be expensed. Hotel rooms with fridges should be reserved for employees who are also nursing mothers.

Co-workers need to understand that arriving late while on location so you can run to FedEx or slipping out for 10 minutes to pump aren’t signs of someone less committed but rather a woman who is contributing to both the company and to her growing wee one. (And also that 10 minutes late really equals 100 minutes of increased productivity thanks to mental sanity and peace of mind.)

We need airports with more rooms to nurse. We need breast pumps for rent at heavily traveled business hotels. We need breast milk coordinators/concierges available in every major city.

Sometimes, a work trip may even require the baby – and someone to watch the baby – to come along. More expensive? Yes. More productive and healthy for everyone overall? Definitely.

Regardless, every WNTM needs a gem like Meg at Ben’s Dry Ice in San Francisco who knows intimately the ins and outs of shipping breast milk and how much dry ice you need and how to handle it and what time the nice driver will deliver it. Someone who will respond quickly to your calls and every email and make you feel like you can really do it. Someone to make you feel like you are not alone (or insane).

What we don’t need, is United Airlines. Or any airline that charges mothers to bring a small amount of dry ice on a plane when bringing your pumped milk back home. Because after spending days away from your baby, and navigating through all the pumping and freezing and shipping and FedEx pick-up hiccups and stressing that it all goes according to plan, the last thing you need on your final journey home is to have to shell out $150 to handle your own dry ice and simply assure your 60+ ounces of precious milk stay frozen. You hear me, United?

I digress, but I’m serious. On my first trip, United had already made money off of me for all the extras I paid for to make the journey smooth: more expensive tickets so I could spend an extra two hours nursing before I left and then get home immediately after the meetings ended. Checked baggage fees as I had to pack the boxes to ship the milk separately from my bag and all the bottles and my breast pump and my computer and my heels. Plus, early boarding fees so that I was sure my bag with my pump – and my boxes with frozen milk – would make it into the bin above my seat and not underneath the plane.

I was already paying over $250 more for the trip than I would have and what I was carrying was as essential as food for me. It wasn’t a perishable gift, it was the single most important thing my baby needed. Hard-earned and impossible to replace. So yes, I had dry ice. But it was out of necessity: to keep my milk totally frozen from San Francisco back home to Maine (almost 12 hours of travel time total from hotel to home), I needed more than ice cubes. I wanted the security of dry ice over ice packs.

(And for good reason. Security may make you dump the milk if it is not frozen and more than the allotted amount, which is a whole other issue.  I feel Alyssa Milano’s pain. Really. It physically hurts to think about all that work, and all those nutrients, washed away.)

I stood at the ticket counter, with two women from United absolutely unwilling to hear me out or help waive the fee, and feeling the full weight of trying to be a WNTM, yelled,” It’s not lobsters, it’s breast milk!” to no one who really cared.

I am convinced that we can do better than that. In fact, I know some people already are.

When Meg and I talked about dry ice she told me of one major company who had six nursing moms all coming to a corporate meeting. They had a coordinator who handled everything from the securing of nursing rooms to the shipping of frozen milk. Patagonia, who I’m fortunate to work with, pays for a nanny, or mother-in-law – a care-taker – to join you when traveling for work so you can bring the baby. (Plus, Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s CEO, is a champion for change for working families.) JetBlue is a dream and incredibly supportive of mothers traveling with milk. The clients I work with encourage me to bring Max and are incredibly gracious in supporting all my needs.  (Thanks Frances, for helping me track down the dry ice label at the eleventh hour!) I am always moved to have conversations with the other working mothers around me, many of them inspirational leaders.

To all of these pioneers and the others out there supporting WNTMs, I say, bravo! Way to lead the way. Let’s keep it going. Let’s cultivate a working atmosphere that fully supports women who choose to nurse and work and travel. Let’s not be afraid to shake up the work-life balance in a way that contributes to the health of babies and the bottom line.

If you happen to be a WNTM like me, or will be soon, check out my Top Tips for Traveling for Work While Breastfeeding.

Happy Travels –