Dignifying Design for New Nursing Mothers

Evelyn M. Lee, AIA, writes a regular column for Contract on business practices in design and professional development. Based in San Francisco, Lee is regional workplace manager, west coast lead at Newmark Knight Frank. She holds graduate degrees in architecture, public administration, and business administration. Currently a member of the AIA national board of directors, Lee received an AIA Young Architects Award in 2014. Her website is evelynlee.com. Visit contractdesign.com/businesspractice to read all of her columns for Contract.

For most moms, coming back to work after maternity leave is hard. I know first hand how difficult it is to leave a three-month-old in the hands of a relative stranger. And for those moms who come back to work with the intention of pumping, it can also be a logistical nightmare.

Never tell a mom to pump in a restroom
Prior to my experience as a mom, if someone asked me for a place to go pump I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest they go to the restroom. Now, when I am given the option to pump in the restroom, my response is: “Would you be willing to eat a sandwich you made in the women’s (or men’s) room?” Pumping breast milk is equivalent to food preparation. That realization is usually enough to persuade most architecture and interior design firms to at least reconsider the design of an in-office mother’s room.

Designing a mother’s room
I have pumped in boardrooms, conferences, offices, restrooms, storage closets that were dirtier than restrooms, cars, and airplane lavatories. Given all that I do for my baby, I have really grown to appreciate a well-designed mother’s room. While at a large tech company, I had access to a mother’s room with three curtained stations where I could pump in privacy with other mothers. At each station there was a hospital-grade pump and all new moms were welcomed back into the workplace with an accessory package. In addition to the stations, there was a sink and drying rack in the room, along with a full-sized refrigerator.

Now, I realize that every workplace does not have the resources to create such a nice place for new mothers, but I recommend going above and beyond standard federal workplace law, which merely requires a place that is not a bathroom, is completely private, and is lockable. If you must clean out the storage closet, consider what a difference decent lighting, a nice chair, a small table with a plug nearby, and a mini-fridge will make for a new mom. These are not big expenses, but will add huge value to those who need it. Believe me, it’s not fun being hooked up to a machine like a cow, so many of us do not look forward to pumping. At least provide an environment that you wouldn’t mind taking a break in for 30 minutes.

Pumping takes time
Depending on what I eat, how much water I consume, how much sleep I get the night before, the last time my child nursed, or where my own body is postpartum, a single pumping session runs anywhere between 15–30 or more minutes. In an environment where I am never completely in control of my own schedule, I quickly learned that I needed to block off two times a day outside of lunch so I can pump when I need to.

There’s no getting around it, pumping takes time and the most considerate of employers and clients make room for that. In the last five months (I have a 7-month-old at home), I have missed portions of daylong board meetings, architecture and interior design interviews, and focus groups. However, I have worked around the schedules the best I can to move important votes on agenda and make sure I am always covered by a co-worker who can fill me in on anything I miss on the client side. That is the new reality of my workdays.

My recommendation to new working moms who nurse is to be your own advocate and ask for the environment you need. For those who work with moms or design wellness rooms, remember these are supposed to be places of respite where moms are preparing food, and please never question a mom’s need to leave a meeting to go do her thing.