The academic job market is challenging for job-seekers and search committees alike, but for a new mother, especially so. Nursing and pumping milk add to the already complicated mix of physical, intellectual, and emotional pressures.
Like many academic mothers, I had a baby during the dissertation phase of graduate school, and went on the market while learning to care for my infant. Throughout the fall, I wrote job query letters with the baby on my lap, worked on writing samples while he napped, and filled out online applications while he grinned at me from a bouncy seat. But once I reached the interview stage, combining new motherhood with the job quest became more challenging.
In December I brought my husband and five month-old baby to the Modern Language Association meeting for interviews. At the time it seemed the only reasonable way to continue nursing, be present for interviews, and see my husband over the holidays. Although it might have been beneficial to be alone with my thoughts and job materials at that time — and to sleep through the night! — in many regards I found it helpful to have my family with me. My husband patiently listened as I practiced answers aloud, and my baby’s presence kept me grounded.
Immediately after MLA, when most candidates would be researching schools and preparing for campus visits, I was traveling across the country to show my new baby to family back home. Although deemed unwise by an adviser, the trip was absolutely necessary given my family dynamics and my recalcitrant, if unacademic, homesickness. I imagined I’d have a few weeks between that trip and any job visits, but the flight for my first job visit ended up being scheduled mere hours after I returned. This left me no time at home to pump and freeze milk, so my husband and baby were left with what was in the freezer from before MLA, which turned out to be exactly how much the baby would eat in the 40 or so hours I was away. With visits scheduled very quickly — some with only a few days’ notice — providing enough milk became a constant concern. By April, I had a job and a still-well-fed baby, so it all worked out well. But there were incidents during and surrounding the visits that I would like to share so that other women pumping on the market — and the search committee members who schedule their visits — might avoid certain mistakes.
While all of the colleges I visited treated my pumping needs respectfully, some search committees were better than others at meeting those needs.
At one campus, the search committee members went out of their way to provide me with space and time to nurse. They provided me a private room in which to pump, and had covered the window in the door prior to my arrival. My itinerary included 20-30 minute breaks for pumping, at the 3-4 hour intervals I had requested. The itinerary also included the names of my escorts to and from each event, which was extremely helpful.
I tried to schedule visits so I was only away for one night. Ideally I’d travel in the morning, have some interviews or talks in the afternoon/evening, then a full second day, and travel home that night. That plan fit with what most colleges needed from me. For a visit at one college, situated rather far from my home, however, I was told a truncated visit could negatively affect my candidacy. Because I favored that job over all other possibilities at that point, I dragged (and paid for) my husband and 6 month-old on the visit with me. Unlike at MLA, this taking-the-family-along attempt proved detrimental. Instead of reviewing materials and resting on the day-long series of flights, I was mostly engaged in mothering — nursing, entertaining, diaper-changing, albeit with a partner. An ill-timed teething bout meant I was up nursing 2-3 times a night. I spent the final day of my visit (and one of my two major presentations) in a sleep-deprived fog — which definitely "negatively affected my candidacy." Despite those challenges, I was glad not to be away from my baby for the four days the visit took, and was grateful to have my husband there to console me after I knew I'd blown the final day. Although it didn’t work out terrifically well, I’m not sure I’d do it differently if I had to do it all over again.
Even short visits, though, presented challenges: one of the rooms I pumped in was several hallways away from the nearest bathroom. Walking academic hallways with pump cones and breastmilk was not the most confidence-boosting of all activities, nor was being engaged in small talk (which on a visit is never really "small") as I dumped the milk and cleaned bottles, etc.
Another challenge with pumping on the market is the potential for plugged ducts. Suffice to say that presenting a job talk while one of your breasts is hot to the touch, throbbing, and about twice its normal size (hoping no one will notice that, since you're wearing a suit jacket), is not exactly a recipe for success... but luckily, that only happened to me once, and Advil, a hot shower, and an extra-long pumping session that night relieved the problem before the next day of interviews.
Perhaps the oddest incident I encountered while pumping on the market had to do with the privacy of my assigned break-space. At most campuses, whatever room was dedicated for that purpose was "mine" for that time. On one visit, though, I was left alone while actually pumping, but when I went to the restroom to dump the milk, leaving the door ajar because I had no key, and expecting to return to the empty office to call my husband and relish the 12 remaining minutes in my "break," I found the office’s occupant had returned and was making phone calls of her own. There was nowhere I could go, so I packed up my pumping gear and pulled out the notes for my talk, trying not to overhear the quite personal conversation happening five feet from me. Pumping is private and somewhat embarrassing, and job candidates already have plenty of pressures and need personal space built in to their campus interviews — search committees would serve everyone well by providing truly private space for the entire break time.
On two visits, I was dropped at the airport three or four hours after my last scheduled break, and had to pump at the airport. Some airports do have bathroom stalls with outlets (shout out to Detroit Airport’s excellent family bathrooms!), but many don’t. At one airport, I searched and searched for a bathroom with an outlet in a stall. I even called the airport’s helpline to ask if there was a private place with an outlet to pump. (I was guided to an outlet beneath the phone — in the main walkway, across from a kiosk and a restaurant … not the most private possibility). I ended up pumping at the only other outlet available, in front of the bathroom mirror. Exhausted and frustrated by this point, I pumped, standing up and crying, while every woman walking in or out had fairly full view of my plastic-encased breast. This incident is not the fault of any search committee, and instead speaks to a societal lack of provision for nursing mothers, but having a final scheduled pumping break just before my flight would have been incredibly helpful.
Because pumping necessitated thinking about my baby, it made me miss him, sometimes to the point of tears. But because pumping also releases oxytocin, a calming hormone, it often turned out to be highly beneficial on a high-stress job visit. I wouldn’t trade my experience, filled with bumps as it was, either for formula-feeding or for waiting another year to go on the market. But I can offer advice to those women who may soon be on the market as nursing mothers, and to search committees who encounter this probably unexpected aspect of their visit-scheduling.
- Provide breaks, spaced at intervals appropriate for the individual — be sure to offer a break both at arrival and before departure, because airports (and airplanes) often do not provide spaces amenable to pumping.
- Provide space — private, unshared space — for candidates to pump and regroup during the scheduled breaks. Before leaving the candidate alone, be sure she knows where the bathrooms are (and if at all possible, a room with a sink would be ideal).
- Offer job candidates bottles of water when they arrive. This is especially important for candidates who are also nursing mothers, but is also a lovely courtesy for all travelers.
- Give the candidate contact information and instructions in case her flight is canceled or delayed and an unplanned additional overnight stay required. One member of a search committee offered to let me stay in her home if my plane was delayed (as the weather indicated it might be) — the offer was incredibly kind and made me feel very positively toward the department as I was leaving.
For women pumping on the market:
- Ask tactfully, in advance, for what you need.
- If, once your visit is underway, your needs change, talk to the search coordinator, or whomever you feel comfortable with, to ask for changes.
- While you’re obviously not hiding the fact that you have a child, try not to let this detail determine every aspect of your side conversations.
- Be sure to bring ibuprofen, a picture of your baby, and of course, a cell phone to check in with your partner or caregiver. And an extra blouse tucked into your briefcase isn’t a bad idea.
With a little extra preparation and care by all parties, an admittedly difficult situation can be eased, making it possible for all to focus on the all-important task at hand of getting the right candidate into the job.
Kim Hensley Owens is assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island.