Working and Nursing

Katherine Johnson Associate Professor Department of Sociology Tulane University

I started my faculty position here at Tulane in 2012, with a newly minted PhD and a newborn baby. That August, I remember sitting in faculty orientation with my breast-pump at my feet—cleverly disguised as a tote bag to look innocuous. Every one-and-a-half to two hours, feeling heavy with milk, I had to leave, walk over to the LBC for the closest campus lactation room, and express milk for 15-20 minutes. Then I returned to the orientation and tried to catch up on what I missed. That whole first year of my new faculty position, I carried my bag and my pump to the office, pumped between classes, and wore nursing pads under my clothes in case I “sprung a leak”. Clearly I’m not the only working mom to do this. US breastfeeding rates have seen a resurgence since the mid-late 1990s, and the slogan “breast is best” now seems ubiquitous. At the same time that there is an increasing emphasis on breastfeeding as the optimum infant food for the first year of life, we have also seen a dramatic transformation in mothers’ participation in the paid labor force, especially those with young children. Data from the US Department of Labor show us that in 1975, about one-third of women with children under three were in the paid labor force. Four decades later, this has nearly doubled to 61% of moms with children under three. This puts working moms at the crux of a serious contemporary problem: how do you meet infant health recommendations for breastfeeding and still fulfill your job or career commitments?

This major question is what drives my Working & Nursing Study—A study that started out as a small evaluation of breastfeeding support on campus in spring 2013 and has grown to now include interviews with more than 70 women across Southeastern Louisiana. My goal is to better understand the challenges and successes that working, breastfeeding women face. How can we better support breastfeeding at work? How does maternity leave affect breastfeeding success? How can workplaces alter their policies to create a more supportive environment? Are there types of jobs or groups of women that fare better (or worse) in terms of combining breastfeeding and work? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA 2010) set certain provisions in place to promote breastfeeding support, but this only covers hourly workers, leaving whole occupational classes of women without formal protection under federal law. Given the lack of broader policies on this issue, workplaces are at the frontlines of making decisions that can be directly helpful or harmful to their employees. I’m hoping that my research can help provide guidance here for best practices on breastfeeding support at work.

I’ve been grateful for internal funding support to do my research. I’ve received funding three different times for this project from the Newcomb College Institute faculty research grant opportunities. I’ve also received a Committee on Research (COR) Fellowship to help extend the project most recently as I continue to expand the focus from campus to community women. Without these funding sources I would not have been able to carry out the extent of research activities that I have thus far.