YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan --
With a loud hum of computer servers surrounding her, my mother spent days shivering in a cold room, huddled over her breast pump on an old wooden stool. She blocked off one of the aisles of server racks with scotch tape from her desk and a printer paper sign that read “Pumping in Progress,” hoping it would prevent being accidentally exposed to her coworkers—most of whom were male and cringed at the thought of breastfeeding. As a cryptologic technician for the U.S. Navy from 1984-2004, this was her only place of privacy that wasn’t a bathroom stall. Her hands were cramped from the manual pump and the chill in the air. The bobby pins keeping her bun in place were digging into the side of her head as she struggled to make even a drop of breastmilk—also known as liquid gold—for her newborn.
Milk refused to flow. Let-down evaded her.
My mother was never able to successfully nurse any of her four children after each brief maternity leave throughout her 20 years of dedicated service. Every return to work was met with unyielding supervisors and uncomfortable or oftentimes unsanitary pumping conditions. Across the Department of Defense and the nation, women have reported similar stories for decades, including me. With no dedicated space for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace (what we now call “mother’s rooms”) many have abandoned the effort to breastfeed all together because if you can’t keep up with the frequency your baby eats, your milk quickly disappears.
Two decades later, during my own military service, I experienced the same difficulties as my mother. My return from maternity leave after my first daughter was born was met with, “You can just go pump in the bathroom if you really have to.”
I was disgusted at the thought of pumping my daughter’s food in a place designed to dispose of human waste, but the room I settled on wasn’t much of an improvement. There was a storage area with a beat-up leather couch that looked like it belonged in the dump, a salvaged old fridge, a lock on the door that everyone knew the code to, and no air conditioning. After barely making two ounces, my first pumping session back at work ended in frustration and sweat.
My supply quickly dwindled and the stress from not pumping successfully stopped my milk completely. I turned to formula and felt like a failure. But it wasn’t me that failed. It was military policy that had failed. It had failed military moms throughout history, and it had failed me because it simply didn’t exist.
Today, one in five active duty service members are female, and I can’t help but notice the correlation between the increase of women in the military and mother-friendly policy updates. Within my six years of service, maternity leave has been lengthened, station change and fitness test deferment for new moms is now an option, and nursing rooms are becoming available.
The DoD has now echoed federal health care law breastfeeding provisions within the past few years to support this increase in female service members. Air Force Instruction 44-102, Medical Care Management, states, “The [Air Force Medical Service] recommends that supervisors of AF members who are breastfeeding work with the member to arrange their work schedules to allow 15-30 minutes every 3-4 hours to pump breastmilk in a room or an area that provides adequate privacy and cleanliness. Restrooms should not be considered an appropriate location for pumping.”
It was this policy that punctuated the desperate need for mother’s rooms on Air Force installations, and thank goodness it did! After all, extensive research has proven that breastmilk has numerous benefits for babies, their mothers, the environment, and the economy. The military recognizing these benefits of breastfeeding has revolutionized active duty motherhood.
Mothers will be able to return from maternity leave without the stress of trying to pump in a freezing server room, an unlockable closet, or a bathroom stall.
In the past year, rooms for lactating mothers have been popping up all over military installations, including the base that failed to support my first military-mom nursing experience. Now, the space comes complete with a lock on the door, a clean new fridge, comfortable furniture, and a fresh coat of paint.
I am elated to see military moms have the support of their command in the journey to provide the best start in life for their children through liquid gold. But, I do want to communicate that this was always necessary, and there will be a continued need for transformation to strengthen our Air Force. Mothers are a vital part of our organization and retaining them retains the distinctive skills they contribute to our team. Putting our people first keeps us all mission ready.