This flexibility story comes from Ava Kuhlen of the Taproot Foundation. Ava is a new mom. Like many moms, her experience of work has changed, but that change came about in an unexpected way. Read how her return to work altered her perceptions of her job, her employer’s expectations, and the cultures of her corporate clients.

I had my first baby in March 2015. I returned to work full-time when she was 4 months old. Returning to work full-time was right for me. I love that baby of mine, but being a stay-at-home mom, in my experience, was equal parts chaos and boredom. I looked forward to commuting again so that I had time to just sit down and zone out. Yes, I now plan when I can zone out. Welcome to motherhood.

Returning to work brings a whole slew of emotions (and logistics!) but I found the hardest part of returning to work to almost be the most mundane and unexpected: pumping.

Pumping is something I expected to do as a new mom. What I didn’t expect though was what pumping illuminated about my own job responsibilities, the cultures of my corporate clients companies, and my organization’s expectations of employees.

There’s a variety of reasons workplaces are changing. In the Bay Area, you hear about millennial expectations, about rents and real estate forcing more telecommuting (more nonprofits facing higher rents are trying to figure out how to support remote workers) and about how policies like flexible work promote happier employees. The experience of pumping forced me to experience “work” in new ways and here’s what I learned:

The “New Mother’s Room” is a microcosm of corporate culture.
And it’s not always pretty. I consult with companies to help them set up in-house pro bono programs that connect core talents with nonprofit needs. We work very closely with our clients to uncover the relevant cultural nuances that will make pro bono stick. I might argue that visiting (or trying to visit) a company’s new mother’s room gave me the same amount of insight into company culture that three months of discovery work is intended to do. Here are two examples of company culture coming through in the mother’s rooms:

  • Company A: I was literally kicked out of a mother’s room (that I had booked) because I was a visitor. The employee was so stressed (she had only 20 minutes to pump between meetings!) and was so clearly self-focused that I (and the security guard who had to let me into the room and was clearly embarrassed by just the mention of pumping) didn’t even try to argue with her. I seriously questioned camaraderie at this company and how they went about solving problems as a team.
  • Company B: There was one room with four curtains separating four pumping areas. There were additional women waiting in the same room scouting the spots with the same level of scrutiny you scout and wait for parking spots downtown. Surprisingly no one seemed impatient, no one seemed embarrassed, and everyone was congenial. I felt there was a community of support somehow at this company and closeness (perhaps too close?) that was unusual.

Call these snap judgments of corporate culture but I’d say from what I know about each company, it actually aligns.

My organization actually values productivity over place.
In a job interview, you can try to get a sense of the flexibility of an organization. Not until you actually need those things though does it mean anything. My nonprofit has stepped up. I didn’t attend our annual retreat in person because my baby was still exclusively nursing, but they made sure I could video-call in. I’ve called into meetings from home many mornings because I couldn’t make it out the door in time for our 9am all-teams meeting (one morning I woke up to an intense amount of vomit in my daughter’s room and had to grunt clean everything before heading into work. Again, welcome to motherhood.) My organization is set up to support this: our files are in the cloud, we have online video conferencing capabilities and my calendar and email are easily accessible from my phone.

This isn’t revolutionary, but it allows me to be ready for and “present” in every meeting, even when things are unexpected and I’m not physically present. It helps too that my boss and team members roll with it. I’m not contributing less simply because I’m contributing from home. The little things my organization has done don’t make pumping enjoyable, but they sure make it easier. And to me, it’s been indicative of an organization that wants their new moms (and everyone) to have smoother sailing.

As my life changed, so did the assets I could contribute to my job.
Travel is a part of my job and I have all kinds of meetings. But my tolerance for (and frankly excitement about) travel has changed from when I was hired. Also, my ability to do anything after 5pm is limited (I relieve the nanny every day). This isn’t pumping specific, but my life changed how I like to work and what I could do at work. Simultaneously though, I started identifying different responsibilities. Ones that didn’t include travel or after-5pm commitments: things like writing concept papers or marketing content, crafting pitches or prospecting for thought-partners. This focus was a need of the organization and played to my strengths. It was the best use of my assets and simultaneously has made me happier (and more sane).

What does this all mean? It means that the “changing expectations of work” is a real thing even if you haven’t experienced this firsthand yet. Everyone has their “pumping”. Maybe it’s a sick parent. Maybe it’s a longer commute because real estate isn’t affordable near the office. Everyone is experiencing something that is forcing them to reevaluate their own responsibilities, their organization, and maybe even their customers or clients. The companies and organizations that genuinely respond to and support people in this time are the ones that will retain them. The experience may even change what and how that person contributes to your organization (for the better!). And it may even convince them to write a blog post about it.

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