Sharing stories for support

12 June 2019

A group of mothers who have returned to work or study after having a baby have come together to learn about the support networks available to them at ANU for breastfeeding.

The mothers, who attended a ‘breastfeeding and return to work’ information seminar at the ANU Research School of Population Health , heard first hand the perspectives of academics, PhD students and professional staff members about the challenges of returning to work after having children.

The seminar comes as ANU prepares to seek accreditation as a Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace as part of its Athena Swan SAGE application this year.

The women also heard from people who have worked in the area of family and health studies, such as Professor Lyndall Strazdins, Director of the ANU Research School of Population Health (PSPH).

“I think that when you give mothers that space, there is, by definition, a kind of implicit support, that they have a right to be doing breastfeeding while at work. There is a lot more than can happen on the support side of things. And I don’t think we’ve really come to grips with the issue of giving mothers the time they need to breastfeed,” Professor Strazdins says.

“And it seems to me that this is a place where we’ve got stuck as an organisation but also politically. We continue and assume that women will come back to work and work like men do. Yet we want the workforce to be 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men.”

“So we’ve set up an impossible equity goal which says ‘yes we want women to be equal if they behave and work in the same way that men always have. My research has been questioning that particular assumption, trying to show it’s in face for everyone’s wellbeing if we can rethink this.”

Professor Strazdins says attitudes to time need to change, particularly between the flexibility of work and home time, as well as finding the time to breastfeed or pump milk for their child.

“So this remains the next frontier. It’s a hard one because it challenges what we think is a right way to work. It is a social change that will take decades.”

Dr Katherine Carroll, from the ANU Research School of Sociology, who is a founding member of the Support for Breastfeeding at ANU Working Group, shared her story about arriving at ANU to take up an appointment at ANU, soon after having her baby.

“I was fiercely protective of my breastfeeding relationship with Henry. It was something that I thought ‘if I can’t have my 12 months’ leave and enjoy my time being a full time Mum with him, then if there’s one thing I am going to do it’s breastfeed for as long as he and I would like to’. So that informed a lot of decision-making around a lot of practical things,” she says. 

Associate Professor Julie Smith, who is a member of Support for Breastfeeding at ANU Working Group and leading the University’s breastfeeding friendly workplace accreditation efforts, has researched the issues of combining breastfeeding and work since the 1990s.

She says the central theme of best practice support in workplaces relates to time, space and support (or culture).

“Raising awareness so that there is a supportive culture is crucial. You can have the facilities in place, you can have the policies in place but it’s no good if the facilities are hidden or the policies aren’t implemented,” she says.

Dr Smith says breastfeeding is ‘at the very pointy intersection between biology and culture’. This means women’s experience in the early months after childbirth can be the foundation for gender economic inequalities throughout their subsequent career and family life.

“So if you don’t support women during the early months of very intensive infant care and breastfeeding, then it’s too late,” she says.

“Most women become mothers and at the point they become mothers, most women in Australia aspire to breastfeed. If we don’t deal with accommodating breastfeeding in their daily lives including in their workplace, then all the other stuff falls away. We end up with gender wage gaps and other inequalities as they try and balance the competing priorities, and if women have to wean prematurely, higher population, rates of breast cancer, and so on.”

The women participating in the session also heard about the occupational health and safety risks of women not being able to express breast milk during working hours, including risks of developing mastitis, but equally that breast milk helps to reduce illness in the child.

But the women in the session were able to provide advice that included going armed with materials when speaking to their manager about breastfeeding.

“If you can go armed with some of that information, and a breastfeeding friendly workplace program really does set that platform, you’re in a much better position to have those discussions with a supervisor, employer, and colleagues to put in place arrangements that work for your relationship,” one participant told the group.

Sally Eldridge, former national manager of the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace, spoke of her experiences getting organisations like the Commonwealth Treasury and Parliament House accredited. “When you look at the BFW (breastfeeding friendly workplace) information, you’ll see that there is a business case that is set out, on why employers should support women to breastfeed. So if there is nothing else that you can get them to see, give them the business case. You will be more loyal, you will be more available at work, you won’t be unwell as much, your baby won’t be as sick. There’s a whole lot of reasons for you to be supported.”

Information on policies and initiatives in place for parents and carers of other family members can be found at http://genderinstitute.anu.edu.au/parents-and-carers. This web page also provides specific resources relating to breastfeeding (including parenting room locations), the ANU Parenting Spaces book – a printable guide that outlines the parent room locations on campus – a Google map of parenting spaces, and checklists for mothers and supervisors that cover how to support mothers breastfeeding on campus (provided courtesy of the Australian Breastfeeding Association's Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace accreditation program).

The Australian Breastfeeding Association also has a variety of resources that can be found on their website, https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/.