First Person: White House reporter balances working and breastfeeding

Rachel Rose Hartman
The Ticket

When I imagined my journalism career, I never pictured myself standing shirtless in a unisex bathroom in the White House.

But that is precisely where I found myself in November, as a new mother of a nursing infant returning from maternity leave to cover the president.

Hiding in a bathroom is a common condition for many breastfeeding moms seeking a private place to pump milk in their workplace.

But it's a condition the White House has been trying to eliminate. Under President Barack Obama's new health care law, employers with more than 50 workers are required to provide a private lactation space other than a restroom for nursing mothers up to one year after giving birth.

"One of the most common reasons mothers cite for discontinuing breastfeeding is returning to work and not having break time or a private space to express milk,” White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, chair of the president's Council on Women and Girls, wrote about the president’s health care law in a Dec. 2010 White House blog post.

So then why was I stuck pumping in a bathroom at the very address where the lactation room requirement had originated?

[Nursing and working: A Yahoo! News chat about pumping and privacy]

I struggled mightily to breast feed after I gave birth to my first child last summer. But after three months, nursing finally became easy. My baby was flourishing and healthy and I was feeling good.

So I wasn’t about to give up nursing when I returned to work, even though I knew it would mean pumping milk during work hours. I had barely grasped how challenging that would be when I learned I would be assigned to the White House, a place where the only rooms available to nursing reporters were two single restrooms -- one of them unisex.

Perhaps you’ll recall that these restrooms recently shot to fame as the chosen place for Al Roker to dispose of his dirty underwear?

I showed up on Nov. 30 for my first day of work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, pumping equipment in hand.

As a newcomer to the White House press area -- an “office” that has no office manager, no employer on site and no desk or space in the shared press area to call my own-- I thought it would be best to introduce myself to the press shop and explain my situation in person.

I tried to resist the bathroom-as-lactation-room as long as I could that first day. But when I couldn’t stand it anymore (read: pain from engorgement, leaking and discomfort) I gave in.

I checked out my options. Neither of the two single-stall restrooms had a chair or a place to sit other than a lid-less toilet seat, which was the first disappointment. There was no countertop where I could set up my equipment. I had no idea how I would make this work.

But I gave it a shot.

I locked the door of the unisex bathroom -- larger than the ladies' room because it is handicap accessible -- and tried to attach the bottles to the valves to the hookups to the flanges all without letting them touch the restroom sink. I placed them back in my pump bag and undressed from the waist up. I put on a hands-free bustier, attached the left and right pumps, hooked them into the machine. I briefly thought about perching on the edge of the toilet seat but decided instead to stand in the corner. For 15 minutes I stood attached to a loudly honking pump, trying not to think about how clean the place was nor what was happening in the noisy press lunch area on the other side of the door.

Unhooking the setup was even more difficult, as it involved a careful balancing act using my hands, elbows, and chin to avoid spilling the milk and packing up all of the equipment.

That's when I asked to be introduced to the White House press staff.

“I’m pumping in the unisex bathroom,” I told them.

I was told the absence of a lactation room for the press had been a concern for the White House but that no current solution existed. Under the president's law, the onus is on my employer to provide a space to pump.

But I didn't understand how that could be an answer for any reporter who works in space the White House owns. And Yahoo doesn't even have a designated chair in the press office, let alone a private space or "booth" with a door that locks.

Other elected officials have tried to make provisions for nursing moms in public buildings. When Rep. Nancy Pelosi was House Speaker, she established lactation rooms in the Capitol and made them available to members of Congress, visitors and press.

It's harder at the White House, a surprisingly small building where space is limited, reporters can’t roam the halls and there are major security procedures.

So I continued pumping in the bathroom, toggling between the women’s room and the unisex. I started skipping one or two of the three daily pumping sessions, sometimes cutting the time down to 5 or 10 minutes instead of 15. I tried bringing a towel to drape in the sink basin or lay on the floor.

People would ask “How’s the new gig?” and to fellow journalists I would talk about the job and the beat.

To friends and family, I would talk about my daily struggle to pump.

My family was shocked. My friends were disgusted. Members of the local mother’s group I joined on maternity leave were outraged.

After two weeks of this, I checked back in with the White House press shop. I was told they were speaking with Fox News Channel's Ed Henry, president of the White House Correspondents Association, about the situation. The WHCA has jurisdiction over pretty much everything that happens within the press workspace.

I got in touch with Christi Parsons, White House correspondent for Tribune Newspapers and a WHCA board member. Parsons later wrote me that the board had been talking to the White House about setting up a lactation space but "it seemed we had some time to work things out, because the expectant mothers we were expecting to use it didn't need it right away." My immediate need prompted Parsons and other board members to approach Henry to seek an informal arrangement.

Parsons first put me in touch with with April Ryan, White House Correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief for American Urban Radio Networks, who offered her booth to me for the following day, Jan. 11.

It was a huge relief. For my first time at the White House, I wouldn’t have to do the stressful and unsanitary bathroom balancing act. I was finally developing a framework of supportive folks at the White House.

I discreetly began speaking with other women of the White House press corps to find out how nursing mothers before me had made this work. The answers weren’t encouraging.

Ryan had been one of the lucky ones, using her tiny, one-person radio booth to pump. She asked the General Services Administration to install a curtain over her glass door and successfully pumped for not one, but two children while covering President George W. Bush.

I heard from other women who shared larger news booths with colleagues and kicked out their boothmates for privacy when they worked from the White House.

Other women just gave up nursing entirely.

One colleague asked the White House about pumping accommodations and said she received no immediate help. She found the bathroom to be too dirty, noting the standing water, toilet paper scraps on the floor.

She ended up skipping her pumping sessions at the White House and running back to her bureau in significant discomfort to pump late in the day.

The situation pushed her to wean her baby earlier than she had planned.

I had considered this same decision, but I wasn’t ready to do that yet. It was a choice I wanted to make for myself, not something forced on me by my work.

Henry, as the WHCA president, echoed the point that it was up to our employers to provide pumping space. But, he said, "you can’t just come over here and hire a contractor and build a lactation room on government property."

Henry said the WHCA had been having discussions with the White House about setting up a lactation area in a building across Lafayette Park. But that would require escorts and trips through multiple security checkpoints—something Henry said didn’t seem “workable” for working moms.

For a few more weeks, I was able to borrow other news outlets' booths to pump. Even that makeshift change was staggering--pumping at work was no longer a disgusting experience.

Finally, on January 25, Henry announced the WHCA had brokered an agreement with the Christian Broadcasting Network and CBC/Radio-Canada to use the booth the two news organizations share as a pumping space.

It has changed my life.

Each morning I email out the estimated times I would like to use the booth and we work out a schedule.

It's also good news for the White House and the WHCA.

“This was an issue that was part maddening, part bureaucratic but part uplifting because it was really nice to be able to help working moms,” Henry said. “My only regret here ... is that we couldn’t have done something sooner.”

Henry praised deputy White House press secretary Jamie Smith as “dogged” in trying to help the association navigate the issue.

When I asked Smith to comment on the situation I faced at the White House and the outcome, she responded with a statement that read:

“The White House is deeply committed to ensuring nursing mothers have the space and resources they need. With the leadership of the White House Correspondents Association, Executive Office of the President staff worked to develop a solution for reporters who are covering the White House and we continue to explore additional options on campus as well."