Melinda Gates: It’s time to get real about breastfeeding at work

Gates Foundation Co-Chair Melinda Gates
Photo by Chip Somodevilla

When Melinda Gates was breastfeeding her three children, she spent a lot of time with a cumbersome breast pump.

"By the time my youngest child had moved onto solid foods, I had spent hours on hours staring at my breast pump, imagining all the ways I could improve the design," Gates says in a piece she penned for Refinery29.

"The small ones didn't have enough suction. The ones that did were the size of a car battery. And the noise was something else." Not easy to deal with, especially at the office or in other professional situations.

In fact, Gates says she toyed with idea of patenting her own design. "I like to think that in an alternate life, I'm a breast-pump tycoon," she writes.

But lugging breast pumps to the office is just part of a larger issue.

"No matter where you are in the world, the conversation about breastfeeding can get a little one-sided," she says. "It tends to focus on all the ways breastfeeding benefits a child, while glossing over just how hard — or even impossible — it can be for a mother: physically, emotionally, and logistically."

Case in point: One of the obstacles women face, according to Gates, is that United States federal government does not legally require paid parental leave. That puts America behind Estonia, Croatia, Korea, Mexico, Cyprus and dozens of other developed countries, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center.

Employers are required by federal law to give women the time and private space, other than a bathroom, to pump milk for the first year that a baby is alive, according to the United States Breastfeeding Committee. But only 40 percent of women have access to this, according to a 2016 University of Minnesota study.

Some companies are ahead of the curve. Johnson & Johnson, for example, gives moms 17 weeks of paid leave and will ship nursing mothers' breast milk back home with a temperature-controlled delivery service while they're traveling for work. Clif Bar has a similar breast milk policy.

"The bottom line is this: Motherhood is a tough balancing act, and every mom deserves the chance to do what's right for her and her family. If that means breastfeeding, great. If that means formula feeding, that's totally fine, too. I just want to make sure that every mom truly does have both options," Gates says.

August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week — in honor of that, writes Gates: "let's start an honest conversation about how we can make it easier for parents everywhere to nourish their babies."

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