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Recognizing and Correcting Blindspots in RTW Programs and Parental Benefits

Kate Torgersen
CEO, Milk Stork

The U.S. and the workplace in the U.S. have had a complicated history with Women’s Health. For many women and organizations, breastfeeding is still considered taboo, and they are not comfortable discussing lactation in the workplace. Yet, human anatomy remains the same, and new moms returning to work often feel isolated or uncomfortable expressing their needs as a result.

Why should organizations focus on creating a culture where postpartum needs and breastfeeding are welcomed vs stigmatized? What are steps every employer can make to ensure their culture is inclusive, and moms returning to work are supported? Milk Stork CEO, Kate Torgersen, explains why supporting new moms is not only the right thing to do, but a strategic imperative that can improve DE&I, health outcomes, and employee engagement.

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Podcast Transcript:

Rachel Boyd:  Hi and welcome to another episode of our OviaAsks podcast, where we highlight conversations we crave in the future of health for women and families. I’m Rachel Boyd, VP of Enterprise Marketing here at Ovia, and today we’re going to cover a topic that’s front and center in the transition back to work for many women 一 breastfeeding. We all know that for many women, breastfeeding is a complex journey and the reality is that support is still all over the map. Even acknowledging the breastfeeding experience can be considered a taboo topic in the workplace. It leaves many moms to feel isolated, uncomfortable expressing their needs, and worse, asking themselves, “Can I do this?”

In a moment that we’re seeing women leaving the workforce at alarming rates, we want to pause and reflect on what more can be done. The question is in today’s workplaces 一 what more can we do to help? How can we create a culture where breastfeeding and the postpartum experience can be talked about in a de-stigmatized way? And what are real steps that employers can take to make sure workplaces are inclusive of working parents as they return to work?

We are fortunate to have Kate Torgerson, CEO of Milk Stork with us today. Welcome Kate, so great to have you on the podcast to highlight this important conversation in workplaces, and in society.

Kate Torgersen: Oh thank you, it’s so great to be here.

Rachel Boyd: We’re so glad you can join us and are excited to hear your thoughts, but first. Tell us a little bit about you and your journey with Milk Stork一 what motivated you to address breastfeeding in a bigger way?

Kate Torgersen: And I’ll share how it got started. Uhm, so breastfeeding was important to me because it’s the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that infants receive breastmilk for up to 12 months. I have 3 children and I was very motivated to do the best that I could and meet that recommendation.

With my first child. I always tell people it was rainbows and unicorns breastfeeding him. We had a great time. I didn't have any breastfeeding issues, we had a great latch from the beginning. And, it was just an amazing experience. My second and third children are twins and the breastfeeding journey was much more complicated there. We had weight gain issues, latching issues, tongue ties. All of this made it very difficult to breastfeeding 2 human beings at the same time. And we put a lot of work into that relationship and through it all I was able to exclusively breastfeed them. They didn’t receive any formula.

However, when the twins were 8 months old I was faced with a 4 day business trip. This became a real challenge because I was producing a gallon of milk every 2 days. Twin moms, many people don’t realize this, produce twice as much milk to feed twice as many babies. When you’re breastfeeding, it’s a very tight supply and demand relationship. Your baby is setting the demand and your body is meeting that demand with the supply. It’s very hard to create extra milk. So, when a woman is going to be gone for 4 days she has to trick her body into creating extra demand. To do that, she has to add pumping session weeks in advance to stimulate her body to produce that milk. THEN when she’s on her trip, she has to pump every 3 hours so she doesn’t loose her milk supply or ability to lactate.

So that was the position that I was in. It was incrementally more difficult with the fact that I was producing more milk. I had to produce a ton of milk before I left and then I was going to have to manage 2 gallons of milk in a hotel mini fridge. I went on the trip, I pumped all the milk before I left. I pumped relentlessly throughout the trip. And I had to lug that 2 gallons of milk around all trip, then fly it home.

I had to go through TSA. I got questions about why I had so much breastmilk, I had to dump out my ice. I had to have all of my milk swabbed. It was a frustrating and humiliating experience, to say nothing of the fact that I was carrying 26 lbs of breastmilk and ice, and a rolly bag, and my computer. I got on the plane and I was like, “this is, it shouldn’t be this way. It would be so much easier if you women could ship their milk home.” It would alleviate having to pump all the milk before you left and it would lighten your load emotionally and physically on your trip.

So, the next day, after that trip, I started Milk Stork.

Rachel Boyd: Oh, I have such a reaction to your story. You’re speaking to so many women that have been there. It’s incredible how many women have lived through that moment of panic and fundamentally, the lack of understanding of what goes into pumping and preparing to be able to go about a normal work day. It’s so not OK, and it’s such an important mission. How would you frame the importance of addressing breastfeeding in the workplace?

Kate Torgersen: So I think there's a number of reasons why breastfeeding is so important. I think the first reason breastfeeding is important is because it's important to women, and it's important to moms. And because it's important and primary to them, we need to acknowledge that and support it.
And, there are amazing health benefits both for mom and baby when it comes to breastfeeding. It’s the preferred nutrition for infants, we talk about lowering risks of SIDS, lowering risks of obesity, all these amazing outcomes that can happen with breastfeeding. And it also can help women recover from childbirth more easily. There are all these lovely hormones that happen for both baby and mom during the experience that can help mitigate postpartum depression, things like that.

But really, I think, It’s giving women the opportunity and chance to bond with their baby and feed them on their terms. Letting them decide how that’s gonna be done and supporting them in that choice.

We should be giving working moms more choices and more support so they are able to feel successful not just professionally but also personally. Now more than ever.

Rachel Boyd: Amen to that. It’s such a powerful experience and one that for a lot of women, is complex and can be an emotional rollercoaster. I relate to having 3 kids myself - they’re 8, 6 and 2 so the experience is still fresh. I remember, especially with the first, I had put so much pressure on myself to figure it out to feel like a good mom and it just didn’t come as naturally as expected. That exhaustion and emotional pressure is real and a part of every working parent’s journey - it really is surprising that there’s still discomfort in talking about deeper support. So I know you’re an expert here in combating taboos around lactation - why do you think these taboos still exist?

Kate Torgersen: So I think one of the biggest barriers to lactation is society’s complex relationship with women’s bodies. Uhm, women are objectified. That’s the way society is used to interacting with women’s bodies. 

Lactation gets conflated into that and that’s where the taboos come in. So when a woman is breastfeeding, she’s actually forced to take on those taboos, whether she wants to or not. If she’s breastfeeding in public, or pumping or asking for support, society is uncomfortable with that experience. Society is uncomfortable with liquid coming out of breasts if I’m being totally honest. That makes breast milk itself not valued. 

Being in a taboo, the way that society treats taboos is that people get silenced, marginalized and dismissed. That has some real life implications when it's a breastfeeding woman confronting that taboo. It means that when she’s going through TSA that milk isn’t valued because breastfeeding isn’t valued. Mothers call milk liquid gold. They know the effort, beauty and love that goes into creating it. When it's a taboo and product of taboo it's just milk and means nothing to larger society.

I think the other thing that it does, is that it forces women into isolation. They’re navigating these things by themselves. I think most women who go through TSA with breast milk feel like they’re the only woman who has ever gone through TSA with breastmilk, when in fact it's thousands of women a day.

It should not feel like she is navigating or charting this path for the first time. Society should support it, recognize it, see it.

Rachel Boyd: Absolutely, I love the way you framed that. The liquid gold comment couldn't be closer to the truth. There’s that basic education to be done at a macro level on what it takes to breastfeed, and really all that moms invest in making it work. Let’s call a stop now to those awkward and traumatic interactions in TSA lines and more. We know that so many women live these moments - what role do organizations play in helping women chart a less lonely path?

Kate Torgersen: It’s important for orgs and employers to address this because they have a large role in removing the taboo nature of breastfeeding. They have a big role in helping alleviate that and taking away the silence and the invisibility of breastfeeding.

That doesn't mean I'm saying people should be pumping at their desks. But companies can help remove that blindspot that breastfeeding people have to navigate. And celebrate it, celebrate working motherhood. Most moms are working moms. So, it’s incumbent upon employers to recognize the experience of mothers, especially in that first year.

Anyone who becomes a parent knows that the first year is beautiful, but hard. And for working parents it's difficult to manage the commitment of parenthood in that first year. That includes breastfeeding and diapering and not sleeping, and how you want to come back to work and performance you want to bring to your employer.

When you love your moms they love you back. When you support moms with family benefits in that huge life transition, what you see is loyalty and love and commitment and productivity. So there’s a lot in it for employers to make this kind of investment. It’s an investment in women.

I think one really great example I’d love to share about what it means to a working mom to receive this kind of benefits and support, is that we had a woman who posted on LinkedIn. She’s a mother, she’s not breastfeeding, but many years ago she was going through TSA and had the experience of having her breast milk dumped out, and it was traumatizing.

She started a new job at SFDC, and discovers Milk Stork is a benefit they offer. Even though she’s not breastfeeding, the fact that they’re offering the benefit meant so much to her. It acknowledged the trauma she experienced years ago. Even though she’s not intending to breastfeed again, it was a way of being seen in her experience of being a working mother.

What I think is amazing about this post, you can find it on LinkedIn, was that in the comments there are hundreds of women who experienced the same traumatic dumping of milk. It’s devaluing this experience of creating nutrition and bonding with your child. So many women had experienced this. It was collective trauma. For me, it really surfaced, just, the invisibility and isolation that we have forced lactating women into.

When a company acknowledges and provides a solution so women don’t have to experience that, it's so incredibly powerful. It tells working moms, I see you. I see your experience. I value what you value and I’m going to meet you where you are, support you, and celebrate who you are.
And that’s not just for lactating women, that’s the foundation of diversity, equity and inclusion, DEI. It's about seeing people, understanding their experience and supporting them to be the people they want to be.

Rachel Boyd: What a critical way to frame this 一 as a matter of inclusion 一 is so pivotal. It’s not always talked about that way but when we look at what inclusion is 一 recognizing and seeing real, human experiences and helping women to feel they can bring their full selves to the table without being fearful or embarrassed 一 that’s it.

Transitioning your identity to motherhood and everything about postpartum is challenging on its own 一 not normalizing it takes a toll on mental and physical health 一 and confidence in the choice We’ve seen the reality of these gaps in solutions and policy being brought to light recently at the Olympics for example 一 can you talk about what that moment meant to motivating action here?

Kate Torgersen: Yeah, the Olympics were an interesting moment this last year . So, the IOC ruled there were no international spectators allowed to attend the olympics, obviously COVID is exploding and they want to mitigate risks. But, grouped in that were breastfeeding infants. They were considered spectators, so this ruling initially prevented athletes from bringing nursing babies to the games.

But, a lot of women because of the delay in the Olympics ended up having babies in that gap. So there were a lot of breastfeeding moms competing this year. I think the fact that this ruling was made is an example of the blindspot. It didn’t even cross anyone’s mind that athletes might be breastfeeding.

When this surfaced in the news and athletes started bringing attention to it, the IOC was digging in on it. When the IOC overturned this ruling, my hope is there was a recognition that for women to perform at their best, they need to have choices.

Whether it's bringing their babies to the Olympics or deciding to keep babies at home and pump while they’re away. When we force women to sacrifice the way they want to mother we’re compromising their ability to perform at their best. If those women, those athletes, didn’t have a real choice, I have no doubt it would have forced them to go to the Olympics and not perform at their best.

What we need to recognize is that working motherhood, our relationship with our children and families are power sources, those are not liabilities in our performance. Those are the source of our ambition, our grit, our productivity.

My hope is that whether it's the Olympics or employers, that we’re fueling women to be ambitious, that we’re fueling their choices so they can be at their best and not eroding their ambitions.

Rachel Boyd: Yeah, it feels like we’re just at the brink of the opportunity to help society think differently and paint working motherhood in that empowering light. It can be a total power source - but there’s so many social, emotional, physical factors that are coming out of invisibility. We’ve found it important to highlight in our research and work at Ovia, that there are still so many disparities that exist in maternal health add up to some women being even more impacted than others. We know that women of color have been impacted disproportionally in the pandemic, for example, and that’s led to a statistical trend of poorer health outcomes. Are you seeing similar trends in your work with employers?

Kate Torgersen: So, I already mentioned, breastfeeding forces women into silence because of the taboos that society has around breastfeeding and the relationship society has with women’s bodies.

As a lactating person, you’re already feeling invisible and unsupported and that comes with its own set of challenges. So now when you layer on other marginalizing experiences, whether that’s that you’re trans and breastfeeding or you’re an African American woman and you’re breastfeeding. WE’re already asking breastfeeding women to do a lot to confront those taboos and break that silence and invisibility. But when you have compounding marginalization, that’s hard. Our institutions need to be the things that break down those factors of invisibility, not women.

That could also be things like language. How hard would it be if you were a Spanish speaking person, or a person whose native language isn’t English. You’re in a new job, you’re breastfeeding, and now you have to find and bring this issue forward and navigate language and this issue. We can’t ask the breastfeeding people to be the ones to break down the barriers. We need to see organizations and institutions doing their part to support breastfeeding people in all communities.

It could even be that you’re a new employee in an entry level position. You’re at the bottom of the power structure. You shouldn’t have to climb the rungs on the hierarchy, or the patriarchy I should say, to get the support you need. We need to have institutions come down to the human level and support human beings where they’re at.

Rachel Boyd: Absolutely. It’s a lot of pressure to advocate for yourself altogether - and add on these other barriers. It can feel impossible unless we recognize their very human journeys in these life stages. And that it’s often those really small gestures that can drive that feeling of inclusion. Speaking of all encompassing, how can workplaces be more inclusive so that more employees feel they have access to support?

Kate Torgersen: So first and foremost. It’s important that organizations have a lactation policy, and that it’s communicated widely. It’s not just communicated in maternity leave packets or return packets. It really needs to be for all employees to have visibility because that normalizes the experience of working moms.

It also helps diminish any kind of advocacy that moms have to do on their own to get the support they need. When an employee knows their boss is well versed in the lactation policy, it’s not a barrier anymore for her to ask, or schedule a meeting around a pumping session. It becomes commonplace, normalized, supported. And not some funky thing she has to do invisibly every 3 hours.

The other thing is, you need to have a lactation space. And, it’s got to be more than a storage closet. It has to be comfortable, temperature controlled, regularly cleaned and ideally with access to refrigeration and a sink. Ideally it would have a hospital grade breast pump so that moms are lugging things back and forth from work and they’re at risk of forgetting a pump part. Pumping is a marathon and women need aid stations to get to the finish line. Pumping in demoralizing or humiliating environments like a bathroom is not going to get her to the finish line. Provide her with comfortable time and space to do her pumping. It’s frequent and if she’s doing it for 12 months, it’s a long time.

With the lactation policy, I just want to jump back to that again. I also want to say to make sure you truly are pursuing DEI that policy should be available in the language you have in your org so everyone can access and has equal understanding of it.

Obviously, breast milk shipping for employees who have to travel to support your business and bring in revenue for your company. Shipping enables people to perform at their best during business travel, without compromising their ability to maintain their breastfeeding relationship.

And, another one that sometimes gets overlooked but I think is supremely important is to provide lactation support and consulting. Whether that's virtual or consultation to employees.

Returning from maternity leave into the work environment is a very challenging transition. For pumping moms, it’s a whole new kind of logistical challenge. Going from nursing your child to hooking yourself up to a medical device and pumping. I think helping women with those types of transitions is incredibly valuable and helps them get to the goal they’ve set for themselves.

Rachel Boyd: It’s totally not straightforward, and one that’s so hard to navigate, or know what benefits exist. Even the idea of a lactation consultant can seem out of reach, or even a luxury.

We at Ovia do provide access to lactation consultants and other physical and mental health specialists virtually to provide digital coaching and education 一 hopefully navigating to all of those policy and support changes as standard one day. We have a shared belief in a world where women don't feel like those services are out of reach, and that they do have someone to talk through those new experiences with. Beyond these new fundamentals in benefits 一 what do you see as some other persistent gaps we should be talking more about?

Kate Torgersen: Yeah it's really interesting, we just came out of Hurricane Ida and one of the challenges, and again this is one the blindspots you don’t think of. But, if you’ve been a breastfeeding mom, you know that whenever the power goes out, which I feel like is happening more and more whether you’re facing wildfires in California or facing hurricanes in the Gulf, one of the other things we have is called a stash cooler. It’s a highly insulated cooler so pumping moms can put their frozen milk in there so it doesn’t go bad. It’ll keep it frozen for 96 hours. Women hav stashes of breastmilk that are investments of time, energy, effort sitting in a freezer. When the power goes out, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s like someone’s doing a run on the banks, but on your breastmilk.

So, one of the things we tested during Hurricane Ida was that we notified all of our clients, we sent them an email saying, “Hey, we have an article about what women can do on our blog during a power outage. Please share with your employees or moms in the area so they know how to navigate these types of situations and they have a resource to help them through it.” It’s another kind of unique experience to breastfeeding but one that’s easy for employers to help with.

Another blindspot that companies or the world may not think about. We see a lot of families using surrogates, especially same sex couples having a baby. Well, Milk Stork can enable the surrogate to provide milk to the baby after birth on a continual basis. I mean, surrogates are the most amazing humans in the world. To carry these babies and bring them to families and then to provide milk on top of that is incredible. So supporting those families in their journey is another amazing thing employers can do to support DEI through benefits you may not think about.

Rachel Boyd: That’s incredible. I agree, surrogates are the most incredible women and ensuring they have an avenue to support breastfeeding is something the world needs! All of these recommendations really speaks to how inclusion is brought to life 一 and sends a meaningful message about investing in the purpose and passion of a workforce. It sends a real message that parents can do this, and are seen and valued to champion both parts of themselves as a working parent 一 and that it’s not in conflict with one another. As you think about the future of family-friendly, what does that bring up for you?

Kate Torgersen: For me, regardless of zip codes, family friendly benefits mean that we see, acknowledge, understand and support the experiences of working parenthood.

For me specifically, it’s supporting working women now and working mothers. Now more than ever. We’ve lost so many working mothers from the workforce because of covid. With that, we lose an incredible amount of leadership, innovation, productivity, output, amazing products that may never exist when these women exit. We need to bring them back, keep them engaged with their ambitions.

Family friendly benefits keep women engaged with ambitions. We want, I want, a society where women have a seat at the table. I think one of the amazing things about parents and working moms, we’re not just thinking about our own end game. We’re thinking generations down the road. That brings forward incredible leadership, accountability in our organizations. It’s a huge power source for companies. Please reap the benefits of working motherhood so we can make a better society.

On a personal level, I think family benefits to me and family friendly culture to me means that we recognize our families, our children, our human connections with one another are power sources. They are not liabilities. They are things that make us better humans, they make us better employees, and ultimately, better leaders and a better world.

So I can't say it enough, family benefits are critical. It’s not just for women, it’s for all working parents. When families benefit, society benefits.

Rachel Boyd: Wow 一 thank you so much Kate. I love that thought, it’s not about being compromised, it’s about celebrating and feeling seen. I think there’s so many things employers can do today to bring that to life 一 and things that aren’t always huge, cumbersome initiatives. Have empathy, listen, look long term in how you can invest strategically and let people know they’re supported. It’s a win win for HR really, because you get to do what you signed up for. Make people’s lives better, and help your organization grow and be the best it can, through talent.

Thank you so much again, Kate, for joining us today. It was illuminating hearing your insights, and I hope everyone out there learned something they can take back to their work, to help new moms and families. If you’re interested in learning more about Milk Stork or Ovia Health, feel free to check out the forms on this page and schedule some time to talk.

Until next time, thanks for tuning in and don’t forget to tune in for our next episode of Ovia asks! Have a great day.


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