Posted January 22, 2010
I usually like to start this column with a witty snap shot into my own life as a parent/Equity member making a feeble attempt not to drop the many balls I'm juggling, but for this issue I am going to give all the space to the topic of this column; breast feeding and pumping. Based on the record number of responses I received and the passionate and lengthy answers, I want to contribute all the space to the members' responses. Thanks to everyone who gave their time and a special shout out to my friend (and current breast feeding Mom) Alexis Prussack-Martin for being another pair of eyes on this months column.
1) How long did you breast feed? (Average answer was one year. Range was 6 weeks to 4 years.)
Bess: I breast fed for 18 months, and I started back auditioning when my son was about four months old.
Jennifer: 4 years for Cedric, 4 years for Francis. YEARS!
Rebecca: I breastfed for 6 months with the first (child) and 13 months with the second (child). Weaning corresponded with going back to work in both cases.
2) Let's talk about pumping and breast feeding while doing the audition rounds. (Number one location for pumping while auditioning was in a bathroom stall.)
Jennifer: I found the Avent hand pump (not electric) to be the best and the least irritating. AND, the best backstage, on the road, etc. I like the storage bags best for freezing. I carried with me a small "bottle bag" that I had two freezer packs in and could fit up to three bags of expressed milk in it to bring home.
Ashley: I auditioned while breastfeeding. It was the kind of thing you hope the director doesn't notice, should you have a leak or just the fact that I looked 10 pounds heavier just because of the size of my breasts. I didn't take either of my twins with me because it would have made it worse. I just grinned and bared the pain, and luckily was able to only take auditions when I could make appointments I could schedule around!
3) Let's talk about pumping and breast feeding while working an AEA job. Please also discuss if you negotiated anything ahead of time with your stage manager, director, producer or fellow dressing room mates. (Average response was that people had a hard time pumping during a 5 or 10 minute break and that finding a private location was a challenge.)
Victoria: I figured out most things as I went along - and I also found that mostly I had to find the solution. No one was negative - but their solutions were not coming from any real knowledge about what you needed.
Kathleen: I had to pump in a messy prop room covered by a curtain during 10 minute breaks and was told by the production manager that pumping was keeping me from bonding with the cast and that the director thought I was not as attentive as I could be - I'm sure that was true, but if I hadn't needed the money I would NEVER have tried to stage manage with a young baby. It was VERY, very stressful in all ways - the hours away from my baby, the pumping with such short breaks (I was worried my supply would lesson from not pumping enough; sometimes I'd have to go too long and it was painful), the fear I wouldn't be able to work in theatre now that I had a family, the constant rehearsal schedule changes requiring very flexible and expensive childcare. Indeed, I've only been able to stage manage short term gigs since and have had to supplement my income with a retail job.
Natalie: I set up shop in my dressing room and would pump between shows when my cast mates were at dinner. One day they came back and I was crying, clutching both pumps to my sore breasts, a victim of crazy hormones and exhaustion (no one ever talks about how TIRING pumping can be!) and they encouraged me to feel welcome to pump while they were there. It was a wonderful change. I hadn't wanted to disturb them with the weirdness of being in the room while I pumped. With their invitation, I would pump during my break in the show and use the dinner break to take a well needed nap!
Kristin: I did not have anything in my contract, but I sure wish I had!
Elizabeth: Theatres were extremely accommodating. I didn't work it into my contract but when I brought it up they both found a place for me to do it. I pumped at rehearsal and in the dressing room during performances. I brought my baby with me sometimes and they created a little nursery set-up in the empty space next to my dressing room. I couldn't have asked for better treatment and understanding. And even during tech. rehearsals when I was in a corset and my baby was there wanting to nurse, they would wait for me if I was in the middle of it. I tried my best to time it well, but sometimes that wasn't possible and the director and most of the actors were wonderful about it. There were a few slightly cranky actors about the considerations I was getting for my baby but I just ignored them, being too busy, and quite soon the shoe was on the other foot and that actor became a parent.
Charma: I never discussed or negotiated the terms of my breastfeeding with my employers. I didn't want them open for negotiation.
Elizabeth: I arranged with the Stage managers and the General Manager to have a space. It just ended up being the stage managers office and I put a "Do don't disturb" sign up when pumping, or (I pumped in) my dressing room, but countless people had to witness my pumping. Other actors when I shared a dressing room, dressers, stage manager when they came in to give notes. Sometimes it felt far from private.
4) Breastfeeding and pumping away from home potentially impacts people around you. Talk about people's reactions to your breastfeeding and pumping needs. (Most people said people were supportive, especially citing wardrobe departments who adjusted costumes and sometimes even provided/washed breast pads. A few responses talked about people being well intended but uninformed. Many people commented on how loud a breast pump is.)
Elizabeth: I did not receive any negative comments. I didn't really put anyone to too much trouble. The SM's were very understanding and would explain to directors before we began rehearsals that my ten minutes were sometimes a little longer. People were very understanding. I, however, felt tremendous pressure to pump as fast as possible and not to hold up rehearsal. My supply suffered some but I would also bring my baby and nanny to dress rehearsals sometime so I could feed when I was offstage.
Rachel: Great support and admiration.
Zabryna: Every 4 hours or so in our 6 hour straight rehearsal schedule they would let me have an extended 20 min break that I could pump in. They also designated a dressing room for me to pump and called it the nursery and put a sign on the door for people not to just walk in without knocking. Everyone was incredibly baby and breastfeeding friendly and as accommodating as you can be.
Jennifer: I just asked for frig access.
Rachel: Don't ask for "permission" to breast feed. Let your employers know what you are doing and that you will make it work.
Charlene: I did not meet any resistance for being gone a bit longer than a bathroom break would be. I was able to pump before and after the show. Female co-workers were supportive, or curious or politely quiet about me pumping in the bathroom.
Kristin: Hard to believe, but my female ensemble dressing room has proven to be an incredibly unfriendly environment in which to breastfeed. Several of my co-workers clearly have issues with and/or are freaked out by the idea of breastfeeding and pumping. It was tough to deal with, as a new mom with very few other options. Eventually everything was worked out (with some help from management) but it has been on the whole very surprising and disheartening.
5) Do you have any advice for mothers who are breastfeeding and pumping?
Kristin: Just keep at it, it's worth it. And definitely know what your rights are -- New York State Law is has very specific workplace requirements in place, that protect breastfeeding moms. And be as kind to yourself as possible, you are doing two mutually exclusive jobs simultaneously, and you deserve all the kindness and understanding you can get.
Bess: Stay flexible, and remember to laugh.
Anonymous: Have friend help so you can be with your baby except the 15 minutes you are in the room, or pump and go alone. A crying baby is really stressful so if yours is having a rough patch exit the room --auditioners are stressed enough and you don't need that directed towards you or your baby.
6) If you could wave a magic wand and make any request about trying to breastfeeding and pumping while working or auditioning, what would it be? (The overwhelming response to this question was "That there could be a room in the Equity building where mothers could pump or breastfeed.")
Zabryna: That people weren't so uptight about an exposed breast and you could do it without having to Houdini your child and breast away so no one is overtly or secretly offended or uncomfortable.
Theresa: That nursing or pumping can be added to the daily schedule. Silly, right? But as a stage manager, there are production meetings, prep before rehearsal begins and then work to do after rehearsal is over.
Melinda: Quieter pumps! Pumping at the theatre in open-ceiling dressing rooms makes for quite a few laughs with that mueh-mhugh, mueh mhugh sound for 20 min each night!
This column is dedicated to the Equity members who are parents and want to "have it all." We-the Parents' Committee-will concentrate on building a community of AEA parents, as well as AEA members who are considering becoming parents. We have heard again and again that parents in our Union feel alone in a society that caters to parenting needs of daytime workers.
We will take on one AEA parenting challenge per issue and we'd love your feedback and questions. Please email me directly at Sharon@Sharon Wheatley.com with any questions and build our community by joining the Actors' Equity Association Parents' Group on Facebook.
Sharon Wheatley was most recently a cast member of AVENUE Q on Broadway, and is the author of 'til the Fat Girl Sings: From an Overweight Nobody to a Broadway Somebody. She has two children: Charlotte (age 11) and Beatrix (age 1).