On the Interview Trail While Pregnant or Pumping
As our reproductive years increasingly overlap with our postdoc years, it’s not uncommon to end up in the rather awkward situation to be on the job market while pregnant or pumping breast milk. I experienced both, so I thought I would share my tips and suggestions. One positive about the experience is that you will really see how committed each institution actually is to supporting working parents.
If you’re pregnant…
In my opinion, it’s none of the institution’s business that you’re pregnant, and I would avoid bringing it up if at all possible, because even in the enlightened world of academia, some people still hold the notion that mothers are less committed to their careers. If you’re late in your pregnancy, affecting your ability to travel, just push for an earlier (or later) interview date, acting as though your January (or whatever month) is already booked full of interviews at other institutions. If your pregnancy might affect your ability to teach in the fall, still wait to bring it up until they offer you the job, at which point they could be subject to an employment discrimination lawsuit if they withdraw the offer. If they’re unhelpful or inflexible at that point, then maybe it’s not a place you want to take a job.
But I look pregnant! Actually you might not look as pregnant as you think. Remember, they don’t know what your body looked like before and it’s rude to closely examine a woman’s physique. Wear loose fitting, comfortable dress clothes and try to stick to styles that camouflage your bump instead of highlighting it. Comfortable flats or loafers are the way to go regardless of your pregnancy status, because they’ll have you walking all over campus.
Eating out safely: Interviews almost always involve meals out, so memorize the list of foods to avoid. My goal was to find a menu item that I didn’t need to make special requests or ask any questions of the wait staff about the pasteurization status of their cheese or whether the sprouts were cooked. Cheeses are a particular problem. Restaurants love to use fancy unfamiliar cheeses in dishes and as garnishes, and there’s always the possibility that someone will want to get a cheese plate appetizer. You can sometimes Google under the table to see if it’s a hard, soft, or ricotta-like cheese but it’s easier to avoid ordering that entrée, especially because the way that menus are written at many restaurants, it’s hard to tell if it’s possible to leave off. If someone gets a cheese plate, the wait staff may mention which cheeses are unpasteurized when introducing the cheeses. There will almost always be a hard cheese you can eat, so just have that and politely decline if someone suggests you try one you can’t. Just pretend you’re picky; there are worse sins. Try to avoid ordering things that are hard to get fully cooked, like burgers, or commonly not fully cooked, like a tuna steak. If you’re feeling nauseous, just do the best you can and act like you’re a petite eater. If someone asks if there’s a problem with your entrée, admitting that your stomach is a little upset is probably the quickest way to shut down the conversation.
Declining alcohol: Remember that you don’t need a reason not to drink: many people don’t for many different reasons. People will also understand not wanting to drink while you’re on a job interview. If they ask if you’re sure about your drink order, just politely respond that you’re fine with water/Coke/iced tea and leave it at that. Occasionally your tablemates will want to order a fancy bottle of wine on the department’s dime, so if they push you, you can just use the excuse that wine makes you sleepy, and you’ve already had a long day (because you almost certainly have), but they are welcome to go ahead without you.
Managing frequent bathroom breaks: Again, you don’t need to give a reason and often faculty are instructed to escort you to your next meeting, so they won’t even know that you just went 45 minutes ago. Even if you’re not pregnant, you have to drink a lot of water on these long interview days to stay hydrated, especially with so much talking, so you can always give that as an excuse if absolutely necessary. Consider bringing your own empty water bottle or reusing a bottle purchased from the airport or hotel.
Handling awkward questions: While it is illegal for anyone to inquire about your pregnancy or marital status, reminding inquisitive folks about this point would generally be perceived as hostile. You can answer the question truthfully but politely, or if you’d rather deflect, say, “I’d rather talk about my research plan,” or “I don’t think that’s relevant at this point in the process.” If necessary, you can remind them that you wouldn’t have applied for the job if you weren’t committed and confident you would be successful as a professor. I was almost always asked whether I had a spouse/partner and frequently whether I had kids. I don’t think these questioners were looking to discriminate against anyone but rather for ways to sell you on their institution (e.g. fabulous public schools or on-site daycare). Also, job options for a partner are often a reason (or excuse) given by top candidates who turn down a job offer so they want as much lead time as possible to help find your partner a great position.
If you’re pumping…
The goal of every search is to hire the best candidate and so the purpose of the on campus interview is to both get to know you but also have you thinking it’s a great place to work. Therefore, your interviewing department should be more than happy to accommodate your needs, you just have to tell them what they are. However, pumping on the go will increase the amount of advance planning you need to do before your trip. Another key thing to remember is that while it would be great if you could bring every drop of milk home for your baby, the reasons for pumping are to keep you comfortable and maintain your milk supply; if something goes wrong and you end up having to dump some or all of the milk, it’s not the end of the world. If you are lucky enough to have an ample supply of milk and can pump and dump for a few days, that will streamline your travel.
Working with administrative assistants: After you get the initial offer for an interview, usually an administrative assistant will follow up to schedule the dates or book your flights—this is the time to let them know that you’ll need time in your schedule to pump. Admins are frequently women, but do not assume that they have any idea what pumping entails. Let them know you’ll need a private room and how frequently and how long you need to pump. I know it feels like you’re asking a lot, but if you tell them you need to pump every 2.5 to 3 hours, for 20-25 minutes, they will schedule you every 3 hours for 20 minutes, so just be very upfront about what your pumping schedule is and how long you need for pumping and clean up. Also remind them you’ll need time to pump before dinner. You may end up with one or two fewer meetings with faculty or you may need to stay later on your second day; let them know that you are flexible.
Your schedule is usually sent to everyone who will meet with you, so ask them to put it as “required personal time” or something. At one interview, it was put on my schedule as a “break” and when I was meeting with one of the faculty, he saw I wasn’t meeting with an important person and wanted to add a meeting in the slot where I had a break, and I had to explain that it was a medically necessary break. Also let them know that you’ll need space for a small cooler in a fridge and/or freezer while you’re on campus, so they can make space in the fridge ahead of time.
Freezing milk back: This may be your first trip away from your little one, so you may want to freeze some milk back for them to eat while you’re gone. Breast milk is also good for a week in the fridge, so that might be an option for you as well. If you’ve never frozen your milk before, you should be aware that some women have an enzyme (lipase) that makes breastmilk taste soapy after it is frozen and thawed. This bothers some babies and others don’t care, so be sure to do a trial run with frozen milk before freezing a bunch of it. If your baby doesn’t like the thawed milk, you can scald the milk prior to freezing to solve this problem. I panicked when I learned about this potential lipase issue the day before my first trip (and after I had already frozen a bunch of milk), but luckily my kid was okay with thawed milk. Also instruct your caregiving team on how to defrost frozen breast milk (in the fridge or with lukewarm water) and how long it lasts (2 hrs at RT or 24 hrs in the fridge, do not re-freeze).
Packing for your trip: Bad news: you’re probably going to have to check a bag. Admittedly, I am not a light traveler, but I could not fit everything I needed for two days into a laptop bag and a carry-on suitcase. I used an extra duffel to carry all my pumping equipment, checked my suitcase and carried on the laptop bag and the duffel. My calculus was that I could replace clothes and toiletries if my luggage was lost (though thankfully it never was) but I couldn’t live without the pump and needed my laptop to do work on the plane.
Beyond the usual interview stuff (always bring your own dry erase markers if you’re giving a chalk talk), this is what I would pack:
- Your pump and power adapter
- Battery pack (sold separately for most pumps)
- Manual handpump attachment (in case of dire emergency)
- 2-3 sets of pump parts (Pro tip: I would store my pump parts in the fridge after first use and use them for 24 hrs, since the only thing making them “dirty” is breastmilk, which is good for ~ a week in the fridge)
- A cooler (I used a soft-sided six-pack sized cooler)
- Freezer blocks (frozen)
- Milk storage bottles (Calculate how many you will need for the length of your trip, plus a few extra, pack in gallon re-sealable bags)
- Lab tape and marker to label milk bottles with dates
- Two pumping tank tops (make a hands-free pumping tank by putting on an old tight fitting tank top and cutting a small “X” where your nipples are, making the opening just big enough to fit the end of the flanges).
- A few extra gallon and quart plastic re-sealable bags
- Nipple cream
- Nursing pads
- A tiny bottle of dish soap
- Hand sanitizer
- Wash cloth or napkins–something to clean up spills
- Backup interview blouse in case of spills
- Granola bars or other snacks
- Tote bag to carry pumping supplies to campus (I used a reusable grocery bag, plain black)
Dealing with the TSA: First, go sign up for TSA Pre-Check right now if you haven’t already. It’s $85 for 5 years and it saves so much time and hassle. There are shorter lines, and you don’t have to pull out your laptop or take off your shoes. I could breeze through security in under 10 minutes, even with a pump. Make sure whomever books your ticket knows your PreCheck ID number.
The TSA rules about no liquids of more than 3 oz does not apply to breastmilk; there is a clear exception so don’t let anyone make you dump your milk. I never ran into an issue with this, but every TSA agent seems to handle things differently. To make things easier, I always pulled my cooler out of my pumping duffel and told the agent at the scanner that it was a cooler for breastmilk. On departure, when I had no breastmilk, they frequently insisted on checking my ice bricks to make sure they were cold or frozen, so be sure to travel with them frozen for that reason. On return, sometimes they would just open the cooler and look at it, but frequently, they have to put it into a secondary scanning system, where they measure how light passes through it, so your milk containers need to be clear. Sometimes they insist on doing every bottle, so this can take ~5 min.
Pumping on airplanes and in airports: I never had a flight longer than 3 hours so I managed to avoid pumping on the plane. From what I read, you can actually pump in your seat using a nursing cover if you feel comfortable. If you plan to attempt this, I would try to get a window seat with no one next to me for more privacy. Talk to the gate agent when you check in to see if they can hook you up if you’re not on a full flight. You can also pump in the airplane restroom, but it’s a good idea to let the flight attendant know what you are doing so they don’t become alarmed by the noise. I would probably pump and dump in this case and not reuse those pump parts.
On departure, I would schedule my pumping so that I could pump right before I left my house for the airport. Most airports now have a lactation lounge somewhere in the airport, so you may be able to pump there after you land, before you depart on your return trip or on a layover. If you Google the name of your airport and “lactation room” you can generally find out what is available and where it is; the website or app “Moms Pump Here” is a terrific aggregator of this info, but sometimes the airport website has more details. If you need time to pump after you land, contact your car/limousine service ahead of time to let them know. Don’t forget to take into account the time it will take to get your bag and get from the airport to the hotel when planning your pumping schedule. I definitely spent some uncomfortable time stuck in traffic on the way to my hotel, wishing I had pumped at the airport.
At the hotel: Usually the administrative assistant will send you the hotel information and reservation number before you leave; if not, just ask. Call them in advance and let them know you will need a mini-fridge with freezer compartment for medical reasons, then double check on this request when you check in. Many hotels have these in the room already, but this guarantees you won’t be wedging your stuff in between bottles of Pellegrino. As soon as you arrive, check the temperature in the fridge and freezer (you may need to activate with a “quick cool” button) and put your freezer bricks in the freezer compartment because it can be hard to get them to re-freeze once they thaw. You can also ask the front desk for a roll of paper towels in case you need to do dishes or clean up spills.
On campus: Milk production uses a lot of calories, so be sure to pack several snacks for the day in your pumping tote. You can bring your own or get them at the hotel gift shop and charge them to your room. Also bring a water bottle of your own or grab one from the hotel; you will probably be offered one but better safe than sorry. Once you’re on site, you’ll usually be introduced very quickly to the administrative assistant who booked your schedule and you can ask them about storing your cooler and pumping tote.
About half the time, I was booked slots in a shared lactation room on campus, the other half I was given an empty office to use. One shared room actually had a Medala Symphony pump for use—wish I had known about that in advance! Once you receive your schedule (or one week before your visit), you can ask the administrative assistant what space has been set aside for your use. I preferred the empty office because I could leave my pump set up all day, but it won’t have a sink so you’ll need to use hand sanitizer. An empty office also means you might be able to review your job talk on your computer but take extra care to avoid spilling on it—not the time for a laptop failure.
You’ll often have an hour or two to relax at the hotel before dinner, so you’ll want to pump right before your scheduled pickup by your host. Dinners can go surprisingly long, so ask your host how far the restaurant is (20 min away is not uncommon) and do the math for when you’ll absolutely need to leave the restaurant before your next pumping session and tell your host when you’ll need to leave. You might need to gently remind them when it’s getting close.
Handling awkwardness: Needing to pump is definitely nothing to be ashamed of but it’s definitely something that men and people of a certain age are less familiar with. Be as open as you are comfortable with, but remember you’re in a business setting. I tried to treat it as a private medical issue and advocate for what I needed with the people who needed to know (scheduler and host) and generally tried to avoid the subject or be vague with others who didn’t really need to know. As with pregnancy, you’ll probably be asked about a partner, because they want extra lead time to help find a good job for your partner. In general, just do your best to ask for what you need, be polite and assume good intent.
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Creator: D Coetzee