I’m an adjunct professor at a mid-sized University, a new mom, and I just had a very awkward encounter with my department head. I’m teaching one of the sections of my department head’s courses; so myself, the department head and all the other section instructors meet up each week to discuss things and make sure we’re on the same page. Before the semester started, I emailed her to let her know that I recently had a baby and if there was a place I could pump between our course meeting and the start of class. She responded that I was welcome to use her office anytime (I don’t have an office) and to let her know if I needed anything. Great! Fast forward to the first day of class: we have our course meeting and all is going well. At the end of the meeting, I ask my department head if now is convenient for her to lend me her office so I can pump; and if not, I’m happy to wait until she’s ready. She enthusiastically responds that now is a great time and that she’s totally comfortable “being around exposed boobies.”
I’m a bit taken aback at this point, I expected I’d be able to pump privately. I start mumbling about not wanting to interrupt her work when another one of my fellow adjuncts comes to my rescue and informs me the adjunct lounge is currently empty and the door has a lock. I’m relieved and my department head cheerfully remarks that’s the perfect place to pump. I make my way over to the adjunct lounge, lock the door and get to work. Five minutes later, I hear a knock on the door… it’s my department head. She whispers through the door to be let in, saying she has something important to discuss with me. Unnerved, I unlock the door and let her in. At this point, I have all my pumping gear on and am wearing my pumping bra, so I’m mostly covered up, but my shoulders are bare and one can clearly see my pumping bra. My department head looks at me for a moment, then asks me if I’ve seen where one of the other adjuncts has gone. Umm….what? She could have asked anyone else in the hallway that question, why did she have to come in and ask me? I’m clearly super uncomfortable and I respond that I haven’t seen her since the meeting. My department head stares for another moment, then apologizes profusely for disturbing me and leaves.
My question is: what on earth should I do about this? I’m incredibly uncomfortable with how she conducted herself, especially since she’s my boss. Should I speak to her about this? What should I say? Should I just pretend this never happened and hope it doesn’t happen again? I’m definitely not going to use her office to pump (or pump anywhere in that building if I can help it).
Awkward Academic (she/her/hers)
Dear Awkward Academic:
Let’s have a brief pause so readers can manually reaffix our jaws back in our faces.
My read is that your department head was pretty determined to be a part of your pumping experience that day, so determined that she broke some fairly obvious norms of workplace interaction like intruding on a locked door. Does she have a scholarly fascination with the technology of modern motherhood? Does she just wanna catch a glimpse of dem titties? Does she just want to prove, in a feminist way, totally not a creepy way, definitely in a Solidarity-Among-Women sort of way, exactly how deeply comfortable she is with women pumping breastmilk at work, so comfortable that she is totally unfazed by it, so can you please let her into the locked room so she can demonstrate how unfazed she is by this Incredible Progress For Working Parents?
Who can say?
One of the things about academia is that it can take a second to sort out behavior that is malicious, on-purpose, weaponized oddness from behavior that is well-intended but still highly fucking odd. Patterns are telling, as are how people respond to the words ‘no’ or “please don’t” (the oddness may continue but come with a half-hearted apology first!). We don’t have to solve the mystery of “deliberately harassing weirdness or just ambient weirdness” at this moment to know that you deserve to never have to worry about this again at work, so I think this should be your order of operations from here: 1) Focus on getting a totally private space to pump that does not depend in any way on your department chair 2) THEN worry about fallout/discussion/awkwardness with her.
- Document all the stuff you told me in case you need it later. I’d rather have you have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Be dry, factual, list who was there, times, dates, exactly what was said and what happened (there’s a how-to guide at the link).
- Talk to Human Resources/Administration (I don’t know who handles this at your school, find out) and tell them that you’re a new mom, you will need a private place to pump on campus x days roughly at y times, what can they suggest/offer you, where do other new parents go to do this, and what kind of policies and tools do they have to ensure privacy (locking doors, signs on the door that the room is unavailable, blocking out rooms in the online space reservation system, etc.)? It’s okay to do this by email, it’s okay to go completely around your chair as if the other day didn’t happen and you’ve never discussed it, and see what the school can offer. Maybe this solves it!
- If HR/Admin/Building Services, etc. don’t have a good solution, and/or suggest talking to your chair, or they loop her in on the email and she delivers a bunch of empty reassurances about how it’s totally so normal and cool if you use her office, it’s probably time to pick up the phone or request an in-person meeting with Admin/HR. You want to document the weird shit that happened in writing for later in case this escalates, but you want to be strategic about when and how and whether you share the information (to get forwarded around to heaven knows who, incl. your chair). Do I sound paranoid? I am? Given power differentials and office politics, at this stage, keeping the tone and content of written communications in the vein of “helpfully seeking a positive solution that assumes the best of intentions, won’t make anyone look bad, and will hopefully work for everyone” helps you get what you need in the short-term (a private, consistent spot to nurse where this person can’t intrude on you again).
- During the Call/Meeting: Let helpful person know that your department head oh-so-helpfully offered her office but could not promise privacy there, then she helpfully suggested the adjunct lounge which has a locking door but you could not count on privacy there, either, since a few minutes later she interrupted you to ask a question. Since you really need total privacy for nursing, and you’d rather find a solution that does not depend on your department head, perhaps something in another building so students and colleagues will be less likely to try to interrupt? What do other nursing parents do that works? Your tone is “This is so very awkward but my chair’s enthusiastic offers of help are not actually working, can you help me find another way?”
The probably good news, if there is good news, is there’s a good chance that either your chair is an already-known weirdness vector to these people, in which case they’ll be like, “Say no more, we got you!” or they will, like us, be brand new to her weirdness and be like “OH MY GOD, she did WHAT, that is totally out of bounds, leave this with me, we got you.”
If HR/Admin are not cooperative at this point, that’s when your documentation can be useful and your tone can change to one of “Look, I have a right to pump in a private place where my boss can’t interrupt me or talk about how deeply comfortable she is with, and I quote, ‘exposed boobies,’ the last thing I want to do is waste everyone’s time with a harassment complaint about a generally supportive colleague for what I hope is a temporary moment of extreme awkwardness on her part, but for the next x months I need a private place to pump that does not depend on the goodwill or Getting It of this particular person, so, are you going to help me do the right thing quietly, or am I taking this to the general counsel’s office/Twitter/The Chronicle of Higher Education/The Chronicle of Higher Education’s’s Twitter?” I don’t think it will come to that? But if it comes to that, it won’t be you who makes it have to come to that. You tried the easy way.
Get your place to pump. THEN, either address or (strategically) don’t address the issue with your chair. I’m going to give you a few scenarios that might happen with her and some scripts to go with them, ok?
Scenario 1: She notices you’re not pumping in her office/the lounge and approaches you to ask about it/remind you that you TOTALLY can:
- “Oh, thanks so much for asking, I was able to talk to [admin] and arrange a spot that a lot of other new parents use [under no circumstances reveal where], where the noise of the pump won’t bother anyone and it’s less likely someone will need to interrupt.”
- From a working-mom-in-academia friend, who wanted to be clear that pumping is very different from nursing and can be extremely hard and require [privacy][strange bodily contortions][a photo of the baby’s face to get it flowing][way more time than you think you’ll need]:
“If it did come up again, I would probably just say something like ‘I really need to be relaxed to get a good flow and for me that means being alone while I pump.’ And if this earns her further unwelcome advice like, ‘it’s perfectly natural, you shouldn’t feel awkward‘ the retort it, ‘however I SHOULD feel, I’ve learned that privacy is key to my comfort. Without it I risk not being to meet my baby’s supply needs.’ At that point, further argument makes the chair a total asshole because this is about having enough milk to feed a baby, not about somebody’s relationship with her ‘boobies.'”
From a working-mom-in-nonprofit-sector friend:
“”I really appreciate your support, and the thing I need most from you is X uninterrupted minutes as required by [our HR guidelines][the law][our agreement][wymymhood].”
Scenario 2: Your discussions with HR/Admin get back to her and she’s miffed at you for not recognizing how awesomely supportive she is:
- “Well, okay, my conversation with HR/Admin was meant to be in confidence specifically because I could tell you were trying to be supportive but I needed The University to deliver a private solution and didn’t want complicate our working relationship. My preference would be to not talk about pumping again and stick to [teaching topics], especially now that I have a much more workable solution. But since you ask, yes, you might be ‘comfortable,’ but it’s impossible for me to relax and get a reliable supply with an audience. [Name] in admin was really helpful in finding a private spot for me, so maybe the next time we have a new parent around the place we can connect them up.” + [A Subject Change About Classes].
If she’s cool after that, reward her with being cool in return. If she retaliates professionally, you have your log of the incident, you can log all conversations with her that make you want to crawl out of your skin, and turn your “can you help me out, HR?” discussions into official complaints at will.
Scenario 3: Your department chair is a Captain Awkward reader and sees this, in which case, hi there buddy! In your head you probably thought you were being so amazingly encouraging and supportive of A Woman’s Choice To Breastfeed, but clearly you made it incredibly weird for your employee. If you want to fix it, here are your pathways:
- YOU contact HR/admin and use your ‘department chair’ pull. “I have a new parent working in my department who needs a private, secure spot to pump on x days when she has classes and office hours. What are the best spots for this, how does one reserve them, and how should I direct her? Oh, and while this building would be convenient, I think she’ll have more privacy in a different spot from where her classes are. Thank you!”
- APOLOGIZE: “I’m very sorry about the other day, I was bending over so far to be Supportive! Of! Working! Moms! that I fear got a little intrusive about the pumping. Good news, I talked to [Admin] and they’ve got a totally private spot for you to use with clear reservation times, a locking door, and a laminated sign to put on the door to reduce knocking. Let me know if that doesn’t take care of it for some reason and we’ll find another solution. Good? Good. How was your first week of classes?”
- Never, ever, ever, ever tell an employee or colleague about how comfortable you are with “exposed boobies” and once you’ve apologized briefly and fixed the problem, do not bring this topic up again unless the Letter Writer does.
I hope this solves it for you without further conflict, Letter Writer, and that everyone chooses the easy, non-intrusive, non-awkward way.