The mother of all office dramas

When a high-profile chief executive officer — a friend who will go unnamed — recently returned to work after having her first child, she was determined to bridge the executive-mom divide: She decided to nurse her baby.

Having given new life to a struggling company, and now a daughter, she wondered how hard could it be to pump between meetings? On her first day back, she had an offsite appointment and asked for a private room where she could nurse. She was pointed to an office and told that its occupant was out for a spell; in the meantime, someone would keep an eye on the door to make sure he didn't barge in on her in lactation delicto. Only five minutes after she had partially disrobed and hooked herself up to the pump she had lugged along, he opened the door and literally screamed at the sight of her. After dressing, she bumped into him "telling at least five other guys what had happened," she remembers, "and how embarrassing it was for him."

That's why, if you're at a certain accounting firm in Knoxville, Tenn., and you see a seemingly innocent marker such as a rubber band on the doorknob of an unused office, or pass the computer supply room at a law firm in Detroit and spot a blank piece of paper taped to the door, do yourself — and the woman inside tangled in electrical cords and suction cups — a favor: knock.

Stories of business lunch leakage and pump-room run-ins may seem like scenes from a Judd Apatow comedy, but chances are, whether you work at a fast-food chain or a Fortune 500 company, you'll have a run-in with the realities of workplace lactation.

This is true now more than ever because the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act signed by President Barack Obama in March requires employers to provide breastfeeding employees with "reasonable break time" and a private place — not the ladies' room — to express breast milk during the workday until a child's first birthday. However helpful, the law is too late to benefit many, including LaNisa Allen of West Chester, Ohio, who was fired from her job at a Totes-Isotoner warehouse a few years ago for taking an unscheduled break to relieve her engorged breasts. (Her bosses denied her permission.)

In 2009, Allen's case reached the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled against her. Like many nursing moms who have faced discrimination, Laura Walker, a waitress at a Red Lobster in Evansville, Ind., opted to keep her travails out of court. Her hours were reduced after she presented a nurse's note explaining her need to pump. (It got worse when her manager shook milk containers like maracas, saying they were for her.) Walker ended up in the hospital with mastitis from clogged ducts, and filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission. She reached a confidential settlement with the company in 2006.

Recent years have brought some progress. A third of large corporations now have lactation rooms, according to the Families & Work Institute. The American Institute for Architects has even released a paper on lactation room design to help companies establish a "calm, restful environment."

However, not all workers within a company have the same privileges. The executives at Totes-Isotoner, for example, enjoy the benefits of a private "mother's room" in their corporate offices, which would have been a great help to Allen. At its Seattle headquarters, Starbucks supplies pumps to nursing employees, along with comfortable recliners and magazines, yet in-store baristas are forced to pump in public bathrooms.

This is at a time when more women are lactating at work than ever before. In 2008, 70 percent of mothers — the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce — with kids under three-years-old worked full time, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. One-third of these mothers went back to work when their baby turned three-months-old, and another third was back by the time their kid hit the half-year mark. (Meanwhile, the CDC estimates that almost three-quarters of mothers nurse their newborns.) These figures don't take into account another recent development: Last year popular social-networking site CafeMom polled almost 15,000 new mothers and discovered that 16 percent were returning to work sooner than they had planned because of the recession.

Advocacy groups argue that it's in the best interest of businesses to embrace workplace lactation. At a time when women are the primary breadwinners in two out of five families in the U.S., according to the Center for American Progress, and more women are breastfeeding than ever before, workplace lactation "makes money for businesses," says Cathy Carothers, director of marketing at the International Lactation Consultant Assn. and a mother of five. Carothers supports "The Business Case for Breastfeeding" campaign, launched in 2008 by the federal Health Resources & Services Administration. "We've found it results in lower absenteeism, lower turnover, and lower health-care costs," she says.

In some cases, it isn't cheap. When Becky Friedman, a New York-based producer of commercials was required to take long trips to a set in Los Angeles, she pushed her company, advertising agency BBDO, to rent a hospital-grade pump and pay for her to FedEx home her milk packed in dry ice. "I pumped everywhere I could find a somewhat private place — in stairwells, in edit suites," Friedman recalls. It wasn't completely normal for all her colleagues, however. "On the last day, one of the young guys on set asked me what was in the briefcase I had been carrying around, and when I told him it was the pump, he just about fell over. He would have been less shocked if I had told him it was filled with heroin."

No one is immune to the potential embarrassment. In her recently published book, Just Let Me Lie Down, Real Simple magazine Editor Kristin van Ogtrop recalls a "wardrobe malfunction" in which her breasts soaked through her orange blouse as she was laying off a tearful employee. "It was horrifying," she writes. "But what do you do? If you are a confident woman who is good at your job and has a good sense of humor, there's no way you can't handle it."

When Liza Zenni, then the executive director of a San Francisco arts organization, ended a meeting of her all-male board of directors, she discovered that half of her grey silk dress was drenched black. It "had been obvious to everyone around the table except, of course, me," she says. Her colleagues, fathers all, reassured her they had seen it all before and helped her laugh it off.

"The life of a working mom is easier when the two sides of her can be a little more intertwined," says van Ogtrop, whose colleagues sometimes leave their pumps in the office kitchen sink. "Then again, I work at a woman's magazine. We talk about thongs during meetings because it's our job."

Breastfeeding on the job is becoming more normative and more supported, which is good news for everyone except the silk blouse industry. Though it hasn't healed some old wounds. One battle-worn new mom still remembers nursing in her office's ladies' room and turning up her iPod to drown out the sound of the pump.

From trading to ... burping? The British government recently approved a universal paid paternity leave policy of up to three months for men whose wives go back to work after childbirth. (The pay, however, is a stingy $200 per week.) In the U.S., paid paternity leave is offered by only 13 percent of companies, and just 60 percent of American men with access to it, paid or otherwise, take advantage of the option.

Many major Wall Street banks are counted among the former group. Judging a bank by its paternity leave policy may be difficult. At Goldman Sachs, approximately 10 percent of the bank's male employees took some form of paternity leave in 2009. At Credit Suisse, with about 12,000 employees — the majority of them men — only 75 fathers of newborns took advantage of the benefit.