Capitol pump room serves moms
Thursday, December 16, 2010
WASHINGTON (AP) — In the basement of the Capitol, behind a heavy frosted glass door secured by an electronic combination lock, is a 12- by 10-foot room where many of Congress’ new mothers go to take care of business.
Not the business of writing legislation or hashing out political deals — although all of that and more goes on behind this particular closed door.
No, the main activity here is feeding babies. Some affectionately call it the “boob cube.” It’s officially known as a “lactation suite.”
Whatever the name, it’s one of several refuges around the Capitol complex designed to give working mothers of infants a private and sanitary place to feed or pump breast milk for their babies.
Two floors down from the historic chambers where lawmakers cast votes in the House and Senate, just around a labyrinthine corridor from a secure room where members plot strategy, the lactation room is part lounge, part office-away-from-the-office for scores of women trying to balance their babies’ nutritional needs with the demands of a fast-paced Capitol Hill job.
The room is equipped with two hospital-grade pumps, a mini-refrigerator for storage, hand sanitizer and sterile wipes, comfortable chairs and all the necessities of a congressional office: multiline phones, a TV often tuned to C-SPAN, and power outlets for laptops.
Conference calls are taken over the mechanical whirring of pumps. Legislation is read and marked for questions or revisions amid bottle changes. Interviews are conducted and e-mails written and answered between swipes of sanitizing wipes.
Before the boob cube, countless women lugged heavy pumps and extension cords to their jobs on Capitol Hill, then shut themselves in any bathroom stall they could find near an outlet to pump breast milk they could bring home to their children. In a workplace where only the most senior aides have their own offices, disappearing behind a locked door simply wasn’t an option for most.
That was before the debut of the Capitol room and others like it, furnished with high-functioning pumps. The only things women need to bring are tubes and bottles.
Congress’ Office of the Attending Physician opened the first lactation room in 2006, converting a suite in the basement of a Senate office building accessible only with a card key, so women could have a secure place to pump 24 hours a day. In addition to pumps, leather chairs and a sofa, TVs and a desk, the room has a refrigerator and two sinks.
The trend spread, and not long after, newly installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the first woman to hold the post, pushed successfully for a similar — though smaller — room in the basement of the Capitol itself.
Today there are more than a half-dozen sites where women who work in Congress can go to pump or feed their babies. Some of the sites also are open to visitors to the Capitol complex.
Many mothers who use the facilities — most of whom spoke about them only on condition they not be identified, because of the personal nature of the topic — say they wouldn’t have been able to continue breast-feeding their babies as much and for as long as they have without the rooms.
Pelosi says it’s a way of giving young women a chance to excel in public service and politics.
“We want to see young moms be able to make their contribution, to advance their careers on Capitol Hill without any obstacles relating to privacy or otherwise,” she said at the time. “It’s good for our country. More young moms in Congress. Pretty soon, more women leaders in the Congress. And who knows? Maybe one of these new young moms will be the president of the United States.”
Perhaps. For now, the room draws a cross-section of women, from members of Congress and their aides to artists who maintain the Capitol’s historical artwork and reporters who cover what goes on there.
Rachel Campos-Duffy, the wife of Rep.-elect Sean Duffy, R-Wis., popped down to feed her 7-month-old baby there recently while accompanying her husband to Capitol Hill for his freshman orientation. She later thanked Pelosi in person for maintaining the room.
“It’s a very small room, but it has a little serenity to it,” Campos-Duffy said. “I just thought, ’Wow, isn’t that awesome that for all these women who are here and are trying to keep their milk supply up and feed their babies while they have this busy life?”’
Campos-Duffy later blogged about the experience in a piece headlined “Breast-feeding prompts bipartisan moment.”
Behind the heavy glass door, pumping stations are separated by partitions, but there’s often chatter over the transom on everything from political scuttlebutt and nose-counts on key votes to what kind of solid foods to offer the baby and strategies for longer naps. Some women even make meeting times with colleagues so they have company on the other side of the dividers.
Most describe an unwritten code they share with other women who use the room: It’s a nonpolitical zone where whatever’s said or overheard is off-limits beyond its four walls.
And they share crucial tips about how to work their clandestine routine into the busy and still male-dominated world of Capitol Hill. Such as: Don’t use the telephone unless you want your colleague on the other end to know what you’re doing during the chat. The caller ID comes up as “INFANT LACTATION.”
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