“We should have always had a breastfeeding room in the State House, right?” says Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, in an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle. On Friday, a photograph of Gideon and House Majority Leader Erin Herbig posing in front of the first-ever nursing mothers’ room in the Capitol began making the rounds on social media. The photo garnered praise for the women who made sure peers could parent and serve in government at the same time — and shock that such a basic accommodation didn’t previously exist.
Gideon — herself a mother of three — recalls how this addition to the workplace in Maine’s legislature came to be. Three years ago, a lobbyist friend, who was also the mother of a 6-month-old, approached her and said, “Sara — I want to ask you to work on this one thing — will you work on getting a private nursing room for us? I’ve been managing but it’s awful. It’s hard and embarrassing, and whenever I ask someone for a place to pump, I get sent to a closet.”
Two years after that initial conversation, the nursing mothers’ room is now finally open for business.
Gideon also notes that when it comes to working mothers, sometimes a room isn’t just a room. Something as seemingly simple as a place to pump can make all the difference when it comes to women having a real seat at the table.
After all, Gideon says, when she was first running for her leadership role in the legislature, she fielded, as she puts it, “a lot of questions like, ‘What about your children? How are you going to handle this with your children?’” She adds, “People’s analysis of why to vote with me had to do with how they felt I could handle my family.”
For young mothers, being able to do this work — and thus change this culture — often also means needing a private, clean place to pump breast milk for their children.
“The State House is notorious for its crazy, unpredictable work hours — it’s a big reason why women are deterred from entering the legislature at all levels, and especially in leadership,” Gideon says. “And even though to some degree we can’t completely control all the work hours for people, I have really tried to put into action that this is a job that people who are parents can do. We need to create a culture that is welcoming to everyone — and that includes the practice of making it a place that works for people’s lives, and a perfect example of that is a warm and accessible nursing room for mothers.”
While the new nursing room has been open only for a matter of days, Gideon says that the feedback she’s received has already been overwhelmingly positive.
“On the one hand, people are saying, ‘This is so great!’ But on the other hand, I’m hearing, ‘Wow — this is such a no-brainer. How did this not exist before?’” Gideon says.
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