Is It Okay for Women to Breastfeed at Work?

Last Updated Aug 30, 2010 5:45 PM EDT

When my daughter was born, I was CEO of my second software company and I took ten days off. Those ten days included flying to New York to speak at a conference, and they also included doing a lot of email and phone calls from home. At the time, the business was two years old, we had about 40 employees and there was no way I could take anything that looked like maternity leave.

I was determined that my daughter be breast-fed, as my son had been. Since I was married to an immunologist, there wasn't ever going to be much debate on this subject. But of course, going back to work meant that arrangements became a little more complicated. I took my breast pump to work, and there was always plenty of milk in little blue bags in our freezer. On some occasions, I'd bring my baby daughter into work and feed her there. Of course it caused a stir, but what struck me most was that the presence of a baby seemed to make everyone feel so happy. It was as though they'd all been reminded why we work in the first place: not just for ourselves but for our world and for our future.

Sabrina Parson

Looking back on it, what's strange about the episode is that I never discussed the breast-pumping or feeding publicly. I don't know why; I guess I thought it would make other people uncomfortable. I did what I needed to do with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of discretion. So I'm impressed and delighted by Sabrina Parsons' CEO Mom blog, where she's upfront and personal about being a breastfeeding Chief Exec. I completely identify with her struggles to find privacy in the middle of a hectic, public job. Once when I was in her position, the Delta shuttle was canceled and I discovered that La Guardia had no private breast-feeding rooms. Yet they say they cater to business travelers!

I'm also impressed that Parsons is getting support from other female executives. It's important that women demonstrate to each other that having a career and having a family are not mutually exclusive. I hope her male colleagues are just as supportive.

What I wonder is whether Parsons would have this same freedom in a larger, more traditional corporation. Would she be able to work the same way if she were not CEO? We live in a society that pays a great deal of lip service to the importance of families, but most of our major corporations still prefer family members to stay firmly outside the gates until they're old enough to be employed.

We need not to bring our daughters or sons to work one day a year but more often, for the simple reason that they are one of the chief reasons we work: to give our kids a great life and a great example. But how many companies, I wonder, really feel as comfortable as Palo Alto Software when you show them that you have more than one love in your life?

Nursing station photo courtesy Flickr user Wha'ppen, CC 2.0

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on

The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App