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Babies in a Family Business

Elizabeth Parise
Concord MA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22 No. 3, May-June 2005, pp. 101-103

When my sister and I opened a paint-your-own pottery studio, we had all of the details worked out. She had a four-month-old baby, so I would work the bulk of the hours and do the glazing and kiln loading. Little did we know that, less than a year later, I would become pregnant.

My sister and I were the sole owners and the only employees of the studio. There was no maternity leave and the only way to cut back on hours was to reduce the number of hours we were open, which would lower income.

During business hours, customers were welcome to come in and choose a piece of pottery to paint. They picked the colors and tools they wanted to use, such as stencils and sponges, and my sister and I poured paints, set up water bowls, and explained how to use the various tools. A large amount of the work, however, happened when the store was closed. We glazed pottery and loaded the kiln five to seven days a week. After a firing, we had to unload the kiln, file rough spots off the bottoms of pottery, and wrap pieces for pick-up. We also had to unpack shipments, price pottery pieces, and stock shelves. The work was long and physically demanding. There was also the business aspect of things: paperwork, bookkeeping, bills, taxes, bank deposits, marketing, scheduling parties, and taking orders. We didn't have a manager, bookkeeper, accountant, or even a part time employee. It was a lot for two people, let alone two mothers with young children.

My sister took on more responsibility while I was pregnant. She brought her two children with her most shifts and was trained on how to glaze pottery and load the kiln.

I had breastfed my first child for two years and never considered doing anything else. I brought my new baby, Frankie, with me when I returned to work two weeks postpartum to manage a birthday party. He slept through most of it. By six weeks postpartum, I was back to work regularly. My sister and I each worked two days during the week from about 10 am to 6 pm alone and Saturdays together.

At first, I left Frankie at home with his father more than I brought him to work. I just thought that was what I was "supposed" to do. I didn't know anyone else who had brought their babies to work with them, except for my sister. I'm ashamed to say that, when we first opened the store, I was not very supportive of her bringing her children to work. I pressured her to leave them with her husband on the weekends and not to work any shifts during the week. That was one reason why I worked most of the shifts when we first opened.

During one heated argument, I said, "What is the big deal? Why can't you just pump some milk and leave him at home?" I've changed so much since then.

Frankie was a fussy baby. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it prompted me to buy The Baby Book, by William and Martha Sears, which has a great chapter on colic. It also has helpful information on working and wearing your baby. I learned all about high-need babies and how they benefit from being worn in a sling.

We only lived a mile from the store, but we didn't have a car so I always walked. Sometimes, it was better to leave Frankie at home, but I began to realize that we were both happier when he came with me. For one thing, it was easier to nurse him at the store than it was to express milk. I worked alone most of the time and we didn't have a backroom. When I expressed milk, I put up a three panel screen and wore nursing shirts. It sparked quite a few conversations among customers, but so did breastfeeding my baby, which was much more discreet, natural, and pleasant.

Soon after Frankie's first birthday, I found out I was pregnant again. Rebekah was born one month early on the day after Christmas. I returned to work with Bekah when she was three weeks old. She slept a lot and the sounds of the studio seemed to keep her contented. Whenever she woke up, I'd nurse her and put her in the sling.

I felt like an expert using the sling and did just about everything with Bekah sleeping, nursing, or just "hanging out" in it. I could nurse her and easily work a party, pour paints, or clean up.

Customers were starting to notice all the baby activity in the store. This had many different effects. A lot of people wanted to know where to buy a sling. I gave out Internet addresses almost daily. Eventually, we started selling slings at the studio. I also showed people how to use them. Another effect was that the number of customers who nursed in the store seemed to increase. Sometimes nursing toddlers or preschoolers came to the studio and asked their mothers to nurse after seeing me nurse my child. The mothers felt comfortable doing so in our breastfeeding-friendly store.

Of course, there were some negative reactions, too. A few customers got upset if I had to finish breastfeeding or changing the baby before I could help them. Luckily, most people don't get really angry while you are holding a baby.

When Bekah began eating solid foods frequently around nine months, I started to leave her at home more often. She was more mobile and there wasn't really a place for a baby to play in the studio. Sometimes she spent part of the day with me and part of it with my husband. By the time she was one year old, she stayed home all the time.

When Bekah was one-and-a-half years old, I found out that I was pregnant again. Soon afterward, so was my sister! We had some new logistical challenges ahead of us. Lillian was born three days after her due date. I had worked the night before, closed the store, went for acupuncture, picked up a pizza, and walked home. I gave birth early the next morning. I recovered and stayed home with her for six weeks while doing some work from home. I returned to the studio a couple of weeks before my sister's baby was born.

This time, I used a sling constantly and never had to express my milk. It was easy to nurse Lillian on demand either in the sling or in our rocking chair. It was second nature to work with a baby. For me, it was less stressful than worrying about Lillian while we were separated and trying to express milk while on the sales floor. We rarely got sick, so there wasn't the stress of missing work to care for a sick baby or having to leave a sick child to go to work.

Customers had seen me for years in this dual role. They assumed I was some sort of super woman, or maybe just insane. Some seemed resentful and wanted to present all sorts of reasons why I should be unhappy with the situation. But, I wasn't.

Of course, it wasn't easy. Parenting never is. Through my experiences, I discovered that the closer I stayed to the natural rhythm of mothering, the more smoothly things went. I never had to stop and say, "Now I'm going to put the baby to sleep." The baby just fell asleep in the sling as I continued to work. I didn't have to worry about pumping a certain number of ounces or worry that I hadn't left enough milk. I just nursed and worked.

There were some difficult moments when everything happened at once. At times, I had to choose between nursing my baby and ringing up a sale, or I couldn't answer the phone because the baby was too loud. But, overall, it was a positive experience. In my family, everyone has breastfed: my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts. That made a huge difference because I never struggled to decide what to do if an obstacle arose. I wouldn't stop breastfeeding because of challenges anymore than I would stop breathing if I had a cold. I just solved the problem. For me, breastfeeding was never the problem. Working was never the problem. I thought of society as part of the problem—people need to be more baby-friendly and more patient.

When my sister came back to work with her newborn, there were no arguments about leaving her children at home. She had also started wearing her baby in a sling. We were both comfortable having our children at the store.

After being in business for five years, we had five babies between us. We had worked more with babies in the store than without. We closed the business just before our sixth anniversary. It seemed like it had run its course. I hope that more parents and employers consider having mothers and babies together at the workplace. It's a viable option and nice for children to be part of our world.

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