The, Um, Breast Milk in the Fridge

Dear Helena,
I pump milk at work for my baby and store it in the office fridge. I also leave parts of my pump drying in the drainage rack. No one would dare to tell me that I can't do this, but I feel like people are uncomfortable about it. They make little remarks like when they open the fridge door, see my "Mommy's Milk" bag, and say, "Whoa, bodily fluids! I wouldn't want to ingest that by mistake, hahaha!" Should I store my milk in a personal cooler and my pump parts out of sight? How should I deal with these people?
—Miffed Mama

Dear Miffed Mama,
You shouldn't feel uncomfortable about storing your milk in the public fridge or your pump parts in the drainage rack. Though exact laws vary by state, employers are required to support breast-feeding, not make it harder for you. Bringing your own cooler is a hassle, especially if you take public transport to work.

As a mom, it's probably hard for you to understand why anyone would object to nursing and its accouterments. I'm the mother of an 8-month-old, and I'm now so comfortable with breast-feeding that at a recent dinner with my husband's work colleagues, I spent the entire evening with the baby attached to my chest. However, nonmoms can be squeamish about these things. As evidence, check out the comments in response to this Table Manners column or this recent New York Times discussion thread.

The problem is cultural, says Kim Updegrove, executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin. "We have sexualized women's breasts so much that we no longer look at them as of nutritional and medicinal value to the baby. ... If [more] people knew that [breast milk] passively immunizes the child, then they would be more likely to accept it the same way they would accept any other kind of medication being stored in the refrigerator, like insulin for a diabetic." In contrast, consider the Mongolian attitude toward breast milk: According to this article, breast milk is considered a healthy treat, even by adults. So much so that, in this story, someone steals a nursing mother's breast milk from the office fridge, much the way you'd pilfer a fellow employee's cupcake.

Side note: Some Westerners do believe in the healing power of breast milk for adults. A very sick friend recently requested some of mine, and I gave him a few bags. He said it tasted like "sweetened condensed milk" and made him "want a graham cracker."

So how should you respond to your coworkers' subtle digs? Prepare a script in advance that spells out the benefits of nursing, says Marsha Walker, executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy. That way you won't get flustered or fly into a rage (as I would do). Say: "You seem uncomfortable with me putting my milk in the fridge. But it's food for my baby just like you're putting food in the fridge for you. It boosts my baby's immune system so he's less likely to get sick and I don't have to stay home from work making you do my job." Since your colleagues' discomfort might stem from ignorant germ-phobia, explain: "OSHA specifically states that breast milk is not a potentially infectious material, so you don't have to worry that it will contaminate your sandwich."

If you're worried somebody will be offended by the sight of your milk, labeled or not, put it in a paper bag, hidden from the squeamish. But consider labeling it. It might seem unlikely that someone would be foolish enough to help themselves to the contents of an unmarked plastic bag or container, but you never know what people will take from the office fridge.

You can browse all of Helena's Table Manners columns by topic here. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.