Breastfeeding in the Land of Nuclear Power
This is the story of a journey. An epic journey, in fact. One that took a handful of women from the wilderness of exclusion and obscurity to a new world of inclusion and acceptance, and no one escaped unchanged.
When I first started my career at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, I was one of the only young employees on the entire site. The majority of the workforce was mid-to-late-career males. There were some advantages to this, like gaining a whole bunch of fathers overnight. But the negatives were very real. To some, I would always be a cute little girl who was playing at engineering. To others, I was a 20+ year-younger eye candy.
After a few years, more early-career employees entered the pool, including a new wave of women. We formed an immediate bond, as if we were on a life raft and we would only survive by pulling together. So we did. We cultivated our friendships as tender pea shoots in a wartime garden. We shared our successes and our trials, and our collective burden became lighter.
When the first of our group started having babies, we realized something new about our workplace. The world that we worked in did not have a clue about how to accommodate new mothers re-entering the fold. Together we understood that our habits, our preferences, and our interests needed to adapt to allow our families to not just survive but flourish. Our workplace did not seem to share this understanding.
It is hard to change -as evidenced by the polarized discussion around nuclear power. But, as we’ve seen from the compelling stories of men and women who have changed their minds on nuclear in the face of an unsupportive environmental movement, not impossible. Some of them have taken a stand for nuclear power against the wishes of their entire social and professional networks, thus alienating their colleagues and closest friends. The women on our life raft share a bond with these people, we have all made a choice to stand up for something that we strongly felt was right. We understand that change is necessary, and flexibility at all levels enables us to make good choices.
The nuclear power industry is trying hard to get more flexible, but it is an uphill battle. A nuclear power plant can be likened to a military operation -very systematic. We thrive on our order, our routine. We disregard our desires for a progressive workplace in sacrifice to complete devotion to the safety of the power plant and ultimately the health and safety of the public.
But there is an error in this thinking, an error that became immediately obvious to these women. The workplace does not have to be safe OR family-friendly, it can be both. Just like the conversation on nuclear power -with nuclear we don’t have to choose between powering our planet and protecting our planet, we can do both.
The pioneers of our group asked for flexible working hours to navigate the Bermuda triangle of daycare, work, and family time. They asked for an inch, the leadership gave a millimeter. They asked for lactation accommodations so that they could pump breastmilk for their infants. They were told to use the bathroom. Others went to their cars, or storage closets. They operated in hiding, in shame.
But the life raft was strong, those bonds we had formed early in our careers would hold tight and compel the group into action. We learned the laws. We pulled others onto the raft –other women, other men. We collectively advocated for improvement of workplace accommodations for all returning parents, with initiatives from employer-sponsored childcare to flexible work arrangements and lactation accommodations. We wrote policies, we secured funding; we acted when others just talked. We opened the eyes of our leaders and began to grate the hill.
As I write these notes today, Diablo Canyon was just awarded the honor of Mother-Baby Friendly Workplace by the California Breastfeeding Coalition. I wept like a baby when I learned that we’d won –not because of the prestige of the award, but for recollection of the journey that has brought us to this place.
Today, returning mothers at Diablo Canyon are greeted with three beautifully appointed lactation rooms complete with hospital-grade breastpumps, employer-provided break time, in-room sinks, refrigerators, and more. The men in our facilities maintenance group made sure these rooms were places that their wives and daughters would be happy to use. Plant leadership is now proud to accommodate returning mothers. A masseuse periodically visits the site and provides chair massage. Flexible work hours are more in-vogue than ever, and mothers and fathers alike are empowered to stand up for their needs.
The success of our small group gives me hope. The future of nuclear power and clean energy can change just as Diablo Canyon did. We can innovate to meet the needs of humanity AND save the planet. We can keep existing nuclear power plants operating and innovate new designs for the future so that people can power their lives and thrive.
As is true with many journeys, the most important work is done over the miles traveled and not in reaching the destination. Are we done now that women aren’t banished to the bathroom to express breastmilk? On the contrary, we are empowered and more motivated than ever. There is more work to do in our own workplace at Diablo Canyon, and we are working with the Central Coast Breastfeeding Coalition to advocate for lactation accommodations at places of employment all around our community. Families deserve nothing less.
Mothers for Nuclear is about standing up for the right thing. We think the right way to run a workplace and a planet is to support and care for the people. We think the right energy solution for our planet and its people includes a mix of technologies, including support of new and existing nuclear. Our children and our planet deserve nothing less.
As mothers and fathers, grandparents and singles join the conversation, our voices will amplify the message of change. We can change our thinking to improve our workplaces. We can change our thinking on how to protect our environment and improve people’s lives. But it’s not enough to just think about it, action is required. Together we can advocate for change in the workplace and a change in our energy mix. Our families, our futures are counting on us.