This wasn’t exactly how I planned for my Oxford Executive MBA (EMBA) journey to be. But the best things in life are never planned, right? So here is my story of being pregnant, having a newborn and toddler, working full-time, saving premature babies in South Africa while completing my EMBA. Two months after receiving my acceptance into the program, I discovered I was pregnant with my second baby. The initial emotions of excitement, shock, panic, excitement of course was there, but my type A personality also immediately began calculating how my pregnancy would impact my studies, particularly the international modules, which were a major draw for me. One course in particular, 'Inclusive Business in Africa' was one of the reasons why I chose to attend Oxford.
Determined to complete the EMBA on time and attend this course, I had to start strategizing early on. My baby would be born in July, and the course would take place in October, which means I would be just over two months postpartum. I also had another module in Oxford immediately after Cape Town. This meant being away from my newborn for two weeks, and I wanted to prove it was possible to live my dream of studying in Oxford and be a new parent – not just for myself, but for other women and my daughter.
As a new mother committed to breastfeeding for one year, I know I needed to build a substantial 'milk stash'. I started pumping as soon as my baby was born and continued pumping four times a day, every day, for 20 minutes each time. The process was exhausting, but it underscored the reality of what many women go through, often behind the scenes in a dark storage room or bathroom (all of which I have done before).
Travelling postpartum, working and maintaining a milk supply presented challenges. Did you know that breastmilk can stay fresh for five to six days in a fridge? But when you do a class trip from Hong Kong to Cape Town to Oxford and back to Hong Kong over the span of two weeks, it's not so easy to manage. I did some research and decided it was best I donate the milk I pumped while in Cape Town to not let that liquid gold go to waste. I found a local organization called Milk Matters, which provides breast milk to hospitals for premature babies, and breast milk contained antibodies that were essential for helping in the survival of preemies. The process of becoming a donor was very thorough, involving detailed surveys, forms, and even a blood test which had to be done in Cape Town before any milk could be donated. During the week of pumping and classes and off-sites in Cape Town, I am proud to say over 70 bottles of milk were donated to Milk Matters, roughly 7000ml and I passed that course with a distinction grade, so tell me again that women aren’t capable.
Pumping while travelling was a whole other story, the places I had to discreetly and not so discreetly pump included on the plane, toilets, Robben Island, buses in between classes, during class, middle of the night multiple times deliriously. There was also a lot of coordinating with hotels to make sure they understood they needed to help me freeze the milk in their freezers and to keep it sanitized. Not to mention all my work calls and classroom sessions in between. I can go on further about even the difficulties of transporting milk between countries and arguing with TSA and airport staff to allow me to take milk through and that can be it’s own story. This part was definitely the hardest part of my journey.
I share my story for two main reasons. First, I want to shed light on the unique challenges women face - especially working mothers - in maintaining parity with their male counterparts. I very vocally share about my pumping and newborn journey with classmates, especially the male classmates because they are also the ones who are in senior executive positions to make decisions, so I hope that they can see the hardships women go through. We often carry additional physical, mental, and emotional stress that is seldom spoken about. A quote I saw that rings true was 'Women are expected to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work'. This is the equity part of understanding there is so much that goes on behind the scenes and we need to empower and support working mothers and create a more inclusive and equitable environment.
Second, I want to raise awareness about the opportunities to donate breast milk to organizations like Milk Matters. If you're a travelling mother and can't bring your milk back home, consider donating it. Additionally, companies can look to support working mothers by partnering with services like Milk Stork, which helps send breast milk directly back home.
Here is a quick list of some milk donation companies to consider:
This journey to an EMBA hasn’t been the norm, but I feel after being able to do this, I can do anything. And I hope to show any woman who is considering doing an Executive MBA with concerns about pregnancy or childcare that it is possible, not easy, but possible. And if anyone can do it - it’s the breastfeeding new mother on a mission. I hope to inspire and empower other women on similar paths and contribute to a more equitable future for us all.