Inside the United Nations media bull-pit

Pumped for politics: I got my boobs out at the United Nations

It’s not every day you can say you expressed milk in the presence of world leaders. Gemma Gracewood looks back at that time she breastfed at the United Nations in New York, and considers what it’s like to work while parenting in the world of film and TV.

One of the things about being a freelancer is that I never expected to be “pumping in the workplace” unless it was my workplace, AKA my kitchen table. Then Gaylene Preston called, and next minute I’m in the women’s loos at the United Nations with my hand-pump trying to get four ounces out before the Security Council breaks for lunch.

Because when Gaylene Preston calls and asks you to stand in for her for a few days of filming on My Year With Helen, girl, you answer.

So I’m in the media bull-pen, a small roped-off area outside the United Nations Security Council meeting room, where they’re about to hold the first of many ballots to decide who will be the next Secretary-General – and my boobs are full-to-bursting.

Inside the United Nations media bull-pit

It feels like a tiny pair of insistent hands have suctioned themselves onto my areola and are tugging, gently but constantly. There’s a weird, warm tingle going up the middle of my back. I’m getting a bit light-headed. I’m also trying to eavesdrop on the waiting media huddle to see what their reckons are about the S-G candidates, and planning where the camera will be when the Security Council members appear (which is always all-of-a-sudden, but you have to wait it out in case you miss them), and chasing up the people we’re going to interview afterwards to make sure they will be where we want them to be, and all the while my whole body is screaming: “Let down! Let down!”

The real tiny, insistent hands are back in Brooklyn. Exactly one hour and two subway rides away. So I’ve brought the hand-pump with me rather than subject my visiting Mum (free babysitting! A miracle!) to the exhausting process of navigating public transport with a pram (there no elevators at most subway stations, and the ones that do exist stink of piss). Even if she did, she’d have to wait in a café until I found the best moment to leave the building, allowing at least half an hour to get back in past all the security and red tape and what-not… because the chances of my baby getting media accreditation at the United Nations are nil-to-LOL.

If I were on staff at the UN, these would be my breastfeeding and pumping rights: An hour a day to pump, or two hours to feed, including commute. Pretty generous, although I note that they apply only until your child turns one, while the World Health Organization’s own recommendation is to feed up to two years “and beyond”. To be fair, babies do drop feeds as they go along, but my little guy still fancies his morning and afternoon tea at 18 months.

Of course, not every woman can breastfeed, for a variety of complicated reasons, and not every woman can continue breastfeeding beyond six months, or even three. WHO reports that “only an estimated one in three infants under six months are exclusively breastfed globally,” a rate that hasn’t improved in two decades. New Zealand falls well below the global average.

I’m incredibly grateful I can breastfeed, and still am, and my vote this election will go to the MMP coalition most likely to make children an economic priority and boost funding for maternity services, midwives, maternal mental health and all the rest of those good things. Because, sheesh, it’s hard when you’re up against underfunded health systems, ill-equipped workplaces, distressing systemic inequality, dicks who just don’t like seeing women breastfeed, and an aggressive formula industry that targets specific groups of mothers.

Not being on staff at the UN, I don’t have to stick to their rules. But I am in the screen industry, which is a notoriously terrible industry for new parents, and families in general. Shoot days are long and often anti-social. (Guilty: I produced Jiwi’s Machines while I was early-pregnant; our filming hours were 2pm til midnight in the coldest building at MOTAT in the middle of winter for five weeks. Brutal.)

On-set conditions are not made for infants, childcare is tricky to find when jobs suddenly pop up, and most of us are contractors which means we look after our own (and our children’s) sick days, holidays, ACC and so on. All of these are issues experienced while we’re in production; then try taking your infant to a film festival that you have a film in, or are reporting on.

The author Gemma Gracewood with her UN mug

A UK survey released last year by Raising Films highlighted these sorts of challenges for parents in the film and television industry. It was a rare and welcome thing. Google “film industry and children” and you’re more likely to get advice about how to get your little darling an agent. Which is all well and handy, but there’s a lack of forward movement in our industry when it comes to parenting.

Miriama McDowell made a strong point of this in her kōrero accepting her Best Actress award at the Moas earlier this year for The Great Maiden’s Blush. The film’s producers took in her daughter while she shot the film, she explained, “and it didn’t matter how early my call was or how late I had to work, I knew that on this team, for the first time in my life as an actress, the director and the producers understood that it was their job to look after my child so that I could work. It was a revolution.”

When the Raising Films report was launched, the CEO of Women in Film & Television UK Kate Kinninmont said: “There is no doubt that, in an increasingly casualised industry, having children is a career killer for women much more than men.” I’ve thought about this every day of the past 18 months.

On my first shoot day at the UN, I’m in the women’s loos just upstairs from the media bull-pen, having timed my moment for the bit between when the Security Council go in for their meeting, and when they emerge an hour or two later having circled a bunch of men’s names on the Sec-Gen ballots. I’m down the back in the accessible toilet, where there is a fairly comfortable bench, with my dress stripped to my waist because I failed to wear a breastfeeding-appropriate outfit (because I left the house without the baby for once), and I realise I’ve forgotten the little cooler bag for the milk.

So, as soon as I’ve got the goods, I have to scamper to the café two floors down for a couple of cold cans of soda to nestle the milk bottle between in the depths of my backpack, and quickly wolf down a sandwich because I didn’t want to eat in the toilets.

Pumpin’ pumpin’.

I know that somewhere in these hallowed halls, there is a proper nursing room. It is the UN, after all. Hell, it should be the international gold standard of nursing rooms. I just haven’t managed to find it yet, because I need to be with the crew ready to pounce back into the media pit. The stakes are high in observational documentary and you don’t want to miss a moment. It’s exhilarating and exhausting, and I feel an odd mix of vulnerability and empowerment as my new-mum world and my work world collide at the centre of the actual civilised world.

A month or so later, on our final day of filming at the UN – the day the Security Council circled a man’s name for the last time – I find the nursing room. It’s because Gaylene is with us, and Gaylene being Gaylene, fierce and feminist and flush with her own new-grandmotherly glow is all: “Off you go! Do what you need to do. Take your time.”

I consult the map and head off. As I walk, I recognise a couple of interesting UN characters, and text Gaylene to let her know they’re in the building; pumping mamas get the scoops, don’t you know?

I find the room.

I don’t know what I imagined. A luxurious lounge embellished with women’s crafts from around the world, perhaps? Instead, the small room is impersonal and beige, peppered with public health posters – but it is clean and quiet. I settle into the armchair with my sandwich, and peacefully pump that milky liquid gold. I rinse the pump out in a real kitchen sink and put the bottle in the fridge and head back upstairs, where, an hour later, the new Secretary-General of the United Nations is revealed.

Milk in the bottle. Film in the can. Job done.

Film maker Gaylene Preston outside the United Nations

My Year with Helen opens in New Zealand cinemas on August 31. (See it, it’ll get you rarked up).

Gemma Gracewood is a producer, writer, ukulele player and mum. She spends a lot of time in New York. Her youngest contributed this during the writing of this story: “Z gsxhyebctx d2r rf ddf f  v.”

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