A Call for Freedom of Expression

Gail Silvan
While bathroom design may rarely cross most people’s minds, for working mothers it’s an important asset or hindrance. Gail Silvan’s poem, a working mother, expresses the indignity of being a mother forced to pump breastmilk on the floor of the bathroom while on the job, and extols the virtues of bathrooms created with mothers in mind.

I wrote this poem literally on the floor of the bathroom in a local superior court while I was pumping breast milk for my baby. I had been working for months on a twice weekly basis at the courthouse and performing this same ritual of sitting on the cold, bathroom floor with my electric pump. As a new, first-time mother, my understanding of the ways in which society supports or undermines working parents was in a state of evolution. I saw the fact that there was no lactation room or bathroom that accommodates lactation at a public court house as one example of how society does not support a working women’s lactation needs. Lack of support of these needs often works to discourage women from continued breastfeeding, which undermines our public health goals. Given all of this, I wanted to do something to bring attention to this issue with the aim of changing this for the future. What emerged from me one day was this poem. Unlike other poetry that sits in notebooks in my closet, I believed this poem needed to be published so that others could be made aware of the issue and change could more rapidly occur.  

A Call for Freedom of Expression

On the gray, stately courthouse steps
Crucial deals are negotiated
On the beige, banal courthouse toilets,
Essential milk is pumped.

There is freedom of speech
Vindicated in these hallowed halls,
And streams of milk expression
Witnessed in these bathroom stalls.

Exhibit A:
Icy hard bathroom tile
Beneath my buttox
As I sit pumping
Shirt off
Twenty minutes
Exhibit B:
The whir of the electric pump amongst
Flushes of toilets, the
Pitter-patter of pee, the
Rolling of toilet paper.

Women compose
47% of students in law school
But only 26% of state court judges,
19% of law firm partners.

When these statistics change,
We’ll anticipate having pumping and nursing rooms
For female attorneys
Who can make arguments
And make babies.

The doctors instruct us:
Breast is best, Infants
Should have breast milk for
One year of life.
That guidance has not
Dripped down to
Family leave policies or
Public bathroom designers
(Does the electrical outlet need to be
By the sink only?)

I’ve been accommodated:
I’ve pumped in courtrooms
And jury rooms.
It hasn’t been easy to request,
To make the choice to
Focus on my
Breasts and baby
Instead of my
Cases and client.

Women attorneys who have
Pumped in bathrooms have
Their “war story” and
Caustically chuckle;
Feels like a rite of passage,
Being considered the
Secretary in a business meeting.

I have seen the milk and
Honey on the other side:
Women’s public bathrooms with a
Screened off area with a
Bench and electrical outlet.
Simple, inexpensive, yet

May this light leak into darkness
Like milk flows freely from a
Nursing woman’s breast.

About The Artist 

Gail Silvan (Silverstein) is a working mother of one enthusiastic three year old boy, Reilly Shem. Trained as an attorney, she is a full-time clinical law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law where she specializes in representation of low-income individuals in disability, employment, and housing matters and mediation. She is also the current Board chair of the women’s HIV/AIDS advocacy, support and education nonprofit, WORLD (Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Disease). When she’s not busy in these endeavors or with her family, she enjoys reading, writing poetry, yoga, cooking, and tarot.