MTPT Project Leeds Advocate, Assisstant Head Teacher, popular author and mother of two, Jenny Webb shares her advice for negotiating, even when we might be feeling at our most vulnerable.

I’m sitting in a wood panelled office in a straight-backed chair in the middle of one of the most important conversations of my professional life. The baby wakes up, takes one look at me and starts to scream. I am compelled to get my boobs out in front of a man I hardly know – someone I really need to see me as a serious, professional person. Baby goes on to feed, comes off, goes back on, comes off, exposes my nipple, twiddles it with sharp little nails (I barely conceal my pain), goes back on, comes back off… you get the picture. Six minutes later the baby vomits all over my crotch and I still haven’t got to the important bit of the conversation.

Sound like a nightmare? It wasn’t. It happened this week.

It wasn’t actually that bad. In reality, I walked out of that meeting feeling pretty powerful. I’m lucky: this is my second baby, so the speed at which I can whip out a nipple is pretty impressive. I do know, though, how horrifying this situation might appear. I could never have done this five years ago with my eldest. I also have friends who have bottle-fed their babies who have really similar anxieties about having a bottle prepped at exactly the right time, and how it appears to be feeding a baby whilst trying to look like a professional. Here are some top tips for having a serious meeting with a baby in tow:

TIMING! I know that my son is (usually) relatively calm straight after his first nap of the day. When I asked for the meeting, I gave a very narrow set of time options so that the time would work best for me. He slept in the car on the way, and was asleep in the pram for the first 10 minutes of the meeting. In the end, he decided NOT to be calm, but at least he’d napped…

Clarity. I emailed and said very clearly that this meeting was urgent. I’m on maternity leave, and it is easy for people who are in school to think that you have NOTHING to do, and therefore your requests can be delayed. I said that the meeting was ‘urgent’ and gave three time options that week which I could manage. I got an almost immediate response with a meeting time the next day. This conversation was time sensitive, not because of any deadline, but because I needed it. Having the meeting quickly was important for my anxiety and my feelings about work. That is worthy of an ‘urgent’ request.

Outfit. If you are breastfeeding, you need to wear something which gives you easy access to the ladies. I always wear a loose button-up blouse when I know I’m going to be somewhere where I will be a bit self-conscious. Easy to discretely feed baby and keep mostly covered up. If I were really feeling anxious, I’d also consider taking a big scarf in with me, or using his baby blanket or a muslin to cover up a bit more.  If you are not a fan of button-up blouses, but you’re worried about exposing your tummy or back by lifting a top up, I can really recommend getting your hands on a stretchy strappy vest. Wear one under every outfit and then you can pull it down, pull up your outer-top and then feed whilst keeping your torso and back covered up. Also consider the colours you wear. Whether you are breast or bottle-feeding, a baby is likely to be sick on you. Go for light colours so that it doesn’t show as much. I have a pair of stone coloured jeans which are basically baby-sick-camo.

Practise. If you are feeling worried about the whole physical act of taking out boob and attaching baby (we all know it’s not always particularly graceful, and sometimes babies don’t know what’s good for them…) I can really recommend practising. Sounds mad, I know, but when I was in the early days with baby number one, I sat in front of our long mirror in the dining room and practised holding the baby in one hand, unbuttoning my top with the other, draping a muslin over my shoulder and then attaching baby. I had massive anxiety about public feeding at first, and this actually helped me feel a bit more capable. Eventually, it became really easy to do in one smooth motion. It also helps that, as they get older, babies get the hang of it and will generally do a lot of the work for you.

Ask. If you don’t feel comfortable feeding in public, just ask for a short break. There is absolutely nothing wrong with stopping and picking up in fifteen minutes when you’ve had time to feed in private. If it were me, I would say something like, “I hope you don’t mind if we leave this for a short time so that I can feed the baby? Do you have a room where I could just sit in private? We’ve discussed X, but I’d like to make sure we have covered Y before I leave.” I would then re-start the meeting with, “You had just said Z, and…” – this means that you pick up exactly where you left off.

Script. If you need to have a conversation which will be challenging for you, consider scripting it and thinking about the whole range of responses you might get. I like to roleplay difficult chats so that I am not caught off-guard by anything which the other person might say. If I have something complicated to explain, I write down my wording beforehand so that I know I can capture it exactly as I wish to. I wouldn’t read it off the page in the meeting, but I’d have some notes I could refer to. Notes are also great because baby-brain is a real thing, and my mind is like a sieve at the moment…

Be aware. Recognise your own emotions before going into a meeting. Being on maternity leave can be a weird emotional time. Try to reflect on how you feel before the meeting, acknowledge it and be prepared to ask for a pause if you need a moment. I find that writing down how I feel beforehand can help me manage my feelings when I’ve got to have a difficult chat – this works for me personally as well as professionally.

Visualise. Do not go into a meeting without a clear idea of what you want from it. I tend to make two lists: ‘things I want someone to understand’, and ‘things I want them to agree.’ This means that I have a clear objective, and I’m not going to get side-tracked. Your time is precious when you are on leave, so make that meeting count! You won’t always get all the things on your list, but at least you will have been clear.

Finally, whether you are bottle feeding, breast feeding, bouncing baby whilst standing up, wrestling with a wriggler or having to dash off to change a nappy, you are multitasking. You are demonstrating a whole host of skills. Never apologise for it. You shouldn’t have to ask permission to feed your child, or say you’re sorry for having to bounce or coo or stroke. Just do it. Do it, and keep on talking. Like a boss.

Confidence takes time. Plan, practise, script, visualise. The worst thing that can happen is that your baby acts like a baby, but that’s OK.