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Photo: Yoko Shimada
The link between mother-focused clothing label Mitera Collection and founder Yoko Shimada's previous life working to improve healthcare in developing countries may not be apparent at first — but it will once you hear her brand's full story. Before creating her brand, she spent 15 years working with organizations like the World Bank and the Clinton Foundation. Though Mitera wasn't born until after her second child, she came up with the idea in her company's lactation room, "which was in the basement, I believe, or on the first floor in the back of the building, with no windows and with just four chairs facing each other."
"I was half-naked and I remember thinking 'Who designed this room? Clearly not a woman,'" she recalls thinking. She faced the challenge that so many other working mothers of newborns faced: trying to fit regular breast-pumping sessions into her office schedule. "I just wanted to make things easier for myself and make myself feel better — confident as a woman, a mother and a professional," Shimada says, so she decided to design two dresses that would transition seamlessly into her pumping and work wardrobes.
Now mama to Hugo and Emmeline, the New York-based entrepreneur has found a way to continue her mission of empowering women around the world through Mitera, an ethically-made, bump-to-breastfeeding clothing brand designed to be worn throughout all stages of motherhood. Here, she tells us the socially-conscious goal behind the company, the digital organization tools she can't live without, her best advice for others looking to make a major career switch, and more. Read on below, then shop Mitera's collection of breastfeeding-friendly wardrobe essentials online here.
Photo: Yoko Shimada
You've got a strong background working toward accessible healthcare around the globe — how does that mission continue with Mitera?
We all know that the United States does not provide federally-mandated maternity leave, so women have little choice but to go back to work after a very short leave. Not having an adequate leave policy really makes things difficult for working mothers and we definitely have a lot of work to do to improve that. My initial goal is to help make women’s transition into motherhood easier with beautifully-made, functional, and practical clothing so that they feel confident and happy in being a mom and at the same time pursuing their career aspirations, and doing stuff that they enjoy doing like going on date nights, attending events and weddings, and simply hanging out with friends.
Ultimately, my mission is about democratizing access to opportunities for women who represent more than half of the world’s population. Through Mitera, even if it is in a very small way, I want to contribute in creating a society where motherhood is seen as an advantage and not a hindrance, set-back, or a penalty.
What's the story behind the brand's name?
Mitera means "mother" in Greek. I felt when you are pregnant, all the eyes are on you. But as soon as the baby comes out, not many people ask about how you are doing as a mom. All the attention goes to the baby and often the mom gets forgotten in all the excitement of the baby’s arrival. So, I wanted to shine some well-deserved light onto the mom, honor the process of creating and bringing life into this world and celebrate the nurturer — the unique, beautiful, determined, multifaceted woman who gives all she has, while still remaining who she is.
Photo: Mitera Collection
You've probably experienced some incredibly impactful moments throughout your career. What are a few that come to mind that really helped shape Mitera's socially- and globally-conscious business model?
There are so many that come to mind. Throughout my 15 year-career in global public health, I was fortunate to have worked in so many different projects across 13 African countries, South Asia, North America, and Europe — [including] running studies on HIV/AIDS prevention messages in India to designing and implementing a performance-based financing system in Rwanda and helping to rebuild its health care system after a devastating civil war in Liberia. I learned so much from every single encounter with the people I was trying to help in my own small way. My experience taught me the harsh reality where one cannot control the circumstances into which he or she is born and the world is full of unfair and unjust things.
But throughout my career working in the developing parts of the world, I also encountered so much beauty in humanity where I saw the ability of those who have nothing compared to us (in terms of money or materials possessions) to be happy. I realized, especially working with mothers and children, that what we all want as humans is the same no matter where you are born — we want to feel needed, sense of purposes, jobs, good health, good educations for children, and opportunity and hope for the future. When I became a mother myself, I felt personally more connected to the women and children I had the fortune to work with in Africa, India, and elsewhere and made a commitment to do my small part in improving the lives of those who happened to be born in less fortunate situation than me.
The first few years of a mother’s life, from conceiving to carrying to birthing to feeding to raising a baby, are profound and transformative — but they aren’t easy. In our part of the world, there is the career pressure to delay starting a family, discrimination at the workplace, absence of federally mandated maternity leave, and the challenges to breastfeed are just some of the obstacles women face. I believe that women, regardless of their circumstances and personal choices as mothers, deserve our support. That is really the underlying belief upon which Mitera was founded.
Photo: Mitera Collection
What were some of your earliest designs, and how has Mitera's aesthetic and design changed since then?
At Mitera, we have always focused on design first because we want our mamas to feel pretty and confident on the outside when many of us don’t feel so hot when our bodies are going through so many changes. But functionality, comfort, and practicality (machine-washability and pockets, for example) are equally as important as our design. We design all our pieces in NYC and Tokyo and and they go through the "mom-tests" to make sure they meet our strict standards. We always try to elevate the designs and incorporate little functionality improvements to make moms’ lives easier.
Our aesthetics have not really changed much from the beginning. Most of our original products are still there but we keep adding more designs like pants as we go along based on customer feedback. While our customers love the Ellen Dress (one of our best sellers), we are also adding more casual everyday pieces to our collection.
When you're not busy being a mom, working on Mitera, and participating in triathlons (kudos!!!), what are some of your other favorite ways to relax and unwind?
Exercise definitely helps me to unwind, because I am not on my phone while I am running or biking or swimming. I like the freedom from technology. Other than that, I love to go camping with my family again to be disconnected from technology even if it is for one night. If time allows, I like to catch up on politics via late night comedy shows or hang out with friends over dinner.
What are your favorite skincare or beauty brands right now?
I am not really a beauty person. I never wear much makeup but I tend to use organic skincare lines such as SavorBeauty. For makeup, I do my brows, put some mascara, blush and lip gloss and I am out of the door. I need recommendations! [Editor's Note: Check out our members' favorite beauty and skincare products here!]
With Honest Feeding Stories, you’ll hear from parents like you about one of the most intimate and important experiences of family life. Happiness and heartbreak, serenity and struggle, joy and tears — it’s all here in their own words. Presented with our support and without judgment, these stories remind us that the choices we make to nourish our children are truly unique.
I’ve discovered, two kids later, that feeding your baby is a discovery of your own mindfulness. What is mindfulness? It’s a term we hear in yoga class or on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday but its meaning and application is actually incredibly simple. Mindfulness is a practice of paying attention to what’s actually happening in the moment and that our actions play out from the truth that’s revealed. Breathing and an open-minded perspective accompany mindfulness, as both help us clear out emotions and preconceived notions.
As a yoga instructor and an entrepreneur, I use mindfulness frequently. It helps me breathe into a posture safely as much as it helps me listen to a question that a client might be asking me or solve a problem on my website when my programmer is explaining a glitch — mindfulness helps us pay attention and thus find solutions. How does this relate to feeding my baby you might be asking? I’m going to tell you.
Nursing my son was far from easy. He latched just fine, but hungry like a little monster, he tore my nipples apart and I discovered quickly that I wasn’t producing enough milk to satisfy him. Not producing enough milk was a disappointment for me and I still don’t know why it went that way, but using mindfulness and of course the practice of chatting with other moms (super important!) I realized that I had all I could give him and that whatever he still needed I would have to supplement. So for one full year, I nursed him, pumped a lot, and gave him formula too. Like many mothers, I prioritized exclusive breastfeeding but discovered that reality was a little different. I had to breathe, relax and accept what nature was doing in our situation and rather than fight against it, flow with it. This is an act of mindfulness.
When four years later my daughter arrived, I assumed that again I would produce less than my child needed. I even purchased a container of formula just in case I needed it to soothe my hungry babe in the middle of the night. Much to my surprise, my feeding story with my daughter was completely different. My milk flowed with ease, my daughter nursed like a champ and before very long, my freezer was full of baggies of frozen milk. This was unheard of in my prior story! I confess I felt like a goddess and remained incredibly grateful that this time things were different. But no story is simple right? This little girl loved nursing so much that she refused to take a bottle! The pressure in other aspects of my life began to build. My company demanded my time, I needed to hold meetings, I simply wanted to work out! But my baby screamed unless she had my boob! What was I to do??? And what was I to do with all that frozen milk? After a few days of panic and frankly the feeling of being trapped, I decided that I had to begin my mindfulness practice and assess the reality of the situation (not the reality that made me feel trapped by our overly successful nursing!).f
My conversation with myself went something like this: At three months old, my baby needs me a bit more than I’d assumed and I should breathe into that truth (deep breath). I’m a mom and I love my baby. Okay, so how do I show up for her, feed her, but also accomplish what I need to? Through this grounded dialogue with myself I recognized that in a month or two she would begin starting on solid food so the reliance on milk would ease a bit… so how could I, in the next few months, manage my time around her nursing schedule? As an entrepreneur, I decided that I would start holding meetings in my home or near my home, so that I had access to my baby. This is a luxury that not every woman has, but I do, so gosh darn it, I would use it. I invested in some beautiful nursing clothing (my favorites are Loya Hana and Mitera!) so that I could look presentable and professional but easily access my breast when I needed to. I would wait until she was down for a nap and get my workout in at that point. If she woke up before I got back home and she cried for a few minutes, she would in fact, be just fine (deep breath!). This schedule isn’t forever I began to recognize, it’s a brief moment in time and one that allows me closeness with my babe.
I began to relax.
And somewhere in that relaxed state, I began to feel grateful for this time and for how naturally nursing was going and for the blessings I had (from beautiful nursing clothes to a flexible schedule) which allowed me to be present for my baby. Somewhere in there, I tried giving her milk from a first stage sippy cup. At about six months she decided that sippy cups worked for her and, though bottles were not her thing, she would accept her milk this way from time to time. And thus began my ability to step away just a bit more.
I’m sure you can relate reading this through your own feeding story, of the unexpected turns and the presence we must have to find solutions. Mindfulness is key. Calming our anxiety down, taking deep breaths and tuning into the moment so we can really see what’s necessary for our kids and for ourselves.
-Randi, New York, New York