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Breast Pump in the Ladies’ Room: Is this the only option for working mothers?

I became a mother this year. I know this not because our living room floor is littered with things that squeak and rattle but because I pump 5 times a day – 3 of those times at work. I’m lucky because this means that I can continue providing my daughter with the health-promoting nutrients in breast milk while also helping support my family financially. But I don’t feel lucky. I feel like I’ve been had.

Why is something that’s supposed to make my life easier such a freaking nightmare?

Take this week: One day the pump wouldn’t suck, and I got mere droplets. The next day I discovered I’d left one of the pieces at home, and without it, there was no suction at all. The day after that, I had to go off-site for meetings, where it wasn’t polite to pump, so my body eventually got the message that the adorable 4-month-old who’d been eating like a hippo was apparently not in the picture anymore, and my milk supply decreased. Decreased! Just like that! Sure, I’ll build it back up again, but it will take time. In the meantime, we’ll draw on the emergency stash of breast milk in the freezer. Or (perish the thought) we’ll supplement with formula.

The thing is, I never realized that it would be this hard. Not only were the pictures on the box totally off base (Smiling? About pumping? Who are they kidding?), but no one in my life, working moms included, ever told me the truth about pumping.

Before I had a baby, I used to see women in the kitchen at work sterilizing the 13 pieces of plastic that made up their pumps, and I thought they were doing essentially the same thing that I was doing as I made my cup of tea – taking a little break. They seemed so cool with it. I would ask them how their babies were doing, and their faces would light up. I imagined pumping was something they were happy to do for their baby.

Even when I was pregnant, I didn’t think about it too hard. I thought the baby would come, and she would either latch on or she wouldn’t, and I would either nurse her or switch to formula. I had no clue how prominent a role in my life the pump would play, that the fact that I could express milk would make me feel like a failure for even considering using formula. I didn’t realize that a breast pump is the technological bridge between the natural world and the modern one. Because if you are a woman and you work outside of the home, then you are either giving your child formula or you are pumping.

I started pumping during my maternity leave. When my daughter Mia was 5 days old we found out that she had some feeding issues – which is code for “she’s hungry, and you’re not taking care of it” – and I would need to express my milk. We were also told that even though I had splurged on the most expensive pump in the store, that pump would never keep pace with her demand. Instead, we needed to rent a hospital-grade pump that was about 5 times larger and came in the kind of hard gray case that makes you think of international arms dealers.

My mom-friends would visit and offer to hold my daughter while I pumped. They would coo at Mia and tickle the fat on the back of her neck, happy to remember what it felt like to hold a baby. I would strip off my shirt and pour my nipples, cracked and sore, into the funnels and start expressing. They would shake their heads. “I don’t miss that,” they’d say. “I hated that damn pump,” they’d say.

These days, when I am home, I pump on the sofa in front of the TV – an image I hope will one day unburn itself from my husband’s retinas. I imagine I look like some weird experiment in animal husbandry in which I am both the farmer and the cow.

At work, I thankfully have my own office with a lock on the door, and with a special expressing bustier, I can carry on working hands-free. Dignified it is not. Also, when the pressure’s on at work and your nipples are being tugged painfully, you need a clear head to realize that your anxiety might have more to do with the pump than your job performance.

Now that I’m a working mother – one of nearly 1.6 million mothers of infants, who are either working or looking for work – I wonder why we don’t talk about pumping more and what a total drag it is. It’s so deeply: inadequate. Sometimes the volume of milk you supply falls short. Sometimes the equipment is inadequate. The experience definitely is. A pump can’t look at you with its giant blue eyes and let down your milk for you; it can only pull on your nipples until they burn.

Listen, I get that this is a pretty high-class problem – after all, at least I have a job when I need one. But if the reason that women can work and be mothers today is because pumping has made it “easy,” then we have a really messed up idea of what’s easy. We could have guaranteed paid maternity leave and a longer leave overall, like most of the countries in Europe! We could have on-site daycare! We could have flexible hours and working from home and job sharing – not as a progressive privilege but as the norm. I mean, I don’t mean to get all Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5 here, but if America’s answer to the dilemma of the working mother is technology, then that technology better at least be good, like the electric toothbrush or Angry Birds.

Breast pumps could be so much better, if only the right people cared. Why isn’t there a smart phone app for expressing breast milk? The iPump. The 19-year-old who invented it could sell it to Apple for a kajillion dollars, and Google and Facebook could come up with their versions, and next thing you know, everyone would have one. Even men would have one – not because they needed it, just because it looked cool and worked well.

I sometimes wonder if the fact that men don’t use breast pumps accounts for their poor design. Come to think of it, you know who can design the heck out of mechanical things? That vacuum guy, Mr. Dyson, with his patented cyclone technology. How can we get him on the case? If funding is a problem, I can think of about a million and a half women who might want to invest.

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