Ah … the breast pump. I knew it well.
After my baby was born (a squishy little fella’ named Noah), I had 7 lovely weeks home with him. Considering our atrocious national maternity standards, I was quite lucky to have so much paid leave. And yet still, 7 weeks isn’t very long at all, and going back to work was excruciatingly hard — for all of the reasons. One of those reasons was that I had just finished regulating my milk supply and breastfeeding was finally getting easier — meaning I wasn’t waking up with one breast three times the size of the other, and my nipples weren’t cracked and bleeding, and I wasn’t calling my lactation consultant every four hours. My body was finally grooving with this strange new challenge, and then suddenly I was thrown another hurdle that came with another steep learning curve: pumping.
I was determined to give him my breast milk, especially because I had such a healthy, abundant supply. (That, and I felt guilty enough for not giving him my body, my love, during the day). At least three times per workday, for at least 20 minutes a pop, I’d hurry away from my cubicle, plug in my double-electric pump, place my breast into a suction cup, and milk myself. Like a cow.
It sucked, in all the ways something can suck.
And yet I did it for over a year, the way so many moms do. Whether we’re working away from our babies, or we have an illness or complication that makes breastfeeding impossible, or we have multiple babies to feed and not enough breasts to go around, so many moms hook their nipples up to an awkward and loud machine, all in the name of feeding their babies.
Despite the miracle that is breast milk, and despite the modern advances that allow more mothers to choose their feeding methods, pumping certainly isn’t easy, or pretty, or comfortable. Anyone who has ever identified as a “pumping mom” will understand these very real challenges:
1. When the breast pump starts talking to you.
I thought I was bat-shit crazy when my electric pump started talking to me. Not talking per say, but definitely saying words. “Not mine, not mine, not mine” I heard my pump chant over and over with each suction.
Turns out I’m not alone. When I was brave enough to admit my possible schizophrenia, a few friends confessed to hearing their breast pump “talk,” too. One friend heard her son’s name chanted (“Mil-o, Mil-o, Mil-o”), another friend heard “no way, no way, no way,” and still another friend claims to have heard different words each time. But always words.
I’m sure it has something to do with the way our brains make sense of sounds, putting words to non-verbal noises, but it’s trippy nonetheless.
2. When your co-worker walks in on you with your breast in full suction.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more horrifying, unattractive, mutually uncomfortable situation than the breast pump walk-in.
“Shield your eyes, man, SHIELD YOUR EYES!”
3. Spilled milk.
4. When someone leaves the fridge open at work …
And your baby’s next meal (plus hours of hard work) is totally wasted. You then picture yourself wandering up and down the halls, seeing blood, searching for the culprit.
5. When you forget your pump at home …
And, picturing your imminent engorgement and blinding pain, you wonder if you will, in fact, explode.
“Someone needs to milk me, FAST, it’s a medical emergency!”
6. When people jokingly say, “Wow, you sure have your hands full! Whattaya moving in?”
I not only had to carry my work bag, but my pumping bag (filled with tubing and breast shields and milk containers), plus a big cooler. Pumping moms can’t exactly “pack light,” which makes long commutes and business travel extra challenging.
7. Finding a clean place to pump that also has an electrical outlet and also can be occupied for at least 20 minutes without someone banging on the door.
If you think finding a place to breastfeed in public is hard, just try “discreetly pumping.” Not possible. I’ve seen some atrocious pumping situations, but the worst must have been trying to pump on a moving train’s filthy bathroom, rocking back and forth with the train’s movement, hooked up to the wall, while someone bangs from the outside.
“Uh yes, just a minute ma’am! My nipple is being suctioned right now, and I have tubes and hardware attached to my body, and I have three bags to pack up — YOU’LL HAVE TO HOLD IT, OK?”
8. When the breast pump’s dial is turned up just a little too far …
And your nipple is stretched to an obscene and painful length.
“UNCLE! I CALL UNCLE!”
9. Pumping while driving.
Trying not to get pulled over, but also slightly curious as to how many shades of red the cop will turn when he sees your elongated nipples sticking out of a hands-free bra.
(Oh don’t give me that look; I was very cautious when I did it, and believe it or not, I’m not alone.)
10. When your baby starts sleeping through the night …
And your milestone celebration abruptly stops as you wake in the middle of the night with achingly full breasts and no one to drain you besides a loud machine that likes to taunt you with its creepy chanting. (“No sleep … no sleep … no sleep.”) When you have a milk supply to keep up, “sleeping through the night” isn’t as awesome as you imagined.
Five years ago, I packed away my sterilized nipple shields for good. I had been pumping for over a year, exclusively and then part-time, until I finally started working from home. (I was one of the lucky pumping moms who could also breastfeed, which is like a vacation in comparison.)
But to this very day, if I hear an electric pump distantly whirring — if I hear that unmistakable suction sound — I’ll still feel a tingly phantom letdown, and my left eye will instinctively and nervously twitch.