I read the books. We bought the gear. The baby came and the breastfeeding journey began, without much incident. Twelve weeks passed and I returned to work, pump in tow. However, nursing a baby is nothing like being hooked up to a breast pump. There were some things I wasn’t prepared for when I started pumping. Everything I thought I knew — how to use it and care for it — was not enough. My entry into regularly pumping was surprising, and not in a good way.
I was committed to pumping because my daughter was thriving on breast milk. As a new working mom, I felt tremendous guilt about not being there for my baby, so the least I could do (in my opinion) was provide her meals. As I grew to be a more experienced mother, I realized this guilt was unwarranted; the best thing I could do for my baby was to keep myself in good shape, physically, emotionally, and mentally, so that I was in the best possible condition to care for her. I grew to understand that, for some mothers, this meant not breastfeeding or pumping. I don’t regret pumping for the first year of each of my children’s lives so that I could supply them with as much breast milk as they needed (and so that we weren’t spending money on formula), but I do wish I wasn’t so hard on myself for feeling obligated to do this for them. Pumping is not without its hardships, and the fact that I was staunchly opposed to quitting meant I had a real love/hate relationship with my pump. I loved it for what it allowed me to do (express milk), and I hated it for reminding, twice each workday, that I was pumping because I was at work and my baby was home with a sitter.
I don’t think anything really prepares you for motherhood the first time around. Everyone’s experience is different, so you can’t study for the “new baby” test. I wish I heard that more often. I would have felt a lot less anxious if I knew that everyone’s foray into parenthood was unique and that I needed to rely more on my instincts than on others’ advice and baby books.
When it came to pumping, here are the things I totally wasn’t prepared for. Pumping isn’t an instinctive behavior. I just had to get used to all the weirdness that came with getting milk sucked out of me by a plastic contraption.
I tucked a picture of my 3-day-old daughter into my breast pump tote, to help “set the mood” and trigger letdown. But all that did, as I sat in a cold, dusty dressing room in the basement of my office building (since there was no law at that time dictating employers to provide private, dedicated lactation areas), was make me sad. I wasn’t snuggling my infant, connecting to her in a peaceful moment as I fed her. I was hooked up to plastic tubing with my foot propped up against the unlockable door, blocking it in case someone attempted to barge in.
I was always on edge when I pumped, probably because I was at work. I knew I wouldn’t be punished for taking the 20 minutes (25, if you added in the time it took me to clean and put away the pieces after using them) to pump. But I was at work. Projects and emails didn’t stop just because I needed to squeeze my kid’s lunch out of my body. While I could technically type on my smartphone, fretting about work while trying to channel the zen I needed to achieve letdown was totally counterproductive.
Squeezing in pumping sessions during the workday took mental energy I didn’t know I would need. I was always juggling my meeting schedule, moving things around to accommodate when I needed to pump. So beyond the fact that pumping wasn’t relaxing, it was downright taxing.
A baby nursing is pretty quiet. A pump forcibly extracting milk from my breasts is the loudest thing ever, and I feel qualified to say that because I grew up and live in NYC.
But in its cacophony, can I make out some words? I swear there were times my pump was talking to me.
Not to put too fine a point on the sucking metaphor, but yeah… you can’t “hurry up and pump” if you’re pressed for time. I was able to hit my self-imposed “three ounce per boob” quota within about 20 minutes, for both of my twice daily pumping sessions, but not everyone has that kind of output. And then there is a mom of twins who needs to pump three times during her workday. Don’t worry, we’re getting our work done. But don’t take it personally if we don’t want to meet you for lunch, since we’re busy making our babies’ lunches.
Something I didn’t consider was the ice pack I had to tote around with the pump, in case I was going somewhere after work and couldn’t refrigerate my pumped milk. I wish I could say I my upper body got pretty jacked from carrying around the pump, which is basically a small engine, and 12 ounces of bodily fluid every day, but no.
Once I started looking at a flat surface as a potential picnic spot for my baby, since that is where her food was going to land when it got pumped out of me, it changed my perspective. I suddenly saw germs everywhere. I would get crazy with the cleaning wipes.
Yes, I would wipe myself down as well. Then I started getting paranoid that the cleaning residue would end up in the breast milk and I just would dunk a paper towel in water and wipe my chest down before pumping.
Once I got more in the routine of pumping, and my child got older (and chubbier, and started eating solids), I dialed down the paranoia about keeping all pumping environments completely sterile which, of course, I could never do anyway.
Being a new mom can be a lonely time. Pumping underscored that, even in my bustling, overcrowded office. While it was somewhat of a relief to escape the noise and distraction of being around my co-workers in our open floorplan, being by myself while I pumped, whether in a dedicated Mothers’ Room (which was built by the time I returned from my maternity leave with my second child), or in some stolen corner of the building, was often a painful reminder that it was all on me in these moments. That can be kind of a lot, especially when, in that first year after having a baby, I was still a messy stew of raw emotions and conflicting feelings about having a job and a child.
This isn’t to say I’d be thrilled to join other pumping moms in a communal Mothers’ Room, but if work culture continues to skimp on providing supportive environments for raising a healthy family, including flex time, paid leave, subsidized quality care and just the basic humanity that allows us to see each other as more than just workers boosting a bottom line, I’d take the company of other moms like me so I wouldn’t feel so alone as a working parent.
Although the sound of all those pumps whirring at once could be deafening.