When I first went back to work after my first two babies were born, I truly thought nothing was as horrible as leaving them at home. Yeah, I was wrong. While leaving them behind was difficult, I realized there's something far worse. In other words, there were things I wasn't prepared for the first time I pumped at work.
If you're anything like me, you had many things running through your head and heart the day you first went back to work postpartum. How much I was going to miss my new sweet pea was, of course, at the top of that list. I put the pumping material together mindlessly the night before, as if fully focusing on the task would speed up the act of leaving my baby. I didn't want to think about how it would be to pump at work for the first time, because that meant facing the complicated feelings surrounding wanting to go back to a job I loved, while simultaneously never wanting to leave my newborn.
After my first child was born I was working as a trauma therapist at a rape crisis center. I went back to work six weeks postpartum because I had no paid maternity leave. I had my own private therapy office and made my own client schedule. This made the at-work pumping awkwardness minimal. After my second child, however, I worked in a corporate cubicle environment. This means there were ample surprises the first time I pumped at work, including:
Not Having A Sink
There was a lactation room (translation: former closet) at my office after I gave birth to my second child. You could close and lock the door, play soft music, and put your feet up. You know what you couldn't do, though? Wash your freaking pump.
The walk of pumping shame was, well, not what I anticipated experiencing Everybody did stare when I walked out of that former closet. Where do I go with my recently soiled pumping equipment? Option one: the nasty bathroom sinks. Shudder. Option two: the tiny, usually backed up break room sinks where the middle-aged men can stare at me judgmentally as I meticulously wash my equipment. Hard pass.
I wanted to say, "Don't worry, guys, even if my boob juice weren't more sterile than your lunch, it still won't jump out of this insulated bag and attack your food."
The Pressure To Stop Pumping
At work, I still had to meet the same standards as those placed on people who weren't pumping. Only I had less time to reach those standards because, as I mentioned, I was pumping.
The Time Sucking That Is Undersupply
It took me so much longer than the other pumping people at work to get what I needed out of my damned boobs. Which is just one of the many reasons why the apologies I owe my postpartum boobs are vast.
Never Feeling Alone Ever Again
I imagined that I would have some alone time at work that I didn't get at home with two young children. My stay-at-home partner was certainly envious of this magical elusive alone time. However, when the only alone time you have is spent hooked up to a sucking machine and pleading with your breasts to produce enough milk to feed your baby the next day, it's not so much alone time as it is anxiety-ridden torture.
Feeling Alone All The Time
Part of the benefit of working outside of the home, as a parent, is that you get to socialize, right? Well, forget that if you're pumping. Every spare moment, even while commuting, is spent hooked up to the milk machine. I had no time for casual hallway workplace conversations, let alone an actual lunch break with coworkers.
The Veiled Derision Of My Bosses
My workplace was supposedly breastfeeding friendly, and they were certainly required to be by law. However, that requirement didn't alter the culture of exclusion felt by breastfeeding people. Anecdotally, they were more likely to be put on some sort of administrative warning due to decrease in productivity. Whether actual decrease or perceived decrease is unclear, since we weren't allowed to talk to peers about productivity at that time.
I even started working on Saturdays when no one else was in the office so I could pump at my desk while working. It didn't appear to make them happier. There was always an air of, "How old is your baby now? You're still doing that?"
Leaking Through My Shirts
Breast milk stains are totally a thing, and they never come out.
The Emotional Chaos Of Lactation
Also a real thing. When I am away from my baby and I am lactating it feels as if I'm in constant emotional crisis. I would have let downs while on the phone at work that would not only stain my shirt, but cause my temperature to rise and the tears to start flowing. It's not weakness, ya'll, it's the reality of my biology.
Mom guilt is a given. We know it and we try to prepare for it but, if you're anything like me, no amount of preparation takes the sting of that damn guilt away. Let me first say that I know I "shouldn't" feel guilty, and none of us should. We deserve to work and we're helping our children in all sorts of ways by showing them their moms are humans, too. My emotions, however, still exist and they're an important part of owning my experience.
The first time I pumped at work after my second child I felt guilty for not being with him. I felt guilty for pumping his food into plastic containers. I felt guilty for my under supply that was made worse by a machine suckling instead of my baby. I felt guilty for the perceived lack of productivity that my bosses were surreptitiously, but actively, shaming me for. I felt guilty for leaving my partner at home with a newborn and toddler. I felt guilty for everything. It's overwhelming and unstoppable.
Acceptance that the guilt, and a host of unknowns, will be there, however, helped me to breathe through, and survive, it all.