The first time I hooked myself up to a breast pump, I thought the mechanics of it were going to be the challenge. I didn’t realize that it is basically impossible if you do not purchase the bustier that holds the bottles to your boobs. I didn’t know that even with the bustier, the process fully occupies your hands. I didn’t know if I’d be able to make enough milk to keep up with my growing kid, especially since I had to go to bed late and wake up early to pump enough, but I was told adequate sleep was important to maintaining my supply.
Unlike most women who breastfeed, I almost exclusively pumped. I didn’t plan it that way. Because my kid was losing weight at a rapid rate during her first week of life, it was suggested to me that I pump and feed her with a bottle so we knew exactly how much she was getting. I would feed her five minutes on each boob for the bonding, then go pump while my spouse finished the feeding. Since we’re a same-sex couple, this made even more sense: Me pumping allowed our child to bond equally with both of us, or at least, that was my operating theory at the time. We did it that way until I quit after 5 and a half months.
As it turned out, the mechanics of producing milk for my kid weren’t the biggest issue I faced. I figured out how to maximize my supply to nearly keep up with my child’s growing appetite. The much harder part was having to spend a half hour or an hour every four hours connected to a machine, not engaged with my child or my life. And the hardest part of all was dealing with everyone else’s apparent obliviousness to how hard that was, and how caged it made me feel. I wasn’t afraid to tell people in my life how much it sucked (no pun intended), and I did, but that just made me feel worse, especially when I encountered other mothers who seemed to take it fully in stride; no sweat, just part of the deal. The only way I can explain how vastly different their experiences seemed compared to my own is that either they are more selfless people than I am (a strong possibility) or maybe people around them got how hard it is and didn’t say some of the absurd things people actually say to women who are pumping. Here are some of the public at large's greatest hits:
"We Don’t Have A Free Outlet"
It’s 2016. Come on, you can do this.
"Do You Have To Do That Here?"
Jesus take the wheel. A truly amazing range of people can say this to you. Maybe it’s your significant other, caught in a sudden postpartum panic that you have been stolen and replaced by a sleep-deprived fembot bent on killing your sex life. Maybe it’s a squeamish boss or a flight attendant concerned about the other passengers complaining. Maybe it’s your mother-in-law, who didn’t feed her baby this way back in her day.
You know what, Person Asking This Question? You’re right. The woman pumping should leave the living room or conference room while you work or make calls or watch TV or eat without being hooked up to a machine. She should sequester herself in a bathroom or closet or other confined, uncomfortable space while she undergoes the tedious, nipples-on-fire task of attempting to produce enough food for her child. She should be fine retreating to that bathroom or closet five to seven times a day so you don’t have to be grossed out by the thought or sight of her, even though any discomfort you feel cannot even approach the level of discomfort she feels having her breasts deflated every four hours. She should take care of you, even though your disgust threatens to undermine any sense of accomplishment she might be taking from this pretty arduous experience. That makes sense.
I say this with love: Fuck. You.
"How Long Is It Going To Take?"
I love how people ask this question as though a woman pumping is mainly an intrusion on their schedule. The answer: it depends. How recently did I last pump? If I was stuck in a meeting or train or event for far too long ,such that I can feel leaking milk slowly soaking the pads I fortunately remembered to put inside my bra this morning, it'll probably take 30 minutes to really get it all out. If I was delayed so long that I have the beginning of a clogged duct, longer, as I’ll have to massage that sucker out, so now we’re talking 45. If I get distracted by an email I’m trying to write, such that I overflow the bottles and they spill on my pants and I have no extra pants so I have to wrap my scarf around my ass (because it worked for Gwyneth that one time), we’re talking a good hour. If I’m so stressed by the idea that someone thinks I’m taking too long to produce food for my child that the milk just. won’t. flow., we could be here eeeeven longer.
"Why Is It Taking So Long?"
"Can’t You Work While You’re Doing It?"
Ah, yes. The idea that pumping is an opportunity for multitasking. Here's the reality: I can work while I pump if I have a desk at exactly the right height relative to my body and boobs such that I can reach my arms around the tubes and use my keyboard without bumping the bottles hanging from my tits. I can work if my milk is plentiful enough that I don’t need to alternate massaging each boob with both hands to express all of the milk. (What an odd use of the word “express." There is nothing "express" about it, and being hooked up to a machine alone five times a day felt like pretty much the nadir of my self-expression.) Or I can work if all of it can be done on my phone, during the brief breaks I take from the tit massage.
Otherwise, no, I can’t. I have to take between one and two hours out of my work day and get all of my work done in the remaining time.
"If You Don’t Really Commit To It, The Baby Will Have To Have Formula"
I’m the one hooked up to a breast pump like a dairy cow — I’d say I’m committed. Now I need you to commit to supporting me, much more then I need you to be committed to a single mode of feeding that is, in fact, not the only way to adequately nourish a child. Formula-fed babies do just fine, as do babies who are primarily breastfed and supplemented with formula. You know what’s bad for a kid? A mother who feels totally and unnecessarily trapped by a culture that promotes breastfeeding at all costs. I’m doing my part. You do yours.
"Have You Tried Hand Expression?"
The next time someone asks me this, they had better be talking about a form of Indonesian dance. Look, if you have made this work for you, you’re a hero. I’m serious. I watched the YouTube videos when my supply wasn't cutting it, I tried to squeeze extra milk from my own boobs with my own hand. After ten minutes there were like four drops in the glass. I don't know how these very impressive and patient women do it. And honestly, after all the effort I put into pumping, the mere suggestion of this felt like one more hoop to jump through. When was it going to be enough?
What I didn’t get was that I could have quit early on, and it would have been fine. However I did it, it would have been enough. What there isn’t enough of is compassion and understanding for women trying to feed their kids and also have a life, or acknowledgment that wanting both is not only a worthy but maybe the most important goal.