As my daughter Emilia turns 7 months old on January 27, which happens to be World Breast Pumping Day, I can say I’ve finally gotten the hang of pumping breast milk. On my maternity leave, I was lucky to be able to exclusively breastfeed her for the first six months. As I prepared for the transition back to work full time, I pumped periodically to get familiar with the bulky, noisy machine I’d soon spend a lot of time with, as well as to build a modest freezer stash of milk for all the future occasions I’d be away from the baby. (Spoiler: there haven’t been many.)
I wouldn’t say I enjoy pumping in the same way I enjoy nursing (well, when Emilia wants to nurse, which — in her recently distractible state — has been less frequent). But it can be very satisfying to collect ounces of milk, the only substance my baby really needs in her first year to live and thrive, from my own body. Serena Williams, after all, called breastfeeding a superpower; I too feel invincible, even if just for those moments, being able to provide nourishment for this tiny human I’ve made.
But, like so many women before me have said, pumping is also awkward and onerous. I look at this image of ultra-runner Sophie Power from last fall, who stopped halfway through the 105-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc race to pump and breastfeed her son, and think, wow, here is someone partaking in an incredibly demanding activity, pushing the limits of the human body, but — just like any other mother — she can’t get around the physical need to pump.
Because no matter who you are, the logistics of pumping can be challenging, if not impossible. Even if you can afford the newest wearable models that promise more freedom, like the $500 Willow and Elvie pumps, pumping is still a commitment and huge part of your day-to-day life.
It was interesting, then, to follow the larger conversation around Rachel McAdams’ high-fashion breast pump photo. Last month, while doing a Girls Girls Girls magazine cover shoot, the actress was photographed wearing a Versace jacket and Bulgari diamond necklace — while pumping from both breasts. While the photo was praised by some for its attempt to #NormalizeBreastfeeding and show that even celebrities need to take pumping breaks, some say it missed the mark and wasn’t truly subversive, while many mothers expressed that the image did not represent them — and what a pumping session really looks like.
As I settle into new motherhood, and as each day brings new challenges — why won’t she nurse? where can I pump? why has my milk supply dipped? — I continue to read as much as I can: to learn how mothers juggle the task with everything else in their lives, and to remind myself that I’m not alone. Here’s a reading list of stories, new and old, that explore the complicated act of breast pumping.
1. Baby Food (Jill Lepore, January 2009, The New Yorker)
In this piece from 10 years ago, Lepore discusses the history of breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, and the rise of the breast pump.
In 1904, one Chicago pediatrician argued that “the nursing function is destined gradually to disappear.” Gilded Age American women were so refined, so civilized, so delicate. How could they suckle like a barnyard animal? (By the turn of the century, the cow’s udder, or, more often, its head, had replaced the female human breast as the icon of milk.) Behind this question lay another: how could a white woman nurse a baby the way a black woman did? (Generations of black women, slave and free alike, not only nursed their own infants but also served as wet nurses to white babies.) Racial theorists ran microscopic tests of human milk: the whiter the mother, chemists claimed, the less nutritious her milk. On downy white breasts, rosy-red nipples had become all but vestigial. It was hardly surprising, then, that well-heeled women told their doctors that they had insufficient milk. By the nineteen-tens, a study of a thousand Boston women reported that ninety per cent of the poor mothers breast-fed, while only seventeen per cent of the wealthy mothers did. (Just about the opposite of the situation today.) Doctors, pointing out that evolution doesn’t happen so fast, tried to persuade these Brahmins to breast-feed, but by then it was too late.
2. Why Women Really Quit Breastfeeding (Jenna Sauers, July 2018, Harper’s Bazaar)
Under the Affordable Care Act, U.S. companies are required to provide break time and a clean, private place to pump milk. Sauers offers an overview of pumping legislation in the U.S. and the challenges of pumping in a variety of work places, from co-working spaces with open floor plans to hospitals and college campuses.
But even as doctors and nurses promote breastfeeding to patients, their own working conditions sometimes make pumping difficult.
Sarah, a registered nurse at Northside Hospital in Atlanta who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she is currently struggling to pump at work. She and her colleagues, several of whom are also pumping, work 12-hour shifts. Sarah gets to work early so that the last thing she does before clocking in is pump; that way she can go as long as possible before taking a break. When her shift begins at 7 a.m., that means rising at 3:45 a.m.
“Typically, the way our patient flow goes, I probably won’t get another opportunity to pump until about 9 or 10 a.m.,” she says. “From there, it varies. A lot of days, we don’t even have the staffing to relieve people for lunch. I have to tread lightly asking for a pump break when most people aren’t even getting lunch breaks.”
3. ‘A Pumping Conspiracy’: Why Workers Smuggled Breast Pumps Into Prison (Natalie Kitroeff, December 2018, The New York Times)
Kitroeff reports on the staff nurses at Deerfield state prison in Capron, Virginia, who weren’t allowed to bring breast pumps into the facility. Some tried to pump in an unpleasant men’s restroom; others resorted to expressing milk in the backseat of their car in the parking lot. But one nurse, Susan Van Son, had had enough — and she smuggled her breast pump in, piece by piece.
In July 2016, another Deerfield nurse, LaQuita Dundlow, 32, returned to work after giving birth to her second daughter. Like Ms. Olds, Ms. Dundlow said managers told her to pump in the men’s restroom. She couldn’t produce milk in the fetid space. “The smell, it messed with me,” she said.
So Ms. Dundlow hung baby blankets from the windows of her Ford Expedition. Three times a day, she came out to express. Occasionally, she said, she had to explain the situation to a security guard who tapped on her window, wanting to know what was going on inside.
Sometimes, she didn’t have time to take the quarter-mile walk from one end of the prison to her S.U.V. On those occasions, painfully engorged, she would take a sterile cup normally used to collect urine samples, go to the bathroom and express milk by squeezing her breasts. Then she would hand the cup to her husband, who was also employed at the prison, as a correctional officer. He would take it to a cooler in their car.
4. Stop Shaming Working Moms Into Pumping (Jessica Machado, December 2015, Elle)
As Jen Gann writes in The Cut, figuring out how and when to pump is a privileged problem to have.
After returning to work after a 12-week maternity leave, Machado quickly realized that pumping was an activity around which she would structure her entire life. “I had become not a breastfeeder, but a pair of breasts owned by a machine,” she writes, describing her shame over not being able to keep up with her son’s demand. She explores why working mothers in America are pressured to pump.
I live in Brooklyn, just south of Park Slope, where the mommy wars have been won by upper-middle-class leftists in comfortable fair-trade sandals. Though I am neither in the right income bracket nor organic threads to think of myself as a Park Slope mom, there is a bar of motherhood that is set by those around me that can’t help but seep into my subconscious. Women wear their babies in slings as a badge of attachment parenting; they buy vegetables from the co-op to puree in top-of-the-line food processors; many have nannies to assist them in the juggling of domestic priorities. When working mothers have problems breastfeeding in my area, they reach out to lactation consultants, who charge $125 to $400 a visit to show them tips like adjusting the pump’s speeds and making sure the pump’s parts fit properly. These moms can also combat dwindling supply by renting a hospital-grade pump, which is not covered by insurance but costs upwards of $70 a month––a pretty high price tag for people like me who are already struggling with the added expenses of daycare and baby necessities.
And my breastfeeding peer pressures and pumping obstacles are minimal compared to most. I’m not a cashier or a server or a police officer or a professional driver or basically anyone whose job is to serve people when they need to be tended to, who can’t just drop everything to keep up with a pumping schedule. I am not an employee who has to share my pumping space with a conference room or a break room or a broom closet. I’ve never had to pump in the car or a public restroom. I’ve never had a coworker or stranger walk in on me, half-naked, while cones were on my breasts sucking like vacuums. I am not a mom on WIC assistance who is punished for formula-feeding by getting benefits for half as long as those who breastfeed.
5. The Unseen Consequences of Pumping Breast Milk (Olivia Campbell, November 2014, Pacific Standard
“There’s an assumption that bottle-feeding breast milk to a child is equivalent to breastfeeding, but that may not be the case.” Campbell looks at studies that suggest exclusive pumping may not be as beneficial for mothers and babies, citing issues like milk contamination, an increase in coughing and wheezing in infants, and potential health impacts for mothers (including the risk of postpartum depression, reproductive cancers, and more).
Thorley has written extensively on the potential perils of “normalizing” the separation of breast milk from breasts. She says that bottle-feeding of breast milk has a place in specific circumstances, such as when a baby is unable to adequately stimulate the mother’s milk supply, or in cases like Boss’, where a baby is unable to nurse directly. And while she agrees bottled breast milk is better than infant formula, “breastfeeding is about more than the milk.” Babies don’t just breastfeed for nutrition; they nurse for comfort, closeness, soothing, and security.
6. The More I Learn About Breast Milk, the More Amazed I Am (Angela Garbes, August 2015, The Stranger)
Breast milk contains all the vitamins and nutrients that a baby needs in its first six months of life. It’s also dynamic: adapting to the baby’s needs. And like a fine red wine, writes Garbes, the flavors in a mother’s breast milk are subtle, reflecting its terroir: her body. Garbes takes a closer look at the complex makeup — and value — of this precious liquid.
I love the idea that even before her first encounter with solid food, her taste buds had already begun telling her that she is part of a city filled with the cuisines of many nations, a household that supports local farmers, and a Filipino family with an abiding love of pork and fermented shrimp paste.
We can’t expect the value of breast-feeding to just trickle down to mothers in the trenches, pumping away in cramped offices and broom closets, working multiple jobs, forking over significant portions of income to day care, and, yes, tired and close to the breaking point, cursing their own desire to continue feeding their children their milk. We have to make an effort to reach all mothers, not just those actively seeking support and information.
7. A Certain Kind of Mammal (Meaghan O’Connell, April 2018, Longreads)
In this excerpt from her book And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell describes the all-consuming activity of nursing her son.
I had tried the breast pump a few times, recreationally, but not yet so as to explicitly buy time away with my own milk. The pump looked just like I’d imagined, like something you’d use to masturbate a farm animal. The bulk of the machine was a little yellow box the size of a toaster oven that gasped and sighed with a rhythmic, mechanical sucking noise that was initially disturbing, like it was trying to tell me something but couldn’t quite find the language. There were two snaking rubber tubes that ran from the box to the air-horn-looking boob funnels and from there into baby bottles that collected the milk. The horns were where the magic happened, where your tits went. Sucked into the machine, my nipples looked like long, pink taffy, stretched and then milked.
The first time I saw milk stream out of my body and into this contraption, I felt woozy and then oddly turned on. It’s not often in life we gain a brand-new secretion.