A piece in The New York Times about the premier of Amber Tamblyn’s directorial debut included this quote from new mom Tamblyn, “I’m going to sneak out in the middle of the movie tonight to go pump.” As I read that I nodded in solidarity. Years after retiring my own breast pump I still feel a shared sympathy with mothers struggling to fit pumping breaks into their busy lives.
The decision whether or not to breastfeed is a complicated one. I do not fault anyone either way. But for those who choose to breastfeed there can be an unintended consequence: If they will be away from their babies for more than a few hours, women usually need to hook themselves up to devices that are a cross between farm equipment and fetish apparatus in order to pump their breastmilk.
Pumping is a necessity not only because it can provide milk that can be fed to the baby when the mother is not there but also because lactation only keeps happening when the milk is needed. If a mother goes too long without either feeding her baby or pumping she risks her milk supply drying up. This means that lactating moms need to make time for pumping no matter where they are or what they are doing. I pumped at a friend’s wedding reception, during the intermission of a play, and while stuck in traffic on a road trip in addition to many months of pumping three times a day a work.
In a society where many people get squeamish about breastfeeding in general, the reality of breast pumps and their use seems even more taboo. Most moms have never seen a breast pump much less seen one in use before trying to use one themselves. (I found the process of learning to use my breast pump so bizarre that I made it the subject of a short play, which I simply called “Pump.”)
This hidden world of breast pumps is why I was moved and impressed when I saw a performance piece by Jessica Wright Buha in which she demonstrated the use of her breast pump while speaking about why the process is important to her. After the show I thanked her for being so transparent about what so many of us dealt with only in private.
Of course, pumping is not just a burden it’s a privilege. Even women who may want to breastfeed may not be able to pump. They may not have a job that lends itself well the necessary breaks. Plus, a good pump is expensive. (I was lucky to have health insurance that covered the cost of mine, but not all insurance does that.) Oh, and some boobs just don’t respond well to anything but an actual baby, if they even respond well to that. Little about motherhood is ever easy.
Still, many mothers manage to pump for months or even a year or more. We are connected through a shared secret ritual of tubes, valves, and closely guarded containers of “liquid gold.” I smile knowingly when I see a woman carrying a certain type of heavy black bag that is designed to be discreet but is immediately recognizable to those of us who have carried them ourselves.
One of my coworkers is in a training course this week. She was interested in the subject but had been hesitant about going because she is still pumping. She called the venue to ask about her options. She told me that the pumping situation there “is not ideal,” but she is going anyway. I’m sure she’ll make it work. Once you’ve gotten used to hooking yourself up to a machine that sucks the milk out of your boobs multiple times a day you can pretty much deal with anything.
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