I’ve pumped milk approximately 1,000 times. Here’s the math. 2 babies, 40 weeks per baby, 5 days a week, 2-3 pumping sessions per day. My two little redheads are now 2 ½ and 4 ½, and I’ve since retired my pump. But I remember quite vividly the 20 months we spent practically attached at the…breast.
I breastfed both of my boys until each was about 13 months old. And I certainly felt like a slightly-insane milk machine both times. Every day, I lugged a huge bag full of pump parts to work. Every night, I spent what seemed like hours washing them with bottle brushes, sterilizing them in those microwavable sterilization bags, and re-packing for the next day. I also had the added fun of having excess lipase in my milk, which made it turn sour after 4 hours if I didn’t scald it at 160 degrees for 15 seconds. So added to my pumping equipment at work was a Munchkin bottle warmer and a candy thermometer. It looked like there was a science experiment going on under my desk after each pumping session.
It was extremely rewarding, creating this nourishment for my babies each day. Also, it really helped me feel an important connection to them even when I couldn’t physically be with them. But it was also exhausting, logistically challenging and maddening at times. In short, pumping was hard work.
I recognize I was extremely lucky as far as these things go. I was able to have a pump at home and one at work, so I didn’t need to worry about lugging the machinery back and forth. I had extra sets of pump parts, so I didn’t have to wash them throughout the day. I had an office with a closed door. And I had an understanding boss, who didn’t question the year’s worth of 30-minute “Holds” I put on my Outlook calendar. Those were pretty great conditions compared to what some women endure while pumping at work.
Still, the work grind required all sorts of maneuvers to keep up the pumping. Traveling was its own adventure. My first work trip away from my baby was to Chicago when he was 6 months old. I did a whirlwind 36-hour trip to give a talk at a conference. And with all the emotions of being postpartum, pumping, and missing my baby, I was a mess. I remember staring longingly at any airplane-bound baby and feeling entirely awkward and conspicuous pumping while sitting in my airplane seat. (I couldn’t figure out where else to do it, as the seatbelt sign was on, and I was leaking!) When my hotel noted that I would have to pay extra for the refrigerator in my room to store my milk, I discovered that saying the word “breastfeeding” loudly in the hotel lobby helps encourage them to take that charge off the bill.
Pumping in trains required a certain amount of coordination and balance. They rocked back and forth, as I tried to hold the pump still in a not-exactly-sterile Amtrak bathroom. (MAN do I wish the Freemie had existed back then!) Scalding milk in a bottle warmer when hot water could come lurching out at you any minute was hilarious only in retrospect.
And then there were the days of desperately searching for a spot to pump when attending off-site meetings. My experience pumping in one of the Senate buildings on the Hill was calm, clean and even somewhat dignified, thanks to a fellow mama who had clearly been there. I had just come out of a meeting, needed to pump, and ducked into the bathroom. A kind woman heard the “whoosh-whoosh” of the pump and told me through the stalls that next time I should check out the nursing and pumping room in the basement of Congress. It’s always nice to know other mamas are looking out for you. And that the Federal Government supports breastfeeding mamas.
By the time my kiddos each passed the year mark, I was pretty ready to be done with my pumping adventures. Still, there was one last hurrah. On my final work trip while pumping, I attended a meeting in a building that required me to put my pump through the conveyor belt at security. The guard spent more time inspecting it than usual. Gleeful that I was at the end of my long pumping run, I declared cheerfully, “THIS is the last time I’ll be bringing this pump into this building!” The guard misunderstood my intent, though, hearing my comment as accusatory instead of revelatory. She profusely apologized, “It’s fine, it’s fine! You can bring the pump anytime you need to, ma’am!” Another awkward pumping moment.
Do I miss it? Nursing, yes. Pumping, no. But would I have done anything differently? Just one thing: I wouldn’t have put so much pressure on myself to eek out every last ounce. It turns out my babies would turn out just fine, no matter what.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave