Serena Williams, an elite athlete who has many strengths, singled out breast-feeding as her magical superpower.
No one has ever said the same about pumping breast milk. If tandem-nursing twins was my superpower, pumping was my kryptonite.
During my parental leave, I did everything I could think of to prepare for pumping at work. I researched how often I would need to pump during the workday (three times), requested a privacy partition for my office so I could continue to work while pumping and rented a hospital-grade pump that promised to yield more milk than the pump provided through my insurance. I would have to travel for work, so I looked into methods of shipping breast milk.
Although all of this felt like a hassle, managing the logistics of pumping is a privileged problem to have. It wasn’t until 2010, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, that federal law required employers to provide break time and a place to pump. That was a giant leap forward, but pumping breaks do not have to be compensated, and lactating parents typically need to pump several times throughout the day. Many new parents can’t afford to take that time unpaid when their budgets are already stretched by a new infant. Others work in jobs with no safe, sanitary place to pump at all, despite the 2010 law. That means they are forced to quit pumping — and with it breastfeeding — or forced to quit their jobs.
As a lawyer, I was fortunate not to face that agonizing choice, and I viewed pumping as a rite of passage into new motherhood. And so I pumped. Ideally, I pumped between meetings, listening to affirmations on my earphones. “It feels good to pump for my baby, knowing that I’m doing the right thing for my family.” Breathe in, breathe out. “While I pump, I’m sending my baby the love in my heart through the milk I express.” This helped me forget that I was sitting shirtless in my office with tubing connected to my breasts.
Other times, I pumped during conference calls that I kept on mute to hide the rhythmic sounds of the pump. I produced less milk while working, but the need to pump was relentless. My phone buzzed constantly with reminders to pump, wherever I was. I pumped at airport gates, on Amtrak, while driving. I quipped that my memoir should be called “Pumping on Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
Pumping didn’t end when I got home. I quickly learned that three daytime pumping sessions didn’t produce enough milk, no matter how many lactation cookies I consumed. The pressure not to make up the difference with formula was intense, so I added a pumping session in the middle of the night, when milk production is at its highest. I’d crawl into bed shortly after reading “Goodnight Moon” to my kids and set yet another alarm for 12:30 or 1 a.m. to pump.
The midnight sessions left me exhausted, but they didn’t explain why I hated pumping so fiercely. Physically, pumping wasn’t painful. It was tedious more than anything: the endless washing of the bottles and pieces; the small plastic parts that went askew or missing, causing the pump to stop working altogether; lugging the pump and everything I needed to use it with me wherever I went.
No, the worst part was the constant anxiety about whether I was pumping enough — what I called “pumping math.” This is how pumping math works: Every day, you have to pump at least as many ounces as your baby consumes while you are at work. Or, in my case, babies. That’s harder than it sounds. The pump is less efficient than the baby, meaning that you have to pump more often, and for longer periods of time, than the baby would nurse if you were together.
In other words, the system is rigged.
When I traveled for work, the pumping math got even worse. I needed to produce 60 ounces of milk, nearly half a gallon, for every 24 hours that I was away. A standard pumping bottle holds five ounces. I needed to fill 12 of them. Each time I left for a trip, I’d withdraw the amount I needed to cover my trip from the stash I’d frozen in advance and hope that I would pump enough while I was away to pay myself back. I rarely did.
Many people refer to breast milk as “liquid gold” because of its health benefits. To me, breast milk was my currency, and I was in debt. The loss of even a few ounces was devastating. Once, I returned to my rental car from a court hearing to find my pumped milk, which I had packed carefully in a cooler, spoiled in the summer heat. I never made that mistake again, even though it meant bringing breast milk into the courtroom.
Some pumping experiences were memorable for different reasons. I remember vividly pumping in the kitchen while my family prepared Thanksgiving dinner all around me, the noise of the pump drowned out by knives on cutting boards and running water in the sink. A cousin took in my pumping get-up, complete with a red-and-white polka dot pumping bra and cone-shaped flanges suctioned to my breasts, and commented that I should be shooting bullets from my bra.
I didn’t see pumping as a superpower, but she did.