(Courtesy of the author)

At three weeks old, my daughter took her first bottle of breast milk at a coffee shop while I got a much-needed haircut next door. When my husband sent me a photo of her guzzling it down, I cheered. I even sipped a celebratory shot of tequila (my Honduran hairdresser offers them on every visit) and forwarded the picture to my mom.

“Baby took a bottle! Freedom!” read the caption.

But I soon realized that baby taking the bottle meant me taking the machine — everywhere. I toted it to my sister’s wedding in Kansas the following weekend, knowing that my duties as matron of honor would have me passing the baby to doting grandparents for a good chunk of the day. I didn’t realize that the festivities would leave me with neither time nor place to pump and very real fears that I might have to deliver a speech in a milk-soaked dress. Besides “don’t wear dresses you can’t unzip on your own,” I’ve learned some important lessons since then.

Over the past five months, I’ve forged a love-hate relationship with the breast pump, lightning rod of modern motherhood that it is, as it both enables and limits my freedom as a nursing mom.

I regularly lug the pump to the coffee shops where I now do much of my work as a freelance journalist. I rate these shops based on whether they offer private access to electrical outlets. Yes, I managed to buy a pump that doesn’t take batteries — or at least I can’t figure out where to put them.

I purchased mine (new) off of Craigslist, because someone else’s health insurance sent them a free one and mine did not. High-end pumps go for more than $300 at some retail outlets.

While I often work from home, there are occasions when the topics I cover take me out of town or simply out of the house for some focused writing. While the pump facilitates such mobility, it also comes with strings attached.

I’m far from alone in the department of pumping woes as doctors urge my generation of working mothers that, “Breast is best!” But following the mantra when we’re away from our babies means cozying up to a contraption that is, if functional, fairly mortifying to use.

Our “modern” breast pump, based on circa-1850s technology, is so clunky that improving it was the subject of a “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon at MIT this past fall. Thanks to the Mighty Mom Utility Belt that won the design contest, you could soon hear the faint whir of a wearable breast pump in a metro seat near you.

But, for now, nursing mothers who work or bottle-feed for other reasons whisper their pump-loathing confessions to one another, perhaps behind the blacked-out windows of an office break room — or in even more uncomfortable places. At conferences and meeting spaces not of my choosing, I’ve struggled to find private pockets for my pump and me. Tethered to the nearest outlet, I’ve learned to wear billowy sweaters and scarves that I can drape over my machinery in case my only option is the middle of the women’s restroom (you know, near the mirror and the entrance).

At a local farming conference, this earned me high-fives and supportive looks, as if I were trying to make a public statement about femininity in the workplace or, worse, local food.

At another conference, a woman who ran the meeting space offered her office as a private enclave for pumping mothers. Little did she know that there were three of us and that we’d each be pumping on different schedules, essentially kicking her out of her office for much of the two-day event. Thank you, dear woman. And, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t want to spend the entire conference in your office, either. Perhaps conferences of the future will feature private pumping rooms with live feeds of the sessions (or, better yet, BYO baby?).

And then there’s the art — nay, the hard-earned skill — of working around the pump. When I’m feeding my daughter, I don’t see the every-three-hours rhythm of early parenting as an interruption. I see it as an excuse to fetch her from a nap, gaze into the eyes that look uncannily like my own and soak in every ounce of those this-won’t-last-forever feelings.

But, when I’m midway through an inspired bout of writing (which is harder to come by these days) and the pump comes a-callin’ — interruption is exactly the word that comes to mind. On my worst days, the interruptions feel so frequent that I’m not sure I even got started on anything worth interrupting yet.

Perhaps if I had a private office, hooking up to the milk machine wouldn’t seem as onerous. After all, it’s the setup and breakdown that suck up so much time (pun intended), not to mention the unintended spills.

Indeed, there are occasions in which crying over spilled milk is perfectly appropriate. Watching the fruit of an 8-minute pumping session wash down the sink of a public restroom — because the impatient pounding of another customer on the door can be quite spill-inducing— is one of them.

I suppose I should bring my own sign next time: “Pumping in progress.”

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist and editor. She tweets @whitneypipkin and blogs at whitneypipkin.com.

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