Pumping-in-Style by Christine Ferris

I am a shameless breastfeeder. I feel completely comfortable lifting up my shirt and letting my baby nurse in restaurants as I peruse the menu, in bookstores as I sit on the floor in the mystery section, in office waiting rooms as I wait for my cat to be vaccinated.
 
But I will not pump milk in front of anyone.
 
It is a strange and vaguely embarrassing thing to do. I find it hard to separate it from the other bodily functions of elimination. We are trained to think of our excretions as dirty, something we do in private and then wash our hands. I know the milk that flows, or sometimes trickles, out of my breast is clean -- full, in fact, of antibodies; I still wash my hands after I'm finished. I never know what to say to people at work when I have to go do this pumping thing and yet I'll be absent too long not to excuse myself in some way. I have to go pump milk? Excuse me while I go express myself? Moo? Usually I end up vaguely gesturing at my chest and mumbling, "I have to go aahh, be in my office for awhile."
 
Once alone in my office, with the door locked and the blinds closed, I sit and face my "Pump-in-Style." The squarish, black, leather bag disguises itself as a large purse, or small briefcase. The flaps unzip and reveal the dials, plugs, and white diaphragm that creates the pulsing suction action which so mimics the baby's suckling (not!). One compartment holds ice packs and up to four bottles. The other holds the power cord and the nursing shields, which I must clutch to my breasts. I can't do anything else while I am pumping, as I must hold each of the two shields up over each of my breasts with a bit of pressure and at just the right angle or I'll lose the seal and the suction. So I am stuck, staring into space, thinking about my baby that I am not with, or all the tasks I was in the middle of at work but now must wait to complete, or I sit listening to the phone ring, wondering why my boss has such a knack for calling at this very moment.
 
Sometimes I feel frustrated and I wonder why someone hasn't invented a single- handle, double-cup version, so I could at least hold a pen, or turn a page, or click a mouse. But other times I listen to the mechanical diaphragm breathing in and out rhythmically, and I start hearing it say words to me "Clark Gable, Clark Gable, Clark Gable" or "time matters, time matters, time matters" and I think it is good for me to sit and do nothing else as the milk flows in tiny streams and slowly fills up the little bottles. I think about breastfeeding, working moms around the country, all of us with the same black, square bag holding our labors of love in disguise in the workplace. All of us sitting behind closed office doors, or in the bathroom, or in a storage closet, or in a car, waiting for the tingling sensation of the milk letting down, sitting with our corporate suits unbuttoned, our T-shirts hiked up, our uniforms in disarray, our nursing bras with the flaps down. Here we are in post-feminism's version of modern motherhood breastfeeding a machine so we can be at work while someone else feeds our babies.
 
I am thankful for feminism, I believe because of it we are sharing the power and responsibilities of work and home more equally with men than ever before. I also know that parents of both genders are struggling to be able to meet the demands of work and family. At work women, even nursing mothers, can be grown-ups with power, earning money, making decisions that matter, and we aren't forced to stay at home like our own mothers may have been. But we are vulnerable at work, with our tops opened up to reveal our breasts, both our hands occupied, in a way no man ever is. We are interrupted at work at regular intervals to feed the baby, even though the baby is not physically present, like no father ever is. And I think, how do we do it? How do we work and nurture our babies? How do we be competent professionals and caring mothers of infants? How do we do everything?
 
At work, three days a week, I am late, disorganized, forgetful. At home the rest of the week, I am tired, irritable, inattentive. I cling to my job, my identity outside the home, my power in society. I equally cling to motherhood, a role I cherish, and I choose breastfeeding, the most natural and healthiest way to feed my precious baby. I do everything by doing none of it well and I wonder what other choices could there be? I have friends that have put their own careers on hold and found personal satisfaction through their mothering. They face the tedium involved in full time childcare, a sometimes uncomfortable level of financial dependence on their spouse, and a few live on the edge of poverty. I have other friends who have hired nannies and gone back to work fulltime. They face a constant, painful struggle with guilt for both not being there enough for their child and never being able to put in as many late hours at work as their childless colleagues. The majority of their salaries go to childcare expenses.
 
As I leave for home, my pump-in-style slung over one shoulder, my briefcase over the other, and exhaustion hanging around my neck, another woman in her late thirties enters the elevator. She points to my pump. "I remember those days," she says and then sighs. She smiles at me sympathetically. "They are babies for such a short time." I nod and smile back. I still want a better answer for all of us.