I have never milked a cow, but I saw plenty of milking demonstrations as a
child at the San Luis Obispo County Fair, held every August near my
hometown. Inside the cool, dim dairy barn where I frequently escaped the searing valley heat, earnest 4-H Club members deftly tweaked
teats, filling up buckets with fresh milk. The day I watched a friend demonstrate my first breast pump,
I realized there wasn't much difference between those adroit 4-Hers and a
big blue Lactina. Except for the number of teats.
Pumping milk is strangely alienating and artificial. It's also inconvenient
and incompatible with the world of work. It breaks with the fiction that
professional women are androgynous, that we don't have sex. It exposes us
as sexual, physical, leaking human beings.
There is nothing natural about pumping milk. Take, for instance, this
published description of a new pump design: "Our model is based on
quasi-linear poroelasticity whereby the teat is modeled as a cylindrical
porous elastic material saturated with fluid. We impose a cyclic axial
suction pressure difference across the teat and impose a radial compressive
force moving along the teat which mimics infant suckling." A baby suckling
at your breast is sweet, soft and intimate. Quasi-linear poroelasticity
imposed upon fluid-saturated material is not.
Contrary to what lactation consultants and nursing-wear catalogs would have
you believe, there is never a good time to pump. Even though some pumps
are packaged to resemble briefcases, like the jauntily titled "Pump in
Style" with its slim black carrying case, most working women feel very
conspicuous when they pump their breasts in the office. Pumping is a
personal act. It requires privacy and quiet, two conditions usually missing
in most work environments, unless you are at the top of the food chain.
When you nurse your baby, you are a mother. When you pump milk, you are a
pair of teats. A pair of teats that have to be milked regularly -- whether
by natural or artificial means. And this is where the real problems can
start. Most women pump their breasts so they can go back to work and
continue to nourish their babies with breast milk. But try to find a quiet,
private place where you can sit for half an hour and relax enough to get
the milk flowing when you are watching the minutes tick away your
10-minute break. Try filling the office refrigerator with plastic bags of
milk. "What's this stuff?" yells a coworker, waving a baggie in the air.
"At first, I lived in fear of having someone walk in on me," says an editor
of a metropolitan newspaper.
Her story is fairly typical. She was a first-time mom, enthusiastically
committed to feeding her baby with only mother's milk. She worked the swing
shift at the paper and returned to work when her baby was 3 months old.
She bought a pump -- the kind that resembles an attaché case. She was
embarrassed to tell anyone at work that she was pumping. At times, she had
to use the stall of the women's bathroom. "Pumping your breasts while
you're sitting on the toilet is the lowest of the low," she says. "It's not
just the germs, even though that is gross enough. But there you are,
breasts exposed, sitting on the toilet, and anyone who comes in can hear
that strange pumping sound."
Later, she discovered an unused office in her cavernous workspace, and so
slipped in and shut the door. The following day, when she arrived for her
shift, the office was locked. Had someone seen her go in and thought that
she was rifling through someone's files, she wondered? She was too
embarrassed to ask. So a couple of times a night, she casually slings the
black bag with its motor and funnels and bottles and plastic tubing over
her shoulder and searches for a secluded spot to pump milk for her baby.
She doesn't want anyone to know what she is doing because she doesn't want
anyone to actually visualize what she is doing.
Women trying to bust through the glass ceiling are not going to march into
the human resources office with an issue like breast pumping. Says one
friend, "Anyone not familiar with the breast pumping world is completely
blown away. I can't imagine making an issue of it."
My first pump was one of those hospital-issue, double-barrel types that are
about the size of a four-slice toaster and can extract eight ounces of milk
in about 10 minutes. It came in a huge blue plastic case and weighed about
the same as my 5-month-old baby. After I brought it home, I let it age
in the living room for a few days while I worked up the nerve to try it
out. A close friend offered to show me how it worked. Frankly, I was
horrified that she would let me view her in such a private act.
Sitting comfortably on her couch, my friend unbuttoned her blouse, unhooked
the flaps of her nursing bra and secured a funnel on each breast. She
stretched out her leg and flicked on the switch with her big toe. The pump
chugged rhythmically -- er, ugh ern, er, ugh ern, er, ugh ern. Milk began
to squirt out into the funnel and drip into the bottle. I was embarrassed,
but I couldn't help but stare as the powerful suction elongated the nipples
of her milk-swollen breasts -- tugging and slurping them into the funnel.
My friend didn't seem to notice my embarrassment. She chatted about her
system of storing the expressed milk in special freezer bags. She explained
how she noted on each bag the date and the amount. She told me how many
times a day she used the machine. She told me how she sometimes felt like a
More than anything, breast pumping forces you to come to grips with your
mammalian nature. One cannot attach those hard plastic funnels to one's
breasts without conjuring up images of black and white, cud-chewing dairy
cows, lowing as a steel pumping machine methodically extracts their vital
fluids. It is an act that lays bare your vital maternal function --
I am now on my second baby and my second pump. I traded in the big Lactina
for a smaller model, the Nurture III. Same idea. Same tubing, bottles and
funnels. Just smaller and less powerful. It works fine. I work at home so I
don't have to worry about finding a special place to be alone. Yet I still
guard my privacy. My 3-year-old occasionally barges in while I'm
pumping, but my husband is banned. I draw the line at public displays.
There are plenty of 4-H Club members who would be happy to demonstrate their
milking skills. I will never win a blue ribbon for mine.