Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

Why I Pump in a Storage Closet at Work

By Marjke Yatsevitch


While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner.


The recliner sits in the corner of a storage closet, surrounded by old telephones, bedraggled hangers, boxes of bank statements and purchase orders, and spools of tickets used for 50/50 raffles. It is not a nice chair. Its upholstery might have once been a shade of pink, but it now reflects a low-pile sadness that must have a name like puce, or dun, or boiled yam.         

For the second time today I am sitting in the intermittent light of a motion sensor, wearing a brazier-like contraption that allows me to write, while I extract as many vital ounces of breast milk as I can, before second lunch ends.       

I am at work—and compared to many other nursing mothers who work, I have it pretty good. I am not perched on a toilet trying to negotiate an absence of power outlets. I have not been walked in on, yet. I have not made agonizing eye contact with an athletic director as he stands in the doorway of my hiding place, jawing a palm-sized piece of pizza, and too slowly, saying, “I heard a weird noise,” without apology. I have a supportive and generally good humored administrative team, and I have a Styrofoam cooler next to me on which I can place a water bottle and the apothecary of herbal supplements that I need to produce 16 ounces of milk each day.        

The whole situation would be hilarious if it weren’t so important; if it didn’t drive the two greatest pressures of my life, teaching and parenting, right into each other, divining one of my least favorite circumstances: one in which it is impossible to succeed.

On the first day of school, I returned from maternity leave knowing I would need to pump. I underestimated what that meant, and had not developed any real system for it. I glibly transported my subpar breast pump in its neat little carrying case to work with me that first morning, with a few bottles and an ice pack. What I should have done is walked through the step-by-step process with impeccable precision.

Instead, I was a hot mess. I made the rookie mistake of washing all of my pump parts in the front office sink. Where else could I have gone? Could I have laid out some elaborate sanitary blanket on a bathroom floor somewhere? Where would I put all of these damp tubes and bottles? I hadn’t thought through the systems, and I was too embarrassed to ask a veteran. While scrubbing a sink full of phalanges and nipples, the school art teacher came to my rescue—she suggested I put the unwashed parts into a paper lunch bag, one that breathes, to keep in the front office fridge until the next time I would need them.

Even armed with the cleverest of tips, so much depends on timing; fire drills and schedule changes, faculty meetings, and kids in crisis can dismantle the best laid plans. Or, more intimately, the limitations of my own body: dehydration, leaks, swollen breasts, raw nipples, and exhaustion compromise my professionalism, daily. Milk production is mostly out of my hands, and so are the inherent needs and obligations of my career.

I had not spent a day away from my son until that first day back; I had never developed a pumping schedule, one that might work once I returned to school. Thankfully, the first day had been for staff members, not students. The principal’s secretary lent me her storage closet key.

A low mechanical drone overpowered the room, with halting thwacks sounding like a tennis ball hitting a wall. I wish I could multitask while pumping, but most are off limits: phone calls, filing, anything that involves movement or engaged brain cells. I settle on answering email, usually, but still wonder at the surrealness of me in my surroundings: shirtless in a storage closet sending out missives to unsuspecting colleagues. It just feels weird.

In the throws of pumping at work, so many things can go wrong. Spills, overflows, running out of bags, power shortages. There are figuratively and literally a lot of working parts—tubes, sterile bags, bottles, caps, phalanges, membranes, motors, power supplies, adapters, freezer packs, and a whole array of materials used to disguise my goods when I have to store them in the community fridge. But the comedic humility of it all is nothing.

There is something about having to hide, even as I perform a vulnerable and essential task. While many support the idea of pumping at work, the world of the nursing mother is still happening in a shadowy corner. For each of us who sit in a storage closet, while trying our damndest to remain invisible, there is a cost. The variable conditions and compromises that women who return to work have to make, reveal the wide gaps in understanding what we go through, and the need for some candor.           

I count the bells through lunch hoping that I am still safe within a cushion of time that will allow me to return to my room with my game face on, ready to perform, as if nothing humbling and indiscrete has happened. As if I had not just balanced everything that mattered on a very thin wire.
Marjke Yatsevitch grew up in the woods among reclusive farmers and artists, and has slowly been adapting to quasi-suburban parenting, teaching high school English, and seeking comforts in gardens and kitchens on the Seacoast in New Hampshire.

Milk Machine: One Donor Mom’s Journey

Milk Machine: One Donor Mom’s Journey

By Krystal A. Sital


We meet at the side of the road, in parking lots, and on rare occasions, in our homes. Our clandestine encounters are often laced with surreptitious glances thrown over our shoulders but end in tearful embraces, an alliance, an understanding, a mutual love so deep, we carry it forevermore.

The first time I donate my breast milk to another mother, my husband and I organize and label five hundred four-ounce bottles into three coolers, a total of 2,000 ounces that could feed a newborn anywhere from two to three months. As we stack the bottles like bricks and I register the pleasant click-click-click of the frozen bottles being wedged together, my two-year-old asks, “What’re you doing? What’re you doing with Mommy’s booby milk?” My six-month-old rolls around on the floor as we try to explain that we’re giving away her sister’s food. “But that’s for Emi,” she says, “that’s for my baby sister.” How perceptive to know the milk is for her sibling. But this time around, breastfeeding, albeit with obstacles, has been successful thus far.

After my first daughter, Amelia, had spent three weeks in the NICU, I realized how precious this liquid gold was. For some babies, it could be the difference between life and death. For Amelia, who was delivered two months early, it probably was. I had an oversupply of breast milk; only a very small percentage of women do. Unable to directly breastfeed Amelia due to a host of complications, I became a slave to the pump, allowing it to suck everything out of me at the times I would normally feed my daughter. By the end of our year long journey together, I’d racked up thousands of bottles of breast milk and I could proclaim she was one hundred percent breastfed—not in the traditional sense—but the nutrients worked their miracle nonetheless.

The second time around was no easier than the first and so I locked myself away in a room with Emelina to make breastfeeding work. Just the thought of that mint blue Ameda pump had me ready to puke. While I vowed never to pump again, I physically needed to and that blue brick stayed anchored in my house for the better part of a year. I only pumped twice a day yet filled bottles at a time, stacking more than a thousand in my freezer within six months. Though we had a rocky start and I was perpetually frightened that it would all fall apart at any moment, we were, again, running out of space. The freezer drawer now creaked when opened. There was no denying it needed to go. This is where Willow came in.

I find Willow after searching on a few sites tailored to mothers looking for breast milk for their babies. I’m surprised by how many sites there are and how many women are desperate to acquire only a few bottles. When I post I’m willing to give away a large amount, I’m plied with questions—Where are you located? How do you handle your milk? What is your diet like? When can you meet? There was no decision making on my part, I just went down the list and responded to other mothers in the order in which they sent me emails. Their stories were heartbreaking and I wanted to give milk to all of them, I even thought of parceling it out but in the end I thought it best used as sustenance for one child at a time. Many things didn’t pan out for the first few responses—location, diet, allergies—but eventually Willow and I got the timing right and we connected via phone.

“So,” says Willow, “about how much do you get in one pumping session? And can you remind me how many ounces you’ll be willing to donate?”

This is a question I’m both proud and timid about answering. “I pump about 10 to 15 ounces per session twice a day. And I have 2,000 ounces to give to you.”

She is completely silent save for an almost inaudible, “Wow.” I want to say something, I’m about to say something but I hear her crying. Willow shares her story with me. When she was a teenager, she underwent a procedure that rendered her body unable to ever produce human milk among other things.

“Krystal,” says Willow, “I will pay you how I can. I can give you bottles and bags, pay for the pump rental, just let me know.”

“Willow, I’m giving this to you and your baby. I already have everything I need. Please don’t think you have to pay me in any way.”

Willow breathes into the mouthpiece, “This is a tremendous gift.”

*   *   *

“Charge her,” people tell me, “you will make so much.”

Why should I? I wonder. If we didn’t use the milk and no one took it, I’d have to pour it down the drain. I look at Amelia, at how much she has grown in two years. From that frail, three-and-a-half-pound baby with skin hanging off her bones to this vibrant two-year-old with sass and brains. If I could help another mother in any way I could, I wanted to. I was done hoarding my stash. Now, when I sit down to pump, I feel a surge of excitement strike through me and I count the ounces I accumulate knowing I can give yet one more to another baby in need.

We meet Willow and her two children at the back of a restaurant. She is parked right next to the dumpster. Being my first exchange, I approach her with trepidation. I’d even brought my husband with me just in case. We’d been caught in traffic and Willow had been stuck waiting for me in the cold for half an hour. The brisk winter air forces me to stuff my hands in my pockets. She has a girl and a boy their ages not much different from our children. When Willow emerges from the car, she embraces me with such tenderness and love I know I will think of that moment for years to come. She caresses Amelia’s cheek and blows our sleeping Emelina a kiss.

In the midst of hoisting the coolers from our trunk to hers, Amelia starts bawling and at first we’re confused but I’m able to discern, “Mommy, that’s my mommy’s milk. Give it back, that’s my mommy’s milk.” I try to muffle what she’s saying by pressing her against my shoulder but for a two-year-old, her enunciation is near perfect.

“Sugar plum plum, Mommy is giving her milk to another baby, to help another baby. Don’t worry,” I say, “your baby sister has enough milk. Mommy has enough booby milk for Emi.” The tears subside but the upside down U is prominent on her little mouth, her bottom lip quivering away.

Willow attends to her own crying children. I wave to them and blow them kisses, the two of them as precious to her as mine are to me. As Willow and I hold one another in an extended embrace she whispers into my hair, “I don’t know how to thank you.” To which I reply, “You already have. You’ve shown me where my milk is going. Thank you for the opportunity to meet your family.”

*   *   *

These exchanges were usually short. But, I’ll never forget these women—their tears, their words, their beautiful families. I gather their stories along the way just as they gather mine along with other donor mothers. We share the most intimate parts of ourselves with strangers and in the end only the most beautiful thing blossoms from it.

On our way home that first day, Amelia chants in the car, “Mommy give milk to another baby. Mommy give milk to another baby,” and each time she says it, she wants to be acknowledged. She repeats that for days, weeks, and months to come, my very own cheerleader reminding us all.

Krystal A. Sital is a PEN Award finalist whose work has been published in Salon, Akashic Books, The Caribbean Writer and various other literary journals. She lives in the suburbs of New Jersey with her husband, two children, two dogs, and quite the assortment of writing jobs. Follow her on twitter: @krystal_a_sital.

Photo: gettyimages