By Alexandria Peary
I’m lying on my side on hospital sheets low on thread count and high on antiseptics. The nurse presents me with my baby, a big-nosed reddish sleeper, while the progressive-seeming lactation consultant with dangling goddess earrings looks on. I am supposed to model different positions, and we are to see how well the baby latches on.
I fumble around, one breast angled out of the hospital gown, trying to arrange the baby around my still-engorged belly. All the while, I’m thinking, When else is it expected that one go topless in front of total strangers? This pink asterisk of my nipple seldom sees so much air. It’s just assumed that a woman can seamlessly make the transition from a society of keeping covered to a place where she’ll be told to pull out her breast so that others can assess how good she is at using it.
“I guess I need a refresher course,” I tell her after a half minute of moving my breast like a joystick. I explain that it’s been two years between babies.
As the lactation consultant reviews the “football hold” and side-style feeding, I pretend to go along with it and make the motions. I feel like someone attempting reform, promising to eat healthfully but just waiting for the expensive diet coach or hawk-eyed spouse to leave the room to heave myself into the Godiva chocolates.
My breast actually aches—but not for my baby. No, it aches for its first postpartum bonding with the pump.
I’m just waiting for the lactation consultant to leave the room so my husband can dig out my breast pump, hiding beneath a pile of clean underwear in one of my bags. I feel like I’ve snuck a lap dog into the hospital. Although this baby’s waters broke three weeks early and I was unprepared, my hospital bags unpacked, I still managed to instruct my harried husband to find the breast pump. After my insurance card and meditation CDs, my Purely Yours was next on the list of crucial items.
Why don’t I tell her the truth? I wonder. That I don’t plan on breastfeeding at all? That I’m a full-time pumper? By the time this baby is six months old, I’ll have pumped (a conservative estimate) for fifteen days straight, and when I say “days,” I mean fifteen twenty-four-hour-day days.
For my first child, I pumped for seven months, and I’ll probably pump for nine months for this baby, which means I’ll have spent about 576 hours at the breast pump between November 2007 and August 2008. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who could measure out his life in teaspoons, I can measure my time by the books on tape I’ve listened to while at the pump.
For my first daughter, I splattered many a tome with breast milk, including War and Peace. For this daughter, I’ll have listened to the thirty-six tapes of Gone with the Wind in less than a week and a half. And I’ll also have listened to so many John Grisham and suspense books that the plotlines will become as obvious to me as the pattern on a plaid shirt. For Christmas this year, my husband and I will treat ourselves to a deep freezer, the type people use for spare apple pies and sale-flyer pot roasts, which I will completely fill with tubes and storage bags of milk by the beginning of February.
My milk will spilleth over, filling this huge upright freezer, plus a waist-high freezer, plus the one in the fridge. The milk will come in a variety of shades of yellow, like paint samples chosen by someone who wants to redo her living room but can’t decide which shade she likes best. The sunflower yellow-orange of early days nearest to colostrum, the flat yellow after carb-laden meals, and the pale skim milk when I had salad for lunch.
* * *
I became a mother who loves pumping more than breastfeeding when Sophia was born two and a half months premature and had to be tube fed during her lengthy hospitalization.
The medical community expects that a mother will stop breast pumping once her preemie leaves the neonatal intensive care unit. After all, it’s the baby accustomed to the bottle who is supposedly prone to “nipple confusion,” not the mother. You’re not supposed to fall in love with your breast pump, to mourn the end of your relationship with the machine, as I did when I had to return my hospital rental. You’re not supposed to feel that the last time you turn the knobs is as sweetly sad as the last time another mother nurses her baby.
The first time around, breast pumping meant I was able to do something constructive for my severely premature baby. Pumping was something that I alone could do, not the extensive staff of expert doctors, nurses, or therapists. It was a continuation of my pregnancy—it had that same privacy, that same power to help someone grow. Every time during that confusing summer that I pumped at two in the morning and again at four, I was reminded that I could do something right to counter the irrational guilt I felt about my pregnancy’s early end. I could fill the freezer in the NICU ward as well as the one in her second hospital; I could inundate them with my milk until they told me to hold off. Pumping was a symbol of hope—of the future when Sophia would be freed from the hospital.
With this second child, Simone, born healthy, it’s different. Pumping will become a way to increase the thickness of the rolls of fat on her stubby legs, to build on her natural good health. Like my mother covering the dining room table with an excess of food, pumping will allow me to see the abundance of yellow gold that my body produces, the food that will be Simone’s sole source of nourishment. I filled the NICU freezers, and now I can fill the freezers at my own home. Pumping will also allow me to continue pursuing my doctorate, to be away from home for extended periods of time, and to share with greater equity parenting a newborn with my husband. If it weren’t for the circumstances of Sophia’s premature birth, I would not have known the benefits of full-time breast pumping.
Given all these rock-solid reasons for pumping, why don’t I tell the truth in my hospital room? Well, even with the amount of supportive cheer pumped into the air by the maternity floor staff, I can sense that my preference for pumping will be challenged. I’m the anti-poster child for the La Leche League—or at least that’s how I feel around other mothers. (My three-year-old daughter will have watched so many pumping sessions that she will point to my chest and ask where mommy’s “breast pump parts are,” referring to my breasts.)
A belief in full-time breast pumping is not popular among the mothering circles I travel in—the liberal, critical thinkers, rather than the commercialized versions of parenting seen in most magazines. While it’s true that no one has ever said to me outright that I’m wrong to feed my breast milk to my baby from a bottle rather than directly from my body, the message is in the air. It’s present when another woman tells me how disgusting frozen breast milk looks or tastes. This strikes me in the gut, as though someone had unplugged the huge freezer holding the evidence of all the hours I’ve pumped.
No one ever says how beautiful—how maternal—the image of the woman at the breast pump is. On the box of the pump I own, a woman in a business suit sits at her desk looking robotic, as though she could just as easily be hooked up to her adding machine or laptop as to her breast pump. She’s certainly no goddess-like woman cradling humanity.
And no poster celebrating breast pumping will be seen above the OB/GYN examination table. And yet I fantasize about such a poster, a Madonna-like figure in blue robes sitting with a breast pump (you pick the brand) attached lovingly to her chest, beaming and beatific. For I am just as dedicated to pumping as another mother would be to nursing. I, too, become irritated when someone impedes me (with a class held longer, with a lingering conversation, with bad city traffic) from feeding my baby—that is, from pumping every three hours.
No one will come into the hospital room after I give birth and ask me about my pumping plans. I won’t readily find an extensive support group or service for the breast pumping, so if the pump suddenly fails because of a microscopic slit in valve, I may think it’s a problem in my milk supply and give up.
After giving birth, a woman is frequently asked whether she intends to nurse. The seemingly benign question hangs in the air. Once the desired response is supplied—Yes, of course!—it’s as though a curtain is parted from around the patient’s bed. The beaded chains rattle, and the patient is allowed entrance into the land of golden good mothering. Until the moment the question is answered, however, there’s the distinct possibility that the woman will end up on the other side, that of not-so-good-mothers, a landscape of pollution, television, and cheese-flavored snacks.
Breast pumping gets only half of that good-mother equation right. You’re making the milk, but you’re denying your child of the psychological benefit of your closeness, a benefit provided, the true believers insist, only through nursing.
My baby daughter seems not to have received that message. She’s oblivious to any concerns about her way of dining and happily “tops” bottle after bottle of my breast milk with a little smile on her face. And although our way of feeding the baby means my husband is frequently the one who is up at two in the morning, he feels he’s had more opportunity to bond with his daughters than most dads whose partners breastfeed exclusively.
And when he asks why I worry so much what the lactation consultant, my relatives, or the nurses think of my pumping, I have an unexpected answer. It’s not that I particularly care what people think of me. It’s that I’m protecting my pumping from them. I don’t want my breast milk to be contaminated by their conservative attitude—an unacknowledged contributor to centuries of others telling women exactly how to be women.
If I can just get out of the hospital with some pumping initiated, I will be free to do as much pumping at home, at the office, and in the car as I like, with no one to judge me except the occasional female acquaintance or relative. I won’t have to answer the phone when the nice lactation consultant makes her several follow-up calls in the week after I return home. I can sit at the kitchen table with two-year-old in high chair, a two-day-old in her bassinet, and a breast pump churning at my chest as the consultant’s voice fills the answering machine. I can surround myself with the maternal trinity of child, baby, and breast pump.
Author’s Note: While writing this piece, I discovered at iVillage.com a whole online community of mothers who exclusively breast pump. Like me, these women have experienced personal and professional blessings from exclusively pumping. I’m still pumping, several months after I had expected to be done (in fact, I’m pumping while I type this sentence), but I’m at the tail end of it. I’m trying to deal with the sweet sadness that comes from the prospect of ending.
Brain, Child (Winter 2009)
Alexandria Peary is an Associate Professor and the First-Year Writing Coordinator in the English Department at Salem State University. She is the author of two books of poetry, Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (2008) and Lid to the Shadow (2010). The latter was selected for the 2010 Slope Editions Book Prize. Her work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, The Gettysburg Review, jubilat, Massachusetts Review, Fence, Crazyhorse, Spoon River Review, Verse, Literary Imagination, and Pleiades.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.