A few weeks ago my son turned 4 months old. A day later, I started a new job — and I entered a new stage of motherhood that centers around pumping. I should say that from the outset, my experience as a mom thus far has been a lucky one. My kid was born healthy, and together we got the hang of breastfeeding pretty quickly and relatively painlessly. My milk came in right away and stuck around. Through all this, we’ve been extraordinarily fortunate — and I fully recognize and am grateful for that.
But at this moment, pumping consumes me (literally, I suppose). I take short lunch breaks to make up for the fact that I spend at least an hour a day in the bathroom (a very spacious, clean, and private one, I might add). Because I started a new job, my coworkers have no lead-up to this odd behavior — no pregnancy announcement or newborn pictures for context. Those who have kids recognize the little black Medela box I carry through the office like an estranged, bionic limb. I’m sure others wonder about it. Perhaps they’ve even created covert theories. I have no idea if they can hear the rhythmic coxswain breath of my pump, huffing its demanding beat — or how loud the suction-induced fart sounds emanate in the hallway as I squeeze and contort the last drops of milk from each breast.
When I was on maternity leave I spent a lot of time at new moms’ groups, commiserating and getting advice for every little issue that came along. Sleep problems, swaddling techniques, my kid’s stubborn refusal to take a bottle. I heard a lot from other women about breastfeeding struggles and formula challenges. All of it I experienced as part of a community of people going through this huge life change together.
But when I stepped into my new office I was suddenly on my own. The “new mom” honeymoon period was over as I transition into “working mom” territory — and all my weekday, mid-morning mom outings were a thing of the past. In a flash I went from being surrounded by constant support to trying to pass as a normal, fully functioning member of society — all while dealing with the reality of being away from my child for the first time in his whole life. Oh, and silently mastering the wholly new art of pumping the right amount of milk to feed him every day. No biggie, right?
On my first day, I didn’t produce enough. I came home feeling proud to have pumped 12 ounces, only to discover that my son had tanked down 19. The empty bags of carefully-labeled freezer milk in the trash hit me harder than I could have imagined. Their depletion felt like a personal failure. I spent a week rallying to get my numbers up: I took fenugreek seed morning and night, drank Mother’s Milk tea religiously, added a pump session before work in the morning and spent an hour “power pumping” after the kid fell asleep at night. By some combination of luck and stubborn determination, this vigorous regimen worked.
Now my life has become pure ritual: sanitizing bottles and pump parts at night, packing a mini cooler and clean supplies each morning, and workday breaks — standing over a sink with my shirt up — looking at baby pictures on my phone and trying to avoid paying attention to whether the bottle is half full or half empty. The daily emotional math of measuring ounces consumed against ounces produced. That unceasing mantra of “how much” running through my head at all hours: How much did I pump? How much did he eat today? How much is in the freezer?
On bad days, the cold monotony of this mechanical middleman gets to me. I miss the warm, cuddly freedom of maternity leave, waking from shared naps to feed side-lying, watching my beautiful son eat his fill in blissful ignorance of exactitudes. But on good days (and there are a lot more good days than bad), I love my job. And I look at pumping like a challenge to be beaten — 20 ounces stand like a finish line to be crossed. A game to be won. Sometimes I cross the finish line triumphantly in the mid-afternoon. Other times I limp across it, exhausted, at 10 p.m. — but still, I’ve made it. I draw another X across a day in my mental breastmilk calendar. And slowly, gingerly, my goal of making it to five months extends to six.
I’ve only been a parent for a short time. But I’m amazed already by how well we all learn to adapt. I’ve sat in a circle of moms, each of us wrangling our giggling, crying, cooing babies, wiping drool from their mouths as we share our unique stories. When I exchange knowing glances with other parents while putting my breastmilk cooler back in the work fridge, I feel the same camaraderie. Our stories are not the same. But together we’re all living for our children in the best way we know how.