There have been several innovations in the world of breastmilk pumping within the past decade. New design ideas ranged from changing the pump from a vacuum to a more comfortable compression model and integrating massaging technology from the sex-toy industry to a hands-free prototype. Others attempted to hack the experience of breastfeeding, with one group hoping to demedicalize the process by adding knitted cozies for the breast pump, making it softer and warmer for a woman’s body. Another group created MilkTrack, which uses a smart chip in the lid of supply bottles and incorporates cell phone technology to track and time stamp your milk inventory, check temperature, and track volume. I was full of hope.
But standing in that hospital room, with the smell of creativity pulsating, it all came back to me. The trauma and the shame of my own pumping experiences. The Madonna-“shaped cone-like flanges, the see-through funnels that give you the pleasure of seeing your nipples being sucked shapeless. That dreadful sound.
My first introduction to the unwelcome experience of breast pumps came in 2000 when my daughter was born. Before she was one full day old, she started running a fever and had to be put into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). All eight pounds of her. It was an odd sight, to have such a large baby among the other NICU babies—mostly preemies or low birth weight babies. In between visiting her isolette, I slowly rolled my IV stand and my still-sore-from-C-section self to a cold, sterile room with cinder-block walls and only a long brown table in it. Then, I hooked myself up to an industrial breast pump, boxy and bigger than a microwave, for what felt like hours, only to produce what looked like puny, insufficient droplets of milk. During those minutes, I prayed fervently, rabidly to the milk god, whatever lacto- goddess of Greek or pagan origins there was or might possibly be in the expansive universe. It was traumatizing. It was like I had a great fever that could only be cooled by the sight of my milk freely flowing into the bottle becoming ounces. Meaningful ounces. The line marks, marking the milliliters on the bottle, taunted me. I desperately wanted “everything about that experience to be different from how it was. I never touched a breast pump again.
That is, until my son came four years later. After nine months of exclusive breastfeeding, I had to prepare to return to work. And that meant pumping if I wanted to reach my goal of twelve months. After returning to work, I remember how I would close my office door at Fortune magazine and turn on some music in the hopes of drowning out the sound—that embarrassing, godforsaken sound—of my breast pump. It dawned on me that in all of those years since my first experience, they had only managed to put the breast pump in a cuter, more stylish tote bag—simply making it easier to carry the degrading experience.
Pumping, as it is right now, is not the happy medium. It is not the perfect way to balance breastfeeding and work demands. It is not part of the liberation we are seeking. Pumping is often just another trap in the ongoing maze of breastfeeding torture chambers. Another element of the experience that is stacked against us. Yet more and more women are being pushed to pump, as more companies offer Ikea-like nursing rooms and more pumping perks. For example, IBM announced that it would pay for mothers to ship expressed milk back to their baby while on business trips. These perks create the dangerous illusion that breastfeeding and work are finally working, which really shouldn’t be our only end game—federal paid family leave and workplace policies giving us time to be with our children should. Instead, we settle for being shuttled into lonely rooms away from our babies and then get excited when we are given relatively low-cost perks like free milk shipment.
Excerpted from The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) by Kimberly Seals Allers